I first read Hamlet in Jamaica. The bleak daylight surrounding my high school Happy Grove was like the faded glow of an old photograph. Rain was expected; it never came. There might’ve been thunder, or that could just have been the pages turning in unison.
This was 1998, the beginning of truly reading for me. Thereafter, when I read certain poets I did so against the light with which Shakespeare first fascinated me. Something else happened, though, when I opened Les Murray’s Learning Human: Selected Poems eight years later, in autumn, on a high floor of the colossal New York University Bobst Library.
A leviathan tore through the innocence of that first light, right to the very sun, with an almost magical force. I experienced a luminous return and a conversion in its wake. The unaccustomed season, autumn (my first), was abolished and I felt the world I knew and loved scorching in my palms. I was outside again, playing in the voracious sunlight by Bryan’s Bay or any of my other haunts in the rural district of my childhood.
The strange part of the excitement was that Murray’s sensory evocation of my world—“the sea’s lucent linoleum, / the near trees with green-ants’ nests / square-folded out of the living leaves”—radiated, as if by sonar, from another world of the commonwealth, so a subtle, estranged quality accompanied my discovery. My conversion was complete, without nostalgia. I got to know Murray with a physical thrill like memories of plunging into the bright sea at home.
Murray’s solar power is his religious elevation of his native landscape. When reading his work I fall helplessly homesick, both for the lived place—the pier, veranda nights, sugarcane—and the place of the imagination.
My climate is in his tone, the raw energy of heat in my hometown, Port Antonio, where everything would appear cleansed of shadows. There is my sea in his paddocks, translucent as ice. Every sound I hear is distinct, acute with pain or delight, marking a presence larger than the town’s smallness. I take refuge in his vernacular republic, which he describes as “that ‘folk’ Australia, part imaginary and part historical, which is the real matrix of any distinctiveness we possess as a nation.”
The vernacular republic, therefore, is more than the expressive forms his local habitation flash out of: it is, in the original sense of the word “matrix,” the mother of imagination itself that speaks the vulgar language with the tongue of the common people.
In Murray’s particular temperament as the poet-genius of this vernacular republic, he balances, like Dante, an undisguised love and hurt for his country with the resilience and grace inherent in all great art.
I love his passionate eye-catching reality as it happens. The great poems are like the rush of invasive species to the horizon, flushed with surprise. Murray’s word for this condition is “sprawl.”
Sprawl is an ungainly way of being at ease with authority; it is colloquial, the original outlaw. Sprawl contains Whitman’s democratic vista, that antiphonal width, but at a severely contorted pitch. In Murray’s poetry, sprawl enacts the delirium of history by colliding with modernity’s overwhelming despair, as one way to withstand the despair: “It is the rococo of being your own still centre.”
Yes, I know it from childhood: Sun and salt and a blessed breeze would levitate the hills through the fretwork grille of my grandmother’s veranda. The poverty and squalor so near they seemed far. Then, as always, the blaze of poverty in Murray strikes me with a recognition that is “shockingly voluptuous,” to use a phrase Charles Rosen once applied to the effect of suffering and terror in Mozart’s music. The blaze is so unabashed in its intimacy. I often come down with tears, hearing:
Dank poverty, rank poverty,
it hums with a grim fidelity
like wood-rot with a hint of orifice,
wet newspaper jammed in the gaps of artifice,
and disgusts us into fierce loyalty.
If Murray is Mozartian (he once gave Mozart this pruning praise: “I plough the face of Mozart”), it is only in the amplitude of his language and not in the sense of being classical or highly formal. There is an intentional poverty of rhymes happening here: “orifice-artifice”; “poverty-fidelity-loyalty,” the rhythm jamming no wider than the limits of the constricting world the language hammers out.
The triumph of Murray is that he takes the classical music—meter and rhyme—out into the open, back into the environment and exposes it to the tumult of sun. Not as a nature poet or a shaman-farmer—big machineries quake frequently in his poems, none greater than the scudding, luxuriant “Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman”—but simply by being the leviathan within that word-horde of “life-enhancing sprawl / that require[s] style.”
His style is the outsider’s music, the bard from the rough heath, which is never decorous. It is, though, magisterial, ruminative, exhaustive, caustic, simple, irreducible, torqued, equanimous, tourbillion, epical, and dramatic, all “to the glory of God”—as he insists on the dedication page of most of his books—and, for us, he brings out the tears in things.
The tears live in his volumes as elemental as rain, though never dissolving into pity. Pity is lukewarm compassion, much too benign and self-regarding for a poet who has said, “I want my poems to be more than just national parks of sentimental preservation.” I read that as an admonishment to, as it were, Pull down thy vanity.
His capacity to reveal the reader, without vanity, to himself and to the spirit of the time, is visionary. A young poet, driven out of a mixture of vanity and fear, overdosing on the former and weeping artificially in poems, does not understand the courage of true emotional gravity.
Murray is the twenty-first-century bedrock that paves a way to this courage. I live in awe of his gift to transmute tears with a biting clarity that magnifies the poverty and the landscape of his poems into an art that supersedes the conceit of theme. To me, there is no theme in his poetry. There is only that supreme vision in which, dimly visible, I find myself.
“What I am after,” he has further written, regarding his poems, “is a spiritual change that would make them unnecessary.” This is a vow of tremendous humility. I strive for that.
More than any aesthetic principle or guidance, he offers me a kind of self-esteem, a backbone to bend and plough, shoveling through immense dross, to the marvels of my own world. Sometimes he allows the dross to stay, but taken as a whole, dross in his work is like the abundance of thought: “This country is my mind,” he says in one of his most tender poems, “Evening Alone in Bunyah.”
The mind has become the poetry of the country he already knows by heart. And in his depth of compassion for those disenfranchised from their humanity throughout the cruel annals of history and left spiritually marooned, he is not unlike an earlier love, César Vallejo, that other catholic poet whose fierce dignity in the face of intolerable suffering makes bright, like the sun, the dark night of the soul.
In Murray’s long vocation, the light has not faded. We find “the old book troglodyte,” now age seventy-seven, in his newest collection, Waiting for the Past, still addressing posterity. Still richly sensed, still divagating into the accumulated moment, the minutiae of everyday life. Only here he is more fine-grained, deepening the 52-hertz frequency of earlier work, but still as beautifully resolute as a stranger he sighted once and immortalized “as she paced on, comet-like, face to the sun.”
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His poetry collection Far District (2010) won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. Other honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner journal, and the Academy of American Poets’ Larry Levis Prize. He is an assistant professor of English at Cornell University.
Les Murray is the author of thirteen books of poetry. His collection Subhuman Redneck Poems received the T. S. Eliot Prize, and in 1998 he was awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry presented by Queen Elizabeth II. He lives in New South Wales, Australia.