Waiting for the Past: Poems

Waiting for the Past: Poems

by Les Murray


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Waiting for the Past: Poems by Les Murray

A new collection of poems from Les Murray that renews and transforms the contemporary world through language

In Waiting for the Past, Les Murray employs his molten sense of language to renew and transform our experience of the world. With quicksilver verse, he conjures his rural past, the life of the poor dairy boy in Australia, as he simultaneously feels the steady tug of aging, of time pulling him back to the present. Here, syntax, sense, and sound combine with such acrobatic grace that his poems render the familiar into the unknown, the unknown into the revelatory.

Whether Murray is writing about a boy on a walkabout hiding from grief, a sounding whale “spilling salt rain,” or leaves that “tread on the sky,” the great Australian poet’s sense of wonder, his ear for the everyday, his swiftness of thought, are everywhere in these pages. As Derek Walcott said of Murray’s work, “There is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness, so broad-leafed in its pleasures, and yet so intimate and conversational.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536879
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Les Murray is the author of a dozen books of poetry. His collection Subhuman Redneck Poems received the T. S. Eliot Prize, and in 1998 he was awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry, presented by Queen Elizabeth II. He lives in New South Wales, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Waiting for the Past


By Les Murray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Les Murray
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71473-4


The Black Beaches

    Yellow rimming the ocean
    is mountains washing back
    but lagoons in cleared land often
    show beaches of velvet black

    peat of grass and great trees
    that were wood-fired towers
    then mines of stary coals
    fuming deep in dragon-holes.

    This morning's frost dunes
    afloat on knee-sprung pasture
    were gone in a sugar lick
    leaving strawed moisture

    but that was early
    and a change took back the sun
    hiding it in regrowth forest.
    Coal formed all afternoon.

Inspecting the Rivermouth

    Drove up to Hahndorf:
    boiled lamb hock, great scoff!
    Lamplit rain incessant.

    Next morning to the Murray mouth,
    reed-wrapped bottlings of view
    grigio and verdelho.

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

    the barrages de richesse,
    film culture, horseradish farms,
    steamboats kneading heron-blue

    lake, the river full again.
    Upstream, the iron cattle bridges.
    So. Then a thousand miles

    home across green lawn.

The Canonisation

    Rome, 17 October 2010

    Mary MacKillop, born 1842,
    what are the clergy giving you
    on my birthday, Mother Mary?

    Sainthood? So long after God did?
    Independence? But you're your own Scot.
    The job of Australian icon?

    Well yes. Black flies in the buggy.
    Bush pianos. The cheek-sawing wimple
    in summer: you did do local penance.

    Your vow to "educate poor children" –
    might you now say "to heal
    the education of poor children"?

    Who says a woman can't rise
    in the Church? Mother Mary,
    awake in Heaven, pray for us.

High Rise

    Fawn high rise of Beijing
    with wristwatch-shaped
    air conditioners on each window

    and burglar bars to the tenth
    level in each new city,
    white-belted cylinders of dwelling

    around every Hong Kong bay –
    Latest theory is, the billions
    will slow their overbreeding

    only when consuming in the sky.
    Balconious kung fu of Shanghai.
    A nineteenth floor lover

    heroic among consumer goods
    slips off the heights of desire
    down the going-home high wire –

    above all the only children.

Nuclear Family Bees

    Little native-bee hives
    clotted all up the trunk
    of a big tree by the river.

    Not pumped from a common womb
    this world of honey-flies
    is a vertical black suburb

    of glued-on prism cells.
    Hunters stopping by
    would toe-walk up,

    scab off single wax houses
    and suck them out, as each
    smallholder couple hovered

    remonstrating in the air
    with their life to rebuild,
    new eggs, new sugarbag,

    gold skinfulls of water.

When Two Percent Were Students

    Gorgeous expansion of life
    all day at the university,
    then home to be late for meals,
    an impractical, unwanted boarder.

    When rush hours were so tough
    a heart attack might get stepped over
    you looked up from the long footpaths
    to partings in the houses' iron hair.

    Hosts of Depression-time and wartime
    hated their failure, which was you.
    Widows with no facelift of joy
    spat their irons. Shamed by bookishness

    you puzzled their downcast sons
    who thought you might be a poofter,
    so you'd hitchhike home to run wild
    again where cows made vaccine

    and ancient cows discovered aspirin,
    up home, where your father and you
    still wore pink from the housework
    you taught each other years before –

    and those were the years when farm wives
    drove to the coast with milk hands
    to gut fish, because government no longer
    trusted poor voters on poor lands.

I Wrote a Little Haiku

    I wrote a little haiku
    titled The Springfields:

    Lead drips out of
    a burning farm rail.
    Their Civil War.

    Critics didn't like it,
    said it was obscure –

    The title was the rifle
    both American sides bore,
    lead was its heavy bullet
    the Minié, which tore

    often wet with blood and sera
    into the farmyard timbers
    and forests of that era,
    wood that, burnt even now,

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

Dynamic Rest

    Six little terns
    feet gripping sand
    on a windy beach

    six more just above
    white with opened wings
    busy exchange of feet

    reaching down lifting off
    terns rising up through terns
    all quivering parallel

    drift ahead and settle
    bracing their eyes
    against the brunt of wind

West Coast Township

    Cervantes. This one-strum pueblo
    seen beyond acorn banksia
    along a Benedictine surf –
    never the Oz end of a cable, though.

    How Spanish was the Indian Ocean?

    Well, not. Except for basque Sebastián
    de Elcano, centuries off Perth:
    Of mankind, only we in my ship shall
    have made a full circuit of Earth ...

    even as scurvy kept their ebb low.

Money and the Flying Horses

    Intriguing, the oaten seethe
    of thoroughbred horses in single stalls
    across a twilit cabin.

    Intimate, under the engines' gale,
    a stamped hoof, a loose-lip sigh,
    like dawn sounds at track work.

    Pilots wearing the bat wings
    of intercontinental night cargo
    come out singly, to chat with or warn

    the company vet at his manifests:
    four to Dubai, ten from Shannon,
    Singapore, sixteen, sweating their nap.

    They breed in person, by our laws:
    halter-snibbed horses radiating over the world.
    Under half-human names, they run in person.

    We dress for them, in turn. Our officer class
    fought both of its world wars in riding tog:
    Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht in haunched jodhpur pants.

    Stumbling turbulence, and the animals
    skid, swivelling their large eyes
    but iron-fisted rear-outs calmed by revolver shot

    are a rarity now, six miles above
    the eventing cravat, the desert hawking dunes.
    Handlers move among the unroofed stalls.

    They're settling down, Hank:
    easy to tell, with stallions;
    they must be the nudest creatures alive –

    Tomorrow, having flown from money to money
    this consignment will be trucked and rested
    then, on cobble, new hands will assume the familiar

    cripple-kneed buttock-up seat
    of eighteenth-century grooms
    still used by jockeys.

Sun Taiko

    Across the river
    outside of towns
    farm machinery for sale
    in wire compounds

    Pumpkin to all of it
    are rainwater tanks
    plastic, mostly round
    edge on, ribby flanks
    a few Roman IIIs

    most in cool Kiwi tones
    sage, battleship, dun
    two thousand litres, ten
    each with a rimmed
    O hole for sound

Persistence of the Reformation

    Seen from the high cutting
    the sky drifts white cotton
    over dance-floors of water
    either side the shady creek
    that trickles down country
    lagoons gummed with water fern

    saucepans of wet money
    brass polyester gold
    couch grass black in swamp
    lily dams backed up gullies
    and parallel in paspalum
    old tillages that fed barns

    no one grows patch-crops now
    slow-walking black cattle
    circle up off cleared flats
    past pastel new brick houses
    and higher charcoal-barreled
    hills are fields of a war

    four hundred years of ship-spread
    jihad at first called
    the Thirty Years War
    buff coats and ships' cannon
    the Christian civil war
    of worldwide estrangement

    freemasons, side massacres
    the nun-harem, Old Red Socks
    wives "turning" for husbands
    those forbidden their loves
    bitter chews of an old plug
    from Ireland and Britain

    while mutual help and space
    and breach of cliché and face
    here civilized the boundary fences
    bigot slurs jostled tempers
    right up into the dairy age
    new killings back

    in cold lanes of the Boyne
    shamed it all on the news
    among Christmas homecomings
    the local dead
    still mostly lie in ranks
    assigned them by denomination
    though belief may say Ask Mum
    and unpreached help
    has long been the message.

Child Logic

    The smallest girl
    in the wild kid's gang
    submitted her finger
    to his tomahawk idea –

    It hurt bad, dropping off.
    He knew he'd gone too far
    and ran, herding the others.
    Later on, he'd maim her brother.

    She stayed in the bush
    till sundown, wrote
    in blood on the logs, and
    gripped her gapped hand, afraid

    what her family would say
    to waste of a finger.
    Carelessness. Mad kids.
    She had done wrong some way.

Floodtime Night Shelter

    No mattress for the last levee shoveller,
    estates of damp clothing rather
    and groceries and crises on the netball
    squeak floor, within sidelong of the river.
    Roped curtain to let underpants be shed,
    mulch of blankets half dry, and how
    to keep four cushions in line
    underback, with clay and shift-off
    as of islands in continental drift-off.
    Discreet knees up for sex or
    to check the infiltering depth of water
    far off houses colliding in main stream.
    These were many nights of that year.

Powder of Light

    Hunched in the farm ute
    tarpaulin against wind
    the moon chasing treetops
    as it yellows into night
    us, going to the pictures
    by the State forest way
    my mate's brother driving

    we are at the age
    that has since slipped
    down toward toddlers
    for whom adults and dreams
    mostly have no names yet.
    What wagged on screen then
    made from powder of light

    were people in music
    who did and said dressy
    stuff in English or American
    kissed slow with faces crossed
    flicked small-to-big
    in an instant, then
    were back in Australia

    we believed it was Australia –
    then our driver who never
    attended films would surface
    from courting and collect us
    there way before TV.
    And people, some holding
    phones like face cards, still ask

    good movie? Who was in it?
    I smile and say Actors
    but rarely now add
    hired out of the air.

The Backroad Collections

    Verandah shops with history
    up roads like dry-gully bends
    proffer gouts of laundered colour
    out into their gala weekends,

    recycled fashion displayed
    under bullnose eaves, down corridors,
    cerise, magenta, nubbled teal,
    lilac overalls that were a steal,

    yellow bordure and buttony rib,
    pouched swimsuits, cretonne ad lib
    in front of blush-crimson sleeves.
    Craft collectors carry off sheaves,

    tie dye, mai tai, taupe lingeries –
    and cattle who haven't yet entered
    any building wander, contented,
    munching under their last trees

    till a blowsy gold-ginger horizon
    stacked up out of the day's talk
    glorifies and buries the sun.
    A nude moon burns the newsprint version.

Tap Dogs Music

    Ponderous cauldrons
    roaring with air
    white gold slopping over
    smoke fallout everywhere

    Open the tap-hole
    steel light is blind
    intense as a searchlight
    infinitely confined

    The scorched hook-steerers
    down in the spatter
    spend crib times heel-and-toeing
    a new ferrous patter

    on sheets of cooled plate
    since these works will soon close
    and spangling metal
    will set in black floes.

English as a Second Language

    A coffee cart was travelling down the mountain,
    in the yellow shape of an ice-cream coupe it travelled,
    a cappuccino on wheels.

       And we followed, speaking
    of this American teenager who was sent
    to remedial English, since he spoke more Tagalog.
    An American in remedial!
    His military parents had been deep
    in the Asian preoccupation. When he came back
    on a visit, it was in the splendid blues

    of their Marine Corps, wowing all the teachers.
    We recalled the Australian boy who comprehended
    nothing much, till his mother, called in to help,
    was heard talking fluently with him in a baby talk
    they had never abandoned. They were off a farm
    deeper in the mountains. A bit like the Georgian

    who sat in the back of his class for one whole year
    getting no English, substituting his fists for it
    till he was a State champ. Unlike the Hong Kong boy who
    returned to class with a slim briefcase and pinstripe
    having successfully saved a million of family
    investments in court before lunch time recess.

    They rise up from then, Widow and Camel Driver,
    now forty-fives and fifties, whom the teacher
    taught to prepare and cook their halal pilaff;
    they break-danced for her after midday prayers
    and spoke of a friend sniped with an ack-ack gun
    who vanished in red spray at his brother's shoulder.

    It was a time of teenagers coaxed to go
    back to such boulevards. And of helicopters
    But!But!But! that sent boys scrambling
    into their chair tunnels.
      And we drove on down
    at just the speed which made our tyres buzz
    like the small wheels of a bed that would divide us.


Excerpted from Waiting for the Past by Les Murray. Copyright © 2015 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 Black Beaches,
Inspecting the Rivermouth,
The Canonisation,
High Rise,
Nuclear Family Bees,
When Two Percent Were Students,
I Wrote a Little Haiku,
Dynamic Rest,
West Coast Township,
Money and the Flying Horses,
Sun Taiko,
Persistence of the Reformation,
Child Logic,
Floodtime Night Shelter,
Powder of Light,
The Backroad Collections,
Tap Dogs Music,
English as a Second Language,
High Speed Trap Space,
The Privacy of Typewriters,
All of Half Way,
Big Rabbit at the Verandah,
Being Spared the Inquests,
Time Twins,
The Plaster Eater,
The Glory and Decline of Bread,
Eating from the Dictionary,
O.K. Primavera Lips,
Order of Perception: West Kimberley,
The Mussel Bowl,
A Denizen,
Radiant Pleats, Mulgoa,
Bird Signatures,
Last World Before the Stars,
1960 Brought the Electric,
Holland's Nadir,
Dog Skills,
Raising an Only Child,
Clan-Sized Night Chanting,
Bread Again,
Bench Seats,
Grooming with Nail Clippers,
The Thirties,
Bollywood Video,
Up to the Greek Club,
Self and Dream Self,
Beasts of the City,
Whale Sounding,
The Genghis Firmament,
The Massacre,
The Care,
High Foliage,
The Walk-Off in Newtown,
Jesus Was a Healer,
The Flute,
The Murders of Women,
Under the Lube Oil,
Winter Garden,
Goths in Leipzig,
Maryanne Bugg,
Also by Les Murray,
A Note About the Author,

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