Isolation, Bereavement & Love of Landscape: Leonie Bingham reviews ‘Green Shadows and Other Poems’ by Gerald Murnane

Green Shadows and Other Poems by Gerald Murnane Giramondo Poetry 2019.

Gerald Murnane’s latest literary offering, Green Shadows and Other Poems, is the octogenarian’s poignant homage to a life spent in rural Victoria. This forty-five poem collection is deeply personal, and a departure from Murnane’s previous novels, short stories, and 2015 memoir, Something for the Pain. After a lengthy hiatus from poetry, he returned to the form after moving to inland Goroke in 2009 upon the death of his wife. There he took up residence in a shed in his son’s backyard.

Green Shadows and Other Poems is a poetic memoir that revisits themes of Murnane’s earlier works, but unlike those, does not blur the line between fiction and autobiography. Here, Murnane draws heavily on memory and lived experience, his ideals and beliefs, and where he places himself in an increasingly chaotic world. He pays tribute to literary influences including early-twentieth century Australian writer and Communist sympathiser, Lesbia Harford; international literary figures William Carlos Williams, Proust, Thomas Hardy, and John Clare, the English poet after whom Murnane’s collection is named.

Murnane opens with ‘If this is a poem’, a wry tribute to Harford and Hardy, in which he sets their acceptance of his poetry as a personal benchmark. This poem, although short at eight lines, illustrates Murnane’s complexity of thought: his self-doubts, capacity for self-reflection, and his remarkable ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary through words and mental imagery. The use of half-rhymes is captivating, and, as might be expected, the meter and rhythm technically sound.

Other poems in this collection speak of isolation, bereavement, love of landscape, celebration of family, and vivid imaginings of the world outside of rural Victoria. In ‘Coate Water to Glinton’ Murnane reveals that he has never “travelled far beyond Adelaide and Sydney.” His writing is distinctly Australian and from-the-heart. He pays homage the Western Districts of Victoria – “I’ve considered you my heartland for just about all my life”, Warrnambool, Melbourne University, Gippsland and the Mornington Peninsula – “I wrote in a poem in the nineteen-sixties that I wanted to eat the whole of you”.

‘In thick rough’ is a dedication to Murnane’s cherished game of golf. He describes a golf ball stuck in the thick rough between fairways, a place well-known to him – “one of the eighteen familiar holes that I’ve played a hundred times.” He glances up at the nearby grove of trees, all either dead or struggling, and, this becomes for Murnane, an epiphanic moment that invokes clear memories and raises, in the poet, questions of self, time and place.

The author’s tribute to horse-racing, ‘Poetic Topics (v) Strange feelings when reading’ sees Murnane revisit the few treasured old racing notebooks that remain in his possession. The notebook for Caulfield dated June 20, 1964 is marked on its cover ‘With CML – our first outing’ Two years later, he and ‘CML’ married. Reading through the lists of jockey names evokes in Murnane long-forgotten feelings of camaraderie between, and nostalgia for, those hard-living riders, many of whom he never actually met. He reveals his admiration for the fortitude of jockeys in their eternal quest to mount the next high-stakes winner, ‘the dream-horse that seldom came.’ In a strange twist, he finds it easier to visualise the imagined faces of these men, than his flame-haired then-girlfriend. As a result, Murnane’s poetic enquiry interrogates the interconnectedness that exists between people and experience.

While Murnane has received many accolades for his writing and can boast a long and distinguished career, surprisingly, his first major literary fiction award in Australia was the 2018 Miles Franklin for the novel, Border Districts. His work is perhaps best known internationally – the New York Times, in 2017, described him as the ‘greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of.’ His writing is praised by prodigious authors including J M Coetzee and Teju Cole, the latter of whom calls him a ‘genius’, and ‘worthy heir to Beckett.’ Murnane has long been considered among literary circles as worthy of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Murnane is a contradiction of sorts: he rarely leaves Victoria, doesn’t catch planes, and types his manuscripts one-fingered on his treasured old manual typewriters. He might also be found pulling beers at The Goroke Hotel, or patronising the golf club or Men’s Shed, which he runs. His reclusive lifestyle, however, greatly informs his work and strengthens his writing. His powerful mental imagery transcends insularity and small town borders. The laconic, conversational, this-is-how-it-is language of his poetry resonates with the familiar and speaks with authenticity and verisimilitude. He shares his agonies and joys and everywhere in between – like all of us, he too has loved and lost, failed and succeeded. He writes about his parents and family, and in his customary and inimitable style, ruminates over past, present and future.

‘Last Poem’ concludes Green Shadows and Other Poems in what is a sublime and witty summation of Murnane’s distinguished writing career.

Green Shadows and Other Poems is an engaging collection of poems that is difficult to fault. Not only do we gain insight into Murnane’s unconventional life, but each poem carries in itself historical significance through its descriptions of life in a tiny Australian town, tucked neatly away in inland western Victoria.

 – Leonie Bingham

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Leonie Bingham is a freelance writer. She has been writing professionally since 2006 as a Manuscript Assessor, corporate scriptwriter, editor and poet. Leonie holds an Associate Degree in Creative Writing from Southern Cross University. Her work has been published in Famous Reporter, Going Down Swinging, The Heron’s Nest (USA), Shamrock (Ireland), ABC Open, among others. In 2015, she published a poetry collection treetop to treetop. Leonie resides in Katoomba and is currently working on a coming-of-age novel set in 1980s’ Sydney

Green Shadows and Other Poems is available from https://giramondopublishing.com/product/green-shadows-and-other-poems/