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There is a select group of writers scattered around the globe about whom it is always whispered, "He was on the short list for the Nobel Prize last fall. He'll win it one of these years." Sixty-two-year-old Australian poet Les Murray belongs to this group. Comparatively little known until recently, he began to attract attention in 1997 with the publication of Subhuman Redneck Poems, which won a T. S. Eliot Prize. Then last year he published the tour de force Fredy Neptune, a novel in verse about a wandering German-Australian who loses his sense of touch after witnessing the burning of Armenian women in Turkey in World War I. Susan Sontag, among others, took up his cause, and now, to capitalize on a growing interest in his past work, Murray offers Learning Human, a selection of poetry from 1965 to the present day. This collection demonstrates the surprising depth and skillful craftsmanship of a writer only just beginning to be given his due.
Selected by Murray himself, the 137 poems in Learning Human speak with a direct voice that recalls the best work of Seamus Heaney. But they also display an unfettered inventiveness reminiscent of Wallace Stevens or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Despite these echoes of past masters, Murray is a true original, not traceable to this or that poetic lineage. Murray's writing is often called "non-literary," almost as a mark of honor, but this label only suggests an elitism on the part of astonished critics, who have trouble believing somebody could produce such moving and well-wrought work without appearing on their radar -- for Murray has been writing for 35 years.
Murray has a nuanced, sensual mastery of language. He calls the future "that sheer fall/where everything will be that we have ever sent there, compacted, spinning -- except perhaps us, to see it," and the experience of a hot plate of Indian food a journey "through all the burning gnats of most carnal ambition/and never again will I want such illumination...." There's a hint of T. S. Eliot's "Preludes" in the wise detachment of "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow," which, like Eliot's "vision of the street as the street hardly understands," recasts existence for a whole town in the symbolic figure of a weeping man -- but, in a perfect example of Murray's range, it also recalls John Lennon's "A Day in the Life."
Murray writes astoundingly clever tributes to bare realities of life. "Homage to the Launching Place" begins, "Pleasure-craft of the sprung rhythms, bed,/kindest of quadrupeds,/you are also the unrocking boat/that moves on silence." He warns us to be wary of rhythm as "tainted by the rallies, as marching with the snare drum," even as he displays a rhythmic command rarely seen in this era of free verse. Often it's the casual, digressive lines that are the most affecting, such as "boulders like ice under whiskey,/tree pools mirrory as the eyes of horses."
Late in the collection is a poem entitled "The Instrument" that opens with this question: "Who reads poetry?" Murray issues a challenge to all future poets to match his own intuitive brilliance, proclaiming, "What gives them delight is a never-murderous skim/distilled, to verse mainly, and suspended in rapt/calm on the surface of paper." He goes on to define "feral poetry," loved by "lovers, schoolkids, debaters, generals, crime lords," and which "demand your flesh to embody themselves." He never makes it clear where his own verse falls between these two poles. The final, rhymed couplet of this poem might be the most honest and moving tribute to the craft since Yeats's "Adam's Curse":
Breathing in dream-rhythm awake and far from bed
evinces the gift. Being tragic with a book on your head.