Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Pigs" by Les Murray

Us all on sore cement was we.
Not warmed then with glares. Not glutting mush
under that pole the lightning's tied to.
No farrow-shit in milk to make us randy.
Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp.
We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.
Us all fuckers then. And Big, huh? Tusked
the balls-biting dog and gutsed him wet.
Us shoved down the soft cement of rivers.
Us snored the earth hollow, filled farrow, grunted.
Never stopped growing. We sloughed, we soughed
and balked no weird till the high ridgebacks was us
with weight-buried hooves.  Or bristly, with milk.
Us never knowed like slitting nor hose-biff then.
Nor the terrible sheet-cutting screams up ahead.
The burnt water kicking.  This gone-already feeling
here in no place with our heads on upside down.

Translations from the Natural World, 1992.

Reprinted with permission.

Les Murray. Photograph by Adam Hollingworth.

Writing is easy, much too easy; too much like speech, which is biological, manipulative, almost always boring. Rise up, pens, mute implements of ink! Shy chauffeurs of thought! If only the uncomplaining keyboards, the pixel-pickers and sparing partners to our pummeling fingers – if only they’d demand some gratuity from their masters. A minimum wage, oblations, Obamacare. Then maybe writers (and by writers, of course, I don’t mean poets) would choose their words more carefully and stop fogging up literature's windscreen with their blather!

Which is to say that poetry, real poetry, is a streak of clarity, a sharp flash of colour -- fire-fangled feathers -- through writing's condensation.

So we gasp at the freshness; but there's a problem, too. After such a long drive, the flash of beauty makes us pull over even when we’re late for an engagement ("or what feels like an engagement" as the poet Marrianne Moore once quipped when an audience member left midway through her reading). Sometimes, with some poets, a Syliva Plath or Stephen Crane, or even novelists such as Harper Lee or the terribly under-appreciated Joan Lindsay, the sightseeing is simple -- a well-paved rest stop with a gorgeous vista, a scenic drive around a lake. “Stop, Retire, Admire” (Aussies know well the motherly “Stop, Revive, Survive” signs that nag us on long country roads); then it’s back in the car, away we go.

But with others, the great literary artists -- and Les Murray belongs firmly in this group -- we look around and wonder where we've come. Not just a trailhead with enticing markers: "Buladelah-Taree (200 lines ahead via Bunyah)” or “Bingham’s Ghost,” “Darrambawli Paddock,” “Coolongolook,” (Mark Twain delighted in such names when his visited here in 1897), but a different country, with different laws of time, physics, social behavior (including a sort of working class craving for splendour that Murray calls “sprawl”), and where the animals are talking, the Land-Rovers and Harleys are singing, the “daylight moon” is hanging above camp kettles, sleepouts, cadjiput trees, and look at the “glitter bombs” in the sky over there – 

a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with parasols of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit.

Days pass, a week or two, centuries. The country absorbs you; and the next thing you know, the librarian at the National Library is retrieving your books before you even reach the counter, without even viewing your library card, finding the titles not by your name, but by Murray’s.

Speaking of libraries, the ACT/Canberra library system, I discovered, doesn’t hold a single copy of Murray’s magnum opus, Freddy Neptune, which is a bit like landing in Alice Springs and finding no Uluru. Of course, if that ever happened, if Uluru disappeared, the monument would still live on in Murray’s poem, “Inside Ayer’s Rock;” and thus we have the inherent irony of being a poet of Murray’s make: A self-described “dreamy fat hillbilly kid” (he outgrew neither his baby-fat nor his baby-ear for language), Murray is both the offspring of Australia, a spectacle of nature – even more a poet of the soil than Steinbeck or Faulkner – and, at the same time, too often neglected by it. He once threatened to have his poems removed from the curriculum of Sydney University when a professor there (her name vindictively published in his essay “On Being Subject Matter”) refused to help him find even the most menial job on campus. 

Yes, even bards-of-the-soil are subject to the pangs of hunger and despair.

Endangered species, these untainted, natural born poets. Critically so; while receiving what often seems a fraction of the national preservation efforts dealt to such threatened species as Australia’s Orange-Bellied Parrot or the Southern Corroboree Frog. Perhaps this helps explain the current fascination with bulky page-churners, from Catton’s Luminaries to Tarts’ The Goldfinch to Halberg’s City on Fire (each more than 750 pages). The staying power of enormity. In an ocean of minnows, it’s the whales -- the Ulurus -- that most often earn our protective embrace. Murray was always large and strong, both poetically and physically (he was known to get out of his car and lift up the back wheels to adjust the angle of his parking). When he flies to Europe he becomes the 747 that’s carrying him (see his poems “The International Terminal” or “Touchdown”). Falstaffian fat. Girth and mirth. And not just acreage, but distance in time; a lengthy lineage, with ancestral voices echoing from the Scottish highlands.

Still, even so, it’s hard to imagine that such a poet (scarred and dentally-damaged fortooth!) would survive today’s American climate, where the arts are magnificent but manufactured; where the land is dry of the dreams that once fed the rural poor; and where word artists are tossed aside by the dust-winds of capital, or incarcerated in the Iowa Writer's Workshop,* or pressed into Hollywood chain-gangs, the labor camps of university intellectualism, the gulags of television writing teams. Time to do stand-up, start a business, become an Internet drone or founder of Twitter. I think of Wendell Berry as perhaps the last soil-sprouted poet America will ever know – a statement which offers good fertilizer for new ones (this entire paragraph should spawn a revolution). Even E.B White, if we’re thinking of farm-fed genius, tilled his language in Manhattan, a vocabulary so unlike the gritty grammar of Murray’s country.

The pigs in "Pigs" are no Wilburs.
Which brings us nicely to our “Pigs.” White’s famous porcine hero, Wilbur, is saved from slaughter by his naive lovability (that’s “some pig!"); not to mention a spider that can spell and a young girl named Fern. The foul and the frightening made adorable. Orwell, meanwhile, abused the poor pig by dressing it up as Stalin. Ted Hughes restored some of the pigness of pigs in “View of the Pig” (“They eat cinders, dead cats”), but it’s Murray who, with what’s been called his “dreaming mind” – a controlled dream, like Poe’s “fancies” -- turns us for a moment into pigs ourselves. He’s done this with many other animals: lizards, bats, echidnas, wagtails, molluscs and so forth, not to mention a botanical garden of plant specimens (see Translations from the Natural World). Right from the snorting, iambic assonance of the first line, “Pigs” speaks in a universal dream-music (what Murray calls an “English-language cynghanedd”) -- a rank, earthy lyricism and muddiness to be split by “sheet-cutting screams up ahead.”

“Bristly, with milk” is very much the texture of Murray’s wilderness, of his lyrical style; and when I think of the schoolyard teasing he endured over his weight, “tusking / the ball-biting dogs” seems very much a Murrayan approach to any endeavor. “And Big, huh?“ Yes, definitely big. Big as a country. As Australia. Big as a language. And most of all, big as a poet who’s been true to his art – the sort of poet to whom cement feels soft compared to the indignities of being cut and hosed down by writers, academics, people with too many words and nothing to say. That “gone-already feeling” of living in penniless posterity. To be spit and twisted upside down and celebrated only in death.


*Today, after writing this sentence comparing writing workshops to prisons, I discovered in the New York Review of Books a review by Diana Johnson of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. McGurl, according to Johnson, not only suggests that “prison narratives also function as metaphors for the creative writing class itself,” but he’s much more ruthless, evocative and accurate than I am, referring to such creative writing programs as "collective specular sodomy." 

This week's editor, Zireaux, is the author of several novels and works of poetry. He writes poetry, book reviews and commentary on literature at the website ImmortalMuse.com

You can check out some of the other Tuesday poets and poems via the sidebar on the left.


Mary McCallum said...

STUNNING post Mr Zireaux - thank you - Mary

lillyanne said...

Many thanks for posting this - I love Les Murray's work, and I carry around his POEMS THE SIZE OF PHOTOGRAPHS in my handbag. This one is a treat and so is your accompanying analysis.

Harvey Molloy said...

What an enjoyable post. You have made my lunchtime--it's good to remember that you don't have to go into a workshop. I never did . . . but it's often a way of (groan) 'finding a publisher' . . . yikes! The working class need not apply.

Kathleen Jones said...

Les Murray is one of my all-time favourite poets!

susan t. landry said...

thank you; i did not know of les murray. sounds like my kind of guy. just ordered his memoir.

Michelle Elvy said...

Goodness. I love this poem and the way you write about Murray and his work and life, Zireaux. I feel so wrapped in this upside-down swirl of a world -- it feels dirty, sweaty, bristly (yes!) and real -- and BIG, yes, BIG. I will not forget that 'gone-already feeling' -- what a great image and idea to end this poem.

And the way your commentary brings us through a brief exploration of Murray's writings and lands us back at pigs from such varying perspectives -- thank you for including EB White! -- well, that has made my re-introduction to the TP group, after being gone a month, quite wonderful! So glad to come back and see this here. Makes me want to read and write (well, try to, anyway -- I feel your words ringing in my ears, and I feel my ass kicked for all the times I've been lazy!).

Thank you for this 'streak of clarity' -- brilliant!

Zireaux said...

Thanks, enjoyed your comments and enjoyed being the editor this week. I've written a wrap-up summary of all the posts (at least I think it's all of them, apologies if I missed any). A great selection this week. You can read the summary here.

Dis' guy said...

Dng yo. That imagery is dope. Very vivid, you can actually wander through that world AFTeR you're done reading.