Subhuman Redneck Poems

Subhuman Redneck Poems

by Les Murray


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Winner of the 1996 T. S. Eliot Prize for the Best Book of Poetry in English

Joseph Brodsky once said of Les Murray: "He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives." In these darkly funny and deeply observant Subhuman Redneck Poems, farmers, fathers, poverty-stricken pioneers, and people blackened by the grist of sugar mills are exposed to the blazing midday sun of Murray's linguistic powers. Richly inventive, tenderly detailed, and fiercely honest, these poems both surprise and expose the human in all of us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374525385
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/04/1998
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 681,509
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.27(d)

About the Author

Les Murray (1938-2019) was a widely acclaimed poet, recognized by the National Trust of Australia as one of the nation’s treasures in 2012. He received the T. S. Eliot Prize for the Best Book of Poetry in English in 1996 for Subhuman Redneck Poems, and was also awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry presented by Queen Elizabeth II.

Murray also served as poetry editor for the conservative Australian journal Quadrant from 1990-2018. His other books include Dog Fox Field, Translations from the Natural World, Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, Learning Human: Selected Poems, Conscious and Verbal, Poems the Size of Photographs, and Waiting for the Past.

Read an Excerpt

Subhuman Redneck Poems

By Les Murray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1997 Les Murray
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9482-2



    for Salvatore Zofra

    White grist that turned people black,
    it was the white cane sugar
    fixed humans as black or white. Sugar,
    first luxury of the modernising poor.

    It turned slavery black to repeat it.
    Black to grow sugar, white to eat it
    shuffled all the tropic world. Cane sugar
    would only grow in sweat of the transported.

    That was the old plantation,
    blackbirding ship to commissar.
    White teeth decried the tyranny of sugar —
    but Italian Australians finished it.

    On the red farm blocks they bought
    and cleared, for cane-besieged stilt houses
    between rain-smoky hills on the Queensland shore,
    they made the black plantation obsolete.

    When they come, we still et creamed spaghetti cold, for pudding,
    and we didn't want their Black Hand on our girls.
    But they ploughed, burnt, lumped cane: it shimmied like a gamecock's tail.
    Then the wives come out, put up with flies, heat, crocodiles, Irish clergy,
    and made shopkeepers learn their lingo. Stubborn Australian shopkeepers.
    L'abito, signora, voletelo in sargia, do you?
    Serge suits in Queensland? Course. You didn't let the white side down.
    Shorts, pasta, real coffee. English only at school. But sweet biscuits,
    cakes, icing — we learnt all that off the British and we loved it!
    Big families, aunts, cousins. You slept like a salt tongue, in gauze.
    Cool was under the mango tree. Walls of cane enclosed us and fell:
    sudden slant-slashed vistas, burnt bitter caramel. Our pink roads
    were partings in a world of haircut. I like to go back. It's changed now.
    After thirty years, even Sicilians let their daughters work in town.

    Cane work was too heavy for children
    so these had their childhoods
    as not all did, on family farms,
    before full enslavement of machines.

    But of grown-up hundreds on worked estate
    still only one of each sex can be adult.
    Likewise in factory, and office, and concern:
    Any employee's a child, in the farmer's opinion.


    We are the Australians. Our history is short.
    This makes pastry chefs snotty and racehorses snort.
    It makes pride a blood poppy and work an export
    and bars our trained minds from original thought
    as all that can be named gets renamed away.

    A short history gets you imperial scorn,
    maintained by hacks after the empire is gone
    which shaped and exiled us, left men's bodies torn
    with the lash, then with shrapnel, and taught many to be
    lewd in kindness, formal in bastardry.

    Some Australians would die before they said Mate,
    though hand-rolled Mate is a high-class disguise —
    but to have just one culture is well out of date:
    it makes you Exotic, i.e. there to penetrate
    or to ingest, depending on size.

    Our one culture paints Dreamings, each a beautiful claim.
    Far more numerous are the unspeakable Whites,
    the only cause of all earthly plights,
    immigrant natives without immigrant rights.
    Unmixed with these are Ethnics, absolved of all blame.

    All of people's Australia, its churches and lore
    are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war
    and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor,
    our mandarins now, in one more evasion
    of love and themselves, declare us Asian.

    Australians are like most who won't read this poem
    or any, since literature turned on them
    and bodiless jargons without reverie
    scorn their loves as illusion and biology,
    compared with bloody History, the opposite of home.


    for Becki and Clare

    Where humans can't leave and mustn't complain
    there some will emerge who enjoy giving pain.

    Snide universal testing leads them to each one
    who will shrivel reliably, whom the rest will then shun.

    Some who might have been chosen, and natural police,
    do routine hurt, the catcalling, the giving no peace,

    but dull brilliance evolves the betrayals and names
    that scar dignity and life like interior flames.

    Hormones get enlisted, and consistency rehearsed
    by self-avengers and failures getting in first,
    but this is the eye of fashion. Its sniggering stare
    breeds silenced accomplices. Courage proves rare.

    This models revolution, this draws flies to stark pools.
    This is the true curriculum of schools.


    Poverty is still sacred. Christian
    and political candles burn before it
    for a little longer. But secretly

    poverty revered is poverty outlived:
    childhoods among bed-ticking midnights
    blue as impetigo mixture, through the grilles,

    cotton-rancid contentments of exhaustion
    around Earth's first kerosene lamp
    indoors out of wet root-crop fields.

    Destitution's an antique. The huge-headed
    are sad chaff blown by military bohemians.
    Their thin metal bowls are filled or not

    from the sky by deodorised descendants
    of a tart-tongued womb-noticing noblesse
    in the goffered hair-puddings of God's law

    who pumped pioneer bouillons with a potstick,
    or of dazzled human muesli poured from ships
    under the milk of smoke and decades.

    The mass rise into dignity and comfort
    was the true modern epic, black and white
    dwarfing red, on the way to green rose tan.

    Green rose tan that the world is coming to,
    land's colour as seen from space
    and convergent human skin colour, it rises

    out of that unwarlike epic, in the hours
    before intellect refracts and disdains it,
    of those darker and silver-skinned, for long ages

    humbly, viciously poor, our ancestors,
    still alive in India, in Africa, in ghettoes.
    Ancestors, ours, on the kerb in meshed-glass towns.


    That numinous healer who preached Saturnalia and paradox
    has died a slave's death. We were manoeuvred into it by priests
    and by the man himself. To complete his poem.

    He was certainly dead. The pilum guaranteed it. His message,
    unwritten except on his body, like anyone's, was wrapped
    like a scroll and despatched to our liberated selves, the gods.

    If he has now risen, as our infiltrators gibber,
    he has outdone Orpheus, who went alive to the Shades.
    Solitude may be stronger than embraces. Inventor of the mustard tree,

    he mourned one death, perhaps all, before he reversed it.
    He forgave the sick to health, disregarded the sex of the Furies
    when expelling them from minds. And he never speculated.

    If he is risen, all are children of a most high real God
    or something even stranger called by that name
    who knew to come and be punished for the world.

    To have knowledge of right, after that, is to be in the wrong.
    Death came through the sight of law. His people's oldest wisdom.
    If death is now the birth-gate into things unsayable

    in language of death's era, there will be wars about religion
    as there never were about the death-ignoring Olympians.
    Love, too, his new universal, so far ahead of you it has died

    for you before you meet it, may seem colder than the favours of gods
    who are our poems, good and bad. But there never was a bad baby.
    Half of his worship will be grinding his face in the dirt

    then lifting it to beg, in private. The low will rule, and curse by him.
    Divine bastard, soul-usurer, eros-frightener, he is out to monopolise hatred.
    Whole philosophies will be devised for their brief snubbings of him.

    But regained excels kept, he taught. Thus he has done the impossible
    to show us it is there. To ask it of us. It seems we are to be the poem
    and live the impossible. As each time we have, with mixed cries.


    Castle scaffolding tall in moat,
    the dead trees in the dam
    flower each morning with birds.

    It can be just the three resident
    cormorants with musket-hammer necks, plus
    the clinician spoonbill, its long pout;

    twilight's herons who were almost too lightfoot
    to land; pearl galahs in pink-fronted
    confederacy, each starring in its frame,

    or it may be a misty candelabrum
    of egrets lambent before Saint Sleep —
    who gutter awake and balance stiffly off.

    Odd mornings, it's been all bloodflag
    and rifle green: a stopped-motion shrapnel
    of kingparrots. Smithereens when they freaked.

    Rarely, it's wed ducks, whose children
    will float among the pillars. In daytime
    magpies sidestep up wood to jag pinnacles

    and the big blow-in cuckoo crying
    Alarm, Alarm on the wing is not let light.
    This hours after dynastic charts of high

    profile ibis have rowed away to beat
    the paddocks. Which, however green, are
    always watercolour, and on brown paper.


    Sex is a Nazi. The students all knew
    this at your school. To it, everyone's subhuman
    for parts of their lives. Some are all their lives.
    You'll be one of those if these things worry you.

    The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?

    Why, to castrate the aberrant, the original, the wounded
    who might change our species and make obsolete
    the true race. Which is those who never leave school.

    For the truth, we are silent. For the flattering dream,
    in massed farting reassurance, we spasm and scream,
    but what is a Nazi but sex pitched for crowds?

    It's the Calvin SS: you are what you've got
    and you'll wrinkle and fawn and work after you're shot
    though tears pour in secret from the hot indoor clouds.


    Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors,
    are going round to watch them evict a banker.
    It'll be sad. I hate it when the toddlers and wives
    are out beside the fence, crying, and the big kids
    wear that thousand-yard stare common in all refugees.
    Seeing home desecrated as you lose it can do that to you.

    There's the ute piled high with clothes and old debentures.
    There's the faithful VDU, shot dead, still on its lead.
    This fellow's dad and grandad were bankers before him, they sweated
    through the old hard inspections, had years of brimming foreclosure,
    but here it all ends. He'd lent three quarters and only
    asked for a short extension. Six months. But you have to

    line the drawer somewhere. You have to be kind to be cruel.
    It's Sydney or the cash these times. Who buys the Legend of the Bank
    anymore? The laconic teller, the salt-of-the-earth branch accountant,
    it's all an Owned Boys story. Now they reckon he's grabbed a gun
    and an old coin sieve and holed up in the vault, screaming
    about his years of work, his identity. Queer talk from a bank-johnny!

    We're catching flak, too, from a small mob of his mates,
    inbred under-manager types, here to back him up. Troublemakers,
    land-despoiling white trash. It'll do them no good. Their turn
    is coming. They'll be rationalised themselves, made adapt
    to a multinational society. There's no room in that for privileged
    traditional ways of life. No land rights for bankers.


    The paddocks shave black
    with a foam of smoke that stays,
    welling out of red-black wounds.

    In the white of a drought
    this happens. The hardcourt game.
    Logs that fume are mostly cattle,

    inverted, stubby. Tree stumps are kilns.
    Walloped, wiped, hand-pumped,
    even this day rolls over, slowly.

    At dusk, a family drives sheep
    out through the yellow
    of the Aboriginal flag.


    I work all day and hardly drink at all.
    I can reach down and feel if I'm depressed.
    I adore the Creator because I made myself
    and a few times a week a wire jags in my chest.

    The first time, I'd been coming apart all year,
    weeping, incoherent; cigars had given me up;
    any road round a cliff edge I'd whimper along in low gear
    then: cardiac horror. Masking my pulse's calm lub-dub.

    It was the victim-sickness. Adrenaline howling in my head,
    the black dog was my brain. Come to drown me in my breath
    was energy's black hole, depression, compere of the predawn show
    when, returned from a pee, you stew and welter in your death.

    The rogue space rock is on course to snuff your world,
    sure. But go acute, and its oncoming fills your day.
    The brave die but once? I could go a hundred times a week,
    clinging to my pulse with the world's edge inches away.

    Laugh, who never shrank around wizened genitals there
    or killed themselves to stop dying. The blow that never falls
    batters you stupid. Only gradually do
    you notice a slight scorn in you for what appals.

    A self inside self, cool as conscience, one to be erased
    in your final night, or faxed, still knows beneath
    all the mute grand opera and uncaused effect —
    that death which can be imagined is not true death.

    The crunch is illusion. There's still no outside world
    but you start to see. You're like one enthralled by bad art —
    yet for a real onset, what cover! You gibber to Casualty,
    are checked, scorned, calmed. There's nothing wrong with your heart.

    The terror of death is not afraid of death.
    Fear, pure, is intransitive. A Hindenburg of vast rage
    rots, though, above your life. See it, and you feel flogged
    but like an addict you sniffle aboard, to your cage,
    because you will cling to this beast as it gnaws you,
    for the crystal in its kidneys, the elixir in its wings,
    till your darlings are the police of an immense fatigue.
    I came to the world unrehearsed but I've learned some things.

    When you curl, stuffed, in the pot at rainbow's end
    it is life roaring and racing and nothing you can do.
    Were you really God you could have lived all the lives
    that now decay into misery and cripple you.

    A for adrenaline, the original A-bomb, fuel
    and punishment of aspiration, the Enlightenment's air-burst.
    Back when God made me, I had no script. It was better.
    For all the death, we also die unrehearsed.


    for Joanna Gooding and Simon Curtis

    Here is too narrow and brief:
    equality and justice, to be real,
    require the timeless. It argues
    afterlife even to name them.

    I've thought this more since that morning
    in barren country vast as space-time
    but affluent with cars
    at the fence where my tightening budget
    denied me basket-room
    under the haunches of a hot-air balloon

    and left thirteen people in it,
    all ages, teens to grans,
    laughing excitedly as the dragon nozzle
    exhaled hoarse blazing lift, tautening it,
    till they grabbed, dragged, swayed
    up, up into their hiatus.

    Others were already aloft,
    I remember, light bulbs against the grizzled
    mountain ridge and bare sky,
    vertical yachts, with globe spinnakers.

    More were being rigged, or offering
    their gape for gusts of torch.
    I must have looked away —
    suddenly a cry erupted everywhere:
    two, far up, lay overlapping,
    corded and cheeked as the foresails of a ship
    but tangled, and one collapsing.

    I suppress in my mind
    the long rag unravelling, the mixed
    high voice of its spinning fall,
    the dust-blast crash, the privacies
    and hideous equality without justice
    of those thirteen, which running helpers,
    halting, must have seen
    and professionals lifted out.

    Instead, I look at coloured cash and plastic
    and toddlerhood's vehement equities
    that are never quite silenced.
    Indeed, it prickles, and soon glares
    if people do not voice them.


Excerpted from Subhuman Redneck Poems by Les Murray. Copyright © 1997 Les Murray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Family Farmers' Victory,
A Brief History,
Where Humans Can't Leave and Mustn't Complain,
Green Rose Tan,
The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary,
Dead Trees in the Dam,
Rock Music,
The Rollover,
Late Summer Fires,
Suspended Vessels,
The Water Column,
The Beneficiaries,
The Maenads,
The Portrait Head,
In Phrygia, Birthplace of Embroidery,
Like Wheeling Stacked Water,
The Sand Coast Sonnets,
Wallis Lake Estuary,
Twin Towns History,
The Sand Dingoes,
On Home Beaches,
Leash Chain,
From Bennett's Head,
The Bohemian Occupation,
The Fossil Imprint,
On the Present Slaughter of Feral Animals,
Memories of the Height-to-Weight Ratio,
Water-Gardening in an Old Farm Dam,
The Suspension of Knock,
It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen,
War Song,
Australian Love Poem,
Inside Ayers Rock,
Each Morning Once More Seamless,
Contested Landscape at Forsayth,
The Shield-Scales of Heraldry,
The Year of the Kiln Portraits,
Under the Banana Mountains,
A Stage in Gentrification,
Earth Tremor at Night,
Waking Up on Tour,
Tympan Alley,
A Lego of Driving to Sydney,
Burning Want,
For the Sydney Jewish Museum,
The Last Hellos,
Opening in England,
My Ancestress and the Secret Ballot,
Dry Water,
Life Cycle of Ideas,
Cotton Flannelette,
The Trances,
The Devil,
The Nearly Departed,
The Warm Rain,
For Helen Darville,
Deaf Language,
Reverse Light,
The Genetic Galaxy,
Blowfly Grass,
Below Bronte House,
The Head-Spider,
About the Author,
Also by Les Murray,

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Subhuman Redneck Poems 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Subhuman Redneck Poems¿ was a chance for Les Murray to prove what an extraordinary poet he is. This book is full of poems that bring the smallest things to life, and Murray covers everything from his life experiences in Australia to questioning life and death in what seems to be a response to Phillip Larkin¿s poem ¿Aubade¿. This is the first book I have read by Murray, but it won¿t be the last. He has a way of writing poems that talk about normal situations, such as bullies picking on over weight classmates, and turning it into a work of art. Murray also has a way of catching your attention with not just the titles of his poems but the first line in his poems, for example, ¿Rock Music¿. The first line of this poem is, ¿Sex is a Nazi.¿ If that doesn¿t catch your attention and induce you into reading the rest of the poem I don¿t know what will. This poem also takes something as ordinary as change and turns it into a great poem. Murray use of words to describe things is also spectacular, and sometimes a little surprising. ¿The Maenads¿ also has a great first line that captures your attention, ¿Four captured a man.¿ Another thing I really liked about ¿Subhuman Redneck Poems¿ was how Murray talked about things like poverty in ¿Green Rose Tan¿ and how even though it is a main concern of both the government and many religions, they actually need poverty and wouldn¿t have as much to talk about and deal with if it wasn¿t there. Also in ¿Green Rose Tan¿ Murray discusses the way our world is becoming less culturally defined and split, we are starting to become more like a massive single culture. One of the greatest things about Murray¿s poems is their way of taking something you can hear about on the news and morphing it into an interesting poem on life. You can also tell that Murray had a rough and troublesome childhood that he never really overcame and he uses poetry to express his feelings about that. Les Murray is also a translator and in ¿War Song¿ he proves that he is a good one. This poem is much like a poem you would have expected Murray himself to write. It focuses on war and the troubles it brings to a country, but the troubles are presented to the speaker of the poem in a dream, which I think resembles the unique ways that Murray presents things in his poems. Over all this book of poetry is a very good one, but it isn¿t for the beginning poetry reader. This book is more for an audience that understands poetry and likes to analyze it. Many of Murray¿s poems seem strait forward but there is an underlying meaning in almost all of them, which makes this book even better to sit, read, and think about.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Obviously Australian and very proud of it, Les Murray has constant and consistent memories of his homeland that roam throughout his mind. He starts off with the basics that any child would remember first and foremost, his intermediate family. In ¿The Family Farmer¿s Victory¿, he starts off describing the differences between the white and black man when associating with the inner-most members of his family. Throughout the poems he tells of everyday life in Australia, going through it moment by moment, starting with ¿A Brief History¿, going to current events in his life, such as ¿Green Rose Tan¿, to simply what¿s happening momentarily as in ¿Dead Trees in the Dam¿ where he is only describing what¿s going on at the dam he is looking at. He reminisces through his childhood memories in ¿Late Summer Fires¿, when it seems like all he can think about is the visual he gets from those late evenings watching the wild fires roam throughout the heart of his pride lands. In his ¿Corniche¿, Murray is writing a response to Phillip Larkin¿s ¿Aubade¿ , going deep into the matters of life and death, and the life long question still remaining today, whether anything means anything or not. He apparently has an admiration for Larkin, in that he went so far as to copy the distinct style of the poem, and follows it almost line by line in his response. However, Larkin seems to be puzzled by the questions life has presented him with, while Murray comes back in response as if he already has all the answers that Larkin was looking for. Again to contrast Larkin¿s poem, Murray does not seem to be afraid of death, but almost welcomes it, opposing the thoughts put forth by Larkin of fearing death and anything it may possibly bring. Aside from talking and reminiscing about the everyday aspects of Australian life, Murray also considers the more serious aspects of life there, including the government as compared to the life of the everyday person in ¿Suspended Vessels¿. In his ¿The Beneficiaries¿, Murray presents a most haunting thought at first, that we should actually praise Auschwitz because ¿its what finally won them their centuries-long war against God¿ (5-7). I love the way he starts this poem with his ¿higamus hogamus¿, as if he were a child¿s cartoon character and at the same time as if he¿s laughing at how stupid the intellectuals seem to be with mockery. Capturing a horrible crime in his mind in ¿the Maenads¿, he tells in five short lines of a murder in which the victim was able to steal a credit card of one of the assassins for the authorities to trace. Murray goes on, telling the story of development in ¿Twin Towns History¿, and continues to go through life in his most favorite of places, day by day, and at times minute by minute. He capture decades in two to three lines, and makes mere minutes last three to four stanzas. Overall, his use of words fascinates me. He makes an ordinary minute seem like the most extravagant thing possible. He makes his Australian life relate to a life that could happen anywhere.