Gerald Murnane, Green Shadows and Other Poems, Artamon, NSW: Giramondo Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-925336-98-6
A recent article in The New York Times described Gerald Murnane as ‘the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of’. His ‘books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two’, yet are so well regarded he has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, Murnane started off his career as a poet and, in the later stages of his life, has returned to the form. Green Shadows and Other Poems collects the work he has written since his move to Goroke in north-western Victoria a number of years ago, where he tends bar at the local golf club and plays a weekly game.
In the sixties, Murnane experienced a revelation about poetry and he details this in the fifth poem of the collection, ‘On first reading William Carlos Williams’:
By the road to the Contagious Hospital…
When I first read that line,
I told myself that anything was possible
in poetry. No rhyme
or metre was required so long as the rhythm
was not quite that of prose,
and argument or narrative was stripped
of metaphors …
While this revelation of a feasible poetic helped inspire Murnane into poetry, the poem itself ironically uses half-rhymes and a rough ballad structure, and the rest of the 45 poems in the collection follow a similar approach: loose metre, well-developed half-rhymes (mainly based on assonance), and argument and narrative devoid of figures of speech. The opening stanza of ‘Pettit’s Tap’ shows this poetic in operation, which forms a narrative that is conversational and personal, though possibly lacking in poetic interest:
Your mother told me how you fronted
calmly up to the schoolyard bully,
not to defend yourself or to punch
or grapple, but to ask him coolly …
During the time Murnane seriously considered a career as a poet, he thought hard about the requirements of such a task. In the first poem of the sequence ‘Poetic Topics’, Murnane explores this younger self, who made a list
at seventeen years of age
of all the subject-matter for the poems
I felt qualified to write …
In the second poem of the sequence, he expands on elements of the first poem that he may have not made clear to the reader, while, in the rest of the sequence, he delves into some of the topics themselves: the way his imagination developed; his responses in language and (partially) in feeling to ‘The Girls of St Kilian’s’; his fascination with racebooks and the names of horse trainers; and the dynamic between his religion and ‘poems, novels, even horse-//racing’ (43).
In one of my favourite poems, ‘Pinkish wrinkled rock’ – which is sensually grounded in the physical world – Murnane states clearly one of the themes of the collection:
Pinkish wrinkled rock in the railway cutting
north of Darebin on the Hurstbridge line,
whenever I pass, reminds me of nothing
so much as my old, old problem: to find
in the visible world one single trace
of whatever it is that we call the mind.
Murnane’s exploration of this theme is obvious in his expanded poetic, in that many of the poems strive to show his mind in operation. One example of this is the poem ‘In thick rough’, which starts with an insight the narrator prizes:
I glimpse, between the stringbark trunks and decayed
banksias, a place that I fail to recognise.
Part of my pleasure is knowing that the grove or glade,
so to call it, for all its allurement and strangeness,
is on one of the eighteen familiar holes that I’ve played
a hundred times in the past few years. My vagueness,
though – is it really a subject for a poem?
From there, the poem moves to ‘an old joke’ about the difference between a vendor description of a dream home and the actuality; to ‘the story of the Good Little Goblin’ who finds Fairyland in ‘his own back garden’; to his hope to write a piece he can get lost in; and ending with
But now, pressing on with my struggle to find
this poem’s true subject-matter, I keep on seeing
Mrs Pisani, no older than I am now,
wide-eyed, as though granted a revelation,
at her grandson’s wedding in the sixties doing the rounds,
saying ‘I know you!’ to each of her near relations.
The narrative circles around ‘the true-subject matter’ (the meaning/source of the insight?) using memories and self-reflective observations (the mind in action), but the insight that triggered the poem isn’t itself clarified and no conclusion is reached about the subject-matter. Nor are any feelings about the whole experience evoked, other than whatever can be gleaned from the cursory statement beginning ‘Part of my pleasure’.
In the poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, we find another theme of the collection: feelings. The poem starts by describing the effects on him of the Thomas Hardy book of the same name:
in that book are a half-dozen poems
or more I can’t read aloud
without, as they say, breaking down.
I recover by clearing my throat,
by blinking, by breathing deeply,
or, sometimes, by pacing the floor.
He then briefly considers the literary theorists Leavis and Eagleton before contemplating his own work:
Has it not been said of me even
that my books go to justify
some or other literary theory?
Yet, here I am as much as admitting
that I’m one of those ignorant critics
who rely on what they call feelings.
Maybe it is true that Murnane’s response to texts is largely emotional (which might explain his disparagement of Tolstoy, Mann, Bellow, Fitzgerald and others in ‘Crap-books’ and of Wordsworth and Eliot in ‘Poetic Topics (ii)’) and he certainly talks about feelings in a number of pieces. However, many of his poems don’t engage emotions strongly enough. This is possibly because he relies too much on ‘argument and narrative’ and avoids images and figures of speech. He certainly doesn’t often use such descriptions as the one above exploring his reaction to Hardy, which at least details how he deals with his feelings, though I’m not sure we also feel the same as the narrator.
This isn’t to say Murnane can’t craft strong images or evoke feelings. Good examples of the former are his description of sparrows as ‘these ditherers in backyards’ (‘Sparrows of Goroke’, 22) and the image in the English version of the short dual-language poem ‘Forog a föld // The world turns’:
The world turns;
the sun burns
on a giant page
a strange message.
And one certainly gets a sense of his feelings for his parents and family (‘The Ballad of G.M.’, ‘The Ballad of R.T.M.’); for the places that have influenced him and his fiction writing, especially his acclaimed novel The Plains (his odes to Gippsland, the Western District and Mornington Peninsula); for his love of the Hungarian language (the dual-language poems); for the intricacies of horse-racing; for the talented and tortured John Clare (‘Non Travelling’ and ‘Green Shadows’); and for his own imaginary world (‘Sunrise in the Antipodes’).
However, there are too many times when the rambling narratives or the telling of mundane details—as in the imagined arranged marriages of people whose names he plucked out of a telephone book to help generate random numbers for his horse-racing game (‘Shy Breeders’, 27–29) – numb the reader’s attention.
It’s likely this reaction comes about because of a tension between the poet’s exploration of his twin themes – ‘the mind’ and ‘feelings’ – compounded by the knowledge, expectations and interests a reader brings to the collection.
In the end, readers can only react to the collection in a similar way to how the poet sees his own writing career (‘Last Poem’):
Reader, I’d like you to note
that this, my final poem,
contains no figure of speech
and has a fairly regular metre …
It merely tells how
for sixty years, I wrote
about only what mattered most
to me, and whether or not
my stuff was read, and then stopped.
We should read and enjoy only what matters. As Murnane himself says in ‘Poetic Topics (vi) Faith: Religion; Catholic Church’ (42), ‘my duty was to assert / the truth’ and there are such moments and insights in this collection that deserve attention and appreciation.
Binelli, Mark. ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?’ New York Times Magazine (March 27, 1018).
Earl Livings is an Australian writer whose work focuses on nature, mythology, science, history and the sacred, with poetry and fiction (literary and speculative) published in Australia and overseas. His latest poetry collection, Libation (Ginninderra Press), appeared in late 2018 and he is currently working on a dark ages novel.