Murray’s Eclectic World of Musings: Patrick McCauley Reviews ‘Waiting for the Past’ by Les Murray

Waiting for the Past by Les Murray Black Inc, 2015

waitingforthepastIf one were to wish that our great creative minds, could assume the ancient art of prophesy, we might hope that we could ‘remember the future’ – even if we might find ourselves ‘waiting for the past’. Yet through our surrender to ‘waiting for the past’, we suddenly find ourselves ‘remembering the future’… and this slim handsome hard backed volume, which Stephen Edgar notes has a “Tardis -like quality of being larger on the inside” than it is on the outside, becomes another piece of ordinary magic by the inimitable Les Murray.

The book is dedicated to “the glory of God” with no preamble, preface, or afterword. It just goes straight into the deep – with the four quatrains of the opening poem leading the reader through the geological process of making coal – in shrunken time – “ all afternoon”. Then we are traveling in Australia, a thousand miles or so to Hahndorf – for ‘boiled lamb hock’ and to Hindmarsh Island without even mentioning the women’s business:-

Saw careers from the climbing bridge,
the steel houses it threw
all over Hindmarsh Island,

‘The Canonization’ (of Mary Mackillop) may wish to “heal the education of poor children” but is more a private votive which may have been included to throw off the easily distracted. Murray is at his best as witness to natural phenomenon, such as in “Nuclear Family Bees” where he describes the little native bees which mate in pairs rather than hives and make “gold skinfulls of water” In the poem “I wrote a Little Haiku” we get an idea of the Tardis-like quality of the poem and the vision of the poet’s imagination, as he describes the lead bullets from the American civil war which may even now dribble out of burnt wood and farmyard timbers:-

might still re-melt and pour
out runs of silvery ichor
the size of wasted semen
it had annulled before.

In “Raising an Only Child” Murray enters one of his common themes of childhood and solitude – describing himself in the second person “…you tell stories of yourself to the hills” and you hear the great lifelong solitude of this poet, which may be something that is needed by any poet, but is particularly strong in Murray’s work, and describes a deep genius of childhood ( and adulthood) that can isolate a human being from the tenderness of love. The poem arrives at the line “ and I, the only true human” … after which I can be in no doubt about the level of separation required.

There are many thoughts which pass through the mind of a reader as he passes through Murray’s eclectic world of musings. The reader is taken through about eight poems about food, together with historical reconstructions, natural world re-descriptions and psycho social observations. He describes the making of two roads with crow bars and shovels during the depression. Hard yakka is hard to write, yet he builds a poem around the narrative and finds a line we would have never heard from Manning Clarke:-

None of the cutters joined a union
or talked of freedom. Independent, was the word

murrayThe sepia portrait of Murray on the back cover of the book shows us the man himself. A laughing Buddah with the thick wrists of inherited hard physical work (which he was mostly spared), dressed in country best with polished boots. The bald headed, wide toothed, laughing Buddah of Bunyah may not be the image of Australian poetry that the progressive literarti had imagined. Yet this man and this mind, with all its gentle genius, is the poet that we have somehow formed – which talks to all the world – perhaps to Ireland and England, Europe, more than the United States of America.

Murray elicits difficult ideas from a distance through compressing time. In “Persistence of the Reformation” he likens the leaf matter lining the floor of a creek bed to “saucepans of wet money”. And “four hundred years of ship-spread jihad” seems to merge with “the Christian civil war” and then the “bitter chews of an old plug/ from Ireland and England” – arrives finally at “the local dead /still mostly lie in ranks/ assigned them by denominations” The poem itself without one stick of punctuation apart from the six line stanzas, a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end of the seventh stanza which has nine lines. Yet, somehow after reading the poem I seem to know that the term ‘reformation’ persists as a continuing thing, as a ‘form’ … and must continue to persist on the brutal path to enlightenment. I hear the words of Geoffrey Lehmann declaring the sonnet dead, yet somehow, here is one slightly re designed.

This is a gem of a little book which no library of Australian literature can be complete without. It contains a traintrip of highly compressed poems using syntax, sound and cadence, in tercets and quatrains, even sonnets, to produce what Clive James claims on the jacket cover as “Seeing the shape or hearing the sound of one thing in another, he finds forms”

Perhaps “Forms” as Plato saw the meaning of the word as much as in its ordinary sense. I think Murray knows the shape and ‘form’ of Australia and whatever it means to be ‘Australian’, more than any other poet writing in contemporary Australia today. Because he dares to be human he elicits compassion. Yet Murray is often (and openly) vilified by an urban progressive Australian literarti. He is authentic rural working class who does not fix what is not broken. One claimed recently that he was not worthy of the Nobel prize because he had not suffered enough. Hows that?

 – Patrick McCauley


Patrick McCauley writes poems and essays, grows tomatoes and goes fishing around Clunes Victoria.

Waiting for the Past is available from


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