Learning Human: Selected Poemsby Les Murray
A bighearted selection from the inimitable Australian poet's diverse ten-book body of work
Les Murray is one of the great poets of the English language, past, present, and future. Learning Human contains the poems he considers his best: 137 poems written since 1965, presented here in roughly chronological order, and including a dozen poems published/i>… See more details below
A bighearted selection from the inimitable Australian poet's diverse ten-book body of work
Les Murray is one of the great poets of the English language, past, present, and future. Learning Human contains the poems he considers his best: 137 poems written since 1965, presented here in roughly chronological order, and including a dozen poems published for the first time in this book.
Murray has distinguished between what he calls the "Narrowspeak" of ordinary affairs, of money and social position, of interest and calculation, and the "Wholespeak" of life in its fullness, of real religion, and of poetry.
Poetry, he proposes, is the most human of activities, partaking of reason, the dream, and the dance all at once "the whole simultaneous gamut of reasoning, envisioning, feeling, and vibrating we go through when we are really taken up with some matter, and out of which we may act on it. We are not just thinking about whatever it may be, but savouring it and experiencing it and wrestling with it in the ghostly sympathy of our muscles. We are alive at full stretch towards it." He explains: "Poetry models the fullness of life, and also gives its objects presence. Like prayer, it pulls all the motions of our life and being into a concentrated true attentiveness to which God might speak."
The poems gathered here give us a poet who is altogether alive and at full stretch toward experience. Learning Human, an ideal introduction to Les Murray's poetry, suggests the variety, the intensity, and the generosity of this great poet's work so far.
London Review of Books
Times Literary Supplement
The New York Times Book Review
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)
Meet the Author
Les Murray lives in rural Bunyah, New South Wales, where he was born in 1938. His books include Dog Fox Field (1992), Translations from the Natural World (1994), Subhuman Redneck Poems (1997), for which he was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize, and Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (1999).
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
The Burning Truck
for Mrs. Margaret Welton
It began at dawn with fighter planes:
they came in off the sea and didn't rise,
they leaped the sandbar one and one and one
coming so fast the crockery they shook down
off my kitchen shelves was spinning in the air
when they were gone.
They came in off the sea and drew a wave
of lagging cannon-shells across our roofs.
Windows spat glass, a truck took sudden fire,
out leaped the driver, but the truck ran on,
growing enormous, shambling by our street-doors,
coming and coming ...
By every right in town, by every average
we knew of in the world, it had to stop,
fetch up against a building, fall to rubble
from pure force of burning, for its whole
body and substance were consumed with heat
but it would not stop.
And all of us who knew our place and prayers
clutched our verandah-rails and window-sills,
begging that truck between our teeth to halt,
keep going, vanish, strike ... but set us free.
And then we saw the wild boys of the street
go running after it.
And as they followed, cheering, on it crept,
windshield melting now, canopy-frame a cage
torn by gorillas of flame, and it kept on
over the tramlines, past the church, on past
the last lit windows, and then out of the world
with its disciples.
Driving Through Sawmill Towns
In the high cool country,
having come from the clouds,
down a tilting road
into a distant valley,
you drive without haste. Your windscreen parts the forest,
swaying and glancing, and jammed midday brilliance
crouches in clearings ...
then you come across them,
the sawmill towns, bare hamlets built of boards
with perhaps a store,
perhaps a bridge beyond
and a little sidelong creek alive with pebbles.
The mills are roofed with iron, have no walls:
you look straight in as you pass, see lithe men working,
the swerve of a winch,
dim dazzling blades advancing
through a trolley-borne trunk
till it sags apart
in a manifold sprawl of weatherboards and battens.
The men watch you pass:
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you.
Beside each mill, smoke trickles out of mounds
of ash and sawdust.
You glide on through town,
your mudguards damp with cloud.
The houses there wear verandahs out of shyness,
all day in calendared kitchens, women listen
for cars on the road,
lost children in the bush,
a cry from the mill, a footstep
The half-heard radio sings
its song of sidewalks.
Sometimes a woman, sweeping her front step,
or a plain young wife at a tankstand fetching water
in a metal bucket will turn round and gaze
at the mountains in wonderment,
looking for a city.
Evenings are very quiet. All around
the forest is there.
As night comes down, the houses watch each other:
a light going out in a window here has meaning.
You speed away through the upland,
glare through towns
and are gone in the forest, glowing on far hills.
On summer nights
ground-crickets sing and pause.
In the dark of winter, tin roofs sough with rain,
downpipes chafe in the wind, agog with water.
Men sit after tea
by the stove while their wives talk, rolling a dead match
between their fingers,
thinking of the future.
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.
The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudlyyet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us
trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.
Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it
and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.
Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil
The first night of my second voyage to Wales,
tired as rag from ascending the left cheek of Earth,
I nevertheless went to Merthyr in good company
and warm in neckclothing and speech in the Butcher's Arms
till Time struck us pintless, and Eddie Rees steamed in brick lanes
and under the dark of the White Tip we repaired shouting
to I think the Bengal. I called for curry, the hottest,
vain of my nation, proud of my hard mouth from childhood,
the kindly brown waiter wringing the hands of dissuasion
O vindaloo, sir! You sure you want vindaloo, sir?
But I cried Yes please, being too far in to go back,
the bright bells of Rhymney moreover sang in my brains.
Fair play, it was frightful. I spooned the chicken of Hell
in a sauce of rich yellow brimstone. The valley boys with me
tasting it, croaked to white Jesus. And only pride drove me,
forkful by forkful, observed by hot mangosteen eyes,
by all the carnivorous castes and gurus from Cardiff
my brilliant tears washing the unbelief of the Welsh.
Oh it was a ride on Watneys plunging red barrel
through all the burning ghats of most carnal ambition
and never again will I want such illumination
for three days on end concerning my own mortal coil
but I signed my plate in the end with a licked knife and fork
and green-and-gold spotted, I sang for my pains like the free
before I passed out among all the stars of Cilfynydd.
Saint Vincent de Paul, old friend,
my sometime tailor,
I daresay by now you are feeding
the rich in Heaven.
(from "Walking to the Cattle Place")
Coming out of reflections
I find myself in the earth.
My cow going on
into the creek from this paspalum-thatched tunnel-track
divides her hoofs among the water's impediments,
clastic and ungulate stones.
She is just deep
enough to be suckling the stream when she drinks from it.
Wetted hooves, like hers,
incised in the alluvium
this grave's-width ramp up through the shoulder of the bank
but cattle paunches with their tongue-mapped girths also
brushed in glazes,
easements and ample places
at the far side of things from subtractive plating of spades
or the vertical slivers a coffin will score, sinking.
North, the heaped districts, and south
there'd be at least a Pharaoh's destruction of water
suspended above me in this chthonic section.
Seeds fall in here from the poise
of ploughland, grass land.
I could be easily
foreclosed to a motionless size in the ruins of gloss.
The old dead, though, are absorbed, becoming strata.
The crystals, too, of glaze or matt, who have
not much say in a slump
seem coolly balanced toward me.
At this depth among roots
I thank God's own sacrifice
that I am not here with seeds and a weighty request
from the upper fields,
my own words constrained with a cord.
Not being that way, if I met the lady of summer,
the beautiful cow-eyed one, I would be saying:
Madam, the children of the overworld
cannot lay down their instruments at will.
Babel in orbit maps the hasty parks,
missile and daisy scorn the steady husbands
and my countrymen mix green with foreign fruit.
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