Phillip Hall reviews On Bunyah by Les Murray

Les Murray, On Bunyah. Carlton, VIC: Black Inc., 2015. ISBN 9781863957601

 

 Phillip Hall

 

A Beautiful Lie: Les Murray, On Bunyah

This beautifully presented book is a “New and Selected Poems” gathered round an intensely evocative and intimate experience of one rural valley, the poet’s “home district of Bunyah”. As such it is an important, celebratory, contribution to the growing body of place-based literature.

Throughout On Bunyah Murray displays an accuracy of observation and naming that testifies to a mindful respect and love for the natural world. In “Dead Trees in the Dam” (70), Murray develops a wonderful juxtaposition as he celebrates the colour, movement and sound of the birds that visit a stand of dead trees over the course of a day. These are trees that appear as “castle scaffolding tall in moat” and “flower each morning with birds”. Murray’s poem delights in an accuracy of observation and naming as he captures the “resident / cormorants with musket-hammer necks”, “the clinician spoonbill”, the “twilight herons”, the “pearl galahs in pink-fronted / confederacy”, the “misty candelabrum / of egrets”, the “stopped-motion shrapnel / of kingparrots”, the “wed ducks”, magpies, the “high profile ibis” and the “big blow-in cuckoo crying / Alarm, Alarm on the wing”. This major Murray poem of praise to the natural world reminds me of mid-twentieth century Australian poet, Grace Perry’s “Ibis on the lake” (1976, 65). In her poem, Perry reworks the Arthurian myth of the lady in the lake and “the sword lost long ago in water” as she celebrates the wild water birds that visit a stand of dead trees in a lake. Perry’s poem concludes:

Teal ride at anchor under willow trees.

Ducks unroll scrolls of shadow in their wake.

Let us be unemotional as the ibis

nesting on the island in the lake.

 

Long ago the sword was lost in water.

The surface drowned the memory of blood.

Still the samite arm, the solitary bird

flames white against dark skeletons of wood.

This now overlooked poet deserves revisiting.

In “Two Rains” (38) Murray evokes a richly intimate knowledge of place in the way that he captures Bunyah farms caught in the “patched blue overlap / between Queensland rain and Victorian rain”. The southern rain might be “absorbed / like a cool, fake-colloquial, drawn out lesson” but it is also described as being like “our chased Victorian silver”. While the Queensland rain is “lightning-brewed in a vast coral pot” that “disgorges its lot / in days of enveloping floodtime blast / towering and warm as a Papuan forest”.

In “The Grassfire Stanzas” (46-47) Murray describes a farmer busy with winter fuel-reduction:

August, and black centres expand on the afternoon paddock.

Dilating on a match in widening margins, they lift

a splintering murmur; they fume out of used-up grass

that’s been walked, since summer, into infinite swirled licks.

The burning attracts kestrels and hawks that “teeter / and plunge continually, working over the hopping outskirts” but as the farmer burns: “the green feed that shelters beneath its taller death yearly / is unharmed, under new loaf soot”. This is a fecund world (if poor in economic terms), so in “The Broad Bean Sermon” (24-25) we are told that “going out to pick beans with the sun high as fenceposts, you find / plenty”:

 Wondering who’ll take the spare bagfulls, you grin with happiness

– it is your health – you vow to pick them all

even the last few, weeks off yet, misshapen as toes.

Such celebration of the interconnectedness of all creatures and an approach to the natural world that is life-affirming, almost sacramental, in the way that it cultivates a poetry of communion with nature as a form of communion with God, is a feature of the Murray poem of praise. This is poetry that sees goodness in the world and is content to praise what has been made. The drawback with such an approach, of course, is that:

only small things may come to a head, in this

settlement pattern   (46)

 Thus, as richly layered and beautiful as the hymns of praise may be, what is omitted, what is bandaided, is often like a splinter to a reader more attuned to ecocritical and postcolonial values.

In his foreword we are told that “the native name [of Bunyah] is given as meaning bark, the essential building material of ancient Australia” (xi); but Murray does not take this word etymology as evidence of Indigenous settlement for we are also told that Bunyah was a “convenient trackway between the coast and sheltering mountains’”(xi); that such a fertile and sheltered valley, with permanent fresh water, is viewed as having no previous permanent custodianship by First Nations beggars belief. Ironically, as Murray himself writes:

accused of history

many decide

not to know any    (134)

And in “The Grassfire Stanzas” Murray writes:

Humans found the fire here. It is inherent. They learn,

Wave after wave of them, how to touch the country.     (47)

 

The custodianship of First Nations should not be written of as just another invasion of pristine wilderness and Murray might like to write of his family’s Bunyah occupation as having begun in “the Eden of the country” (96) and in “Bible times” (36) but it did not; it came after Indigenous peoples (and only at the cost of their dispossession).

This book is a beautifully layered paean to a rural valley and the people (non-Indigenous) who now call it home. Murray finds so much to praise and celebrate and his lyrical imagism is (almost) irresistible. I find myself so much in love with Murray’s writing (but also disquieted by it).

 

Reference

Perry, Grace (1976) Journal of a Surgeon’s Wife and other poems, South Head Press, Sydney.

 

Phillip Hall is a poet working as an editor with Verity La’s “Emerging Indigenous Writers Project” and as a poetry reader at Overland. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates Indigenous people & culture in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria.

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