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Backing into the Outback

John Redmond reviews
Subhuman Redneck Poems, by Les Murray

Carcanet (U.K.) £7.95 — ISBN 1-85754-249-5

In his pugnacious new book, Subhuman Redneck Poems, Les Murray makes a point of confronting us with his protuberance. A round, bald man, now in late middle age, Murray is intensely conscious of his lack of physical appeal. At school, he tells us, he had a miserable time mainly because other children mocked his size:

... all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.
Mass refusal of unasked love; that works. Boys cheered as seventeen-
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying ridicule.

Many of the poems in the book deal with the various ways that people can be dehumanised and the author’s own experiences — apart from being an obsessive concern — are meant to be a central example. The theme of suffering which they introduce is extended to the group from which Murray springs — white, rural, working-class Australians — what he, with a kind of sarcastic pride, calls ‘Rednecks’. Since most of the media are middle-class and metropolitan, ‘Redneck’ is a powerful term of abuse mainly targeted at the rural poor. Irish readers will know the term from our own overheated conversations about culture and politics (examples are such political books as Desmond Fennell’s Nice People And Rednecks and John Waters’ Jiving At The Crossroads). Murray’s Redneck, however, is a cultural hero — misunderstood but straightforward, embattled but dignified — a cross between a Redskin and a refusenik.

A pronounced communalist strain, of the kind one often finds in old-fashioned Catholic writers, runs through his work. Murray is against big economics, big government, big media and especially against the city-slickers who work on their behalf. He is for Catholicism, Aboriginals, Rednecks, farming, deserts, water-gardening, eccentric learning, and cows. He is fiercely territorial, always talking about coming into his own kingdom, returning to a place from which he draws physical and spiritual sustenance — ‘Our croft, our Downs/ our sober, shining land’ as one poem puts it.

Murray’s enemies are never believable as people. Monarchists, in the poem ‘The Swarm’, are pictured as bunch of thoughtless drone-bees, while Murray’s side, the Republicans, sail by on an almost transcendental plane: ‘We must love and bypass them, like Nature’. Because he romanticises everything which he likes and demonises everything which he doesn’t, Murray’s view of the world has a cartoon-like naïvete, pitching his plain-speaking, Christian water-gardeners against the Australian government, political correctness and the mainstream media.

He is hardly alone in feeling embattled, and there are many who would agree with his choice of enemies. But that is not the point. What matters is the way in which one’s grievances are expressed, and Murray’s satire is nearly always vulgar:

Higamus hogamus
Western intellectuals
never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.

What would — what could — a Jewish atheist make of this? The reference to Auschwitz seems to be deliberately provocative, deliberately politically incorrect, as if saying ‘I know I’m not supposed to say this — and isn’t it brave of me!’ But to write a poem about something so serious, partly so that one will be admired in this way, is clearly crass. Murray seems to think ‘a poem should be mean, not be.’ Behind the poem, a long way in the distance, is a debate one might usefully pursue (what is the meaning of Auschwitz, or any other atrocity, in a Godless universe?) but Murray’s shock tactics obliterate any hope of pursuing it.

What seems typical of the book is the way that it misjudges the use of ‘shocking’ material. Every half-bright schoolchild learns the value of startling juxtapositions in poems. Murray, at times, seems to have learned of no other kind of juxtaposition. This is why the book contains lots of ill-tempered references to Fascism. Anything or anyone who looks at him sideways gets tarred with the Nazi brush — one gets the impression that if Murray’s car refused to start he would spray swastikas over it. For instance, the poem ‘Rock Music’, which verges on the incoherent, tries to make some sort of elision between sex, music and fascism. But on what level is this supposed to exist, except in the kind of vague generalisations which one might see in a Sunday magazine:

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?

Ignore that terrible repetition of ‘but’. Murray seems to want to exist here on the level of pubtalk, where all is hyperbole, where arguments lack all definition. The poem with its opening sentence ‘Sex is a Nazi’ seems to aim for the kind of shocking colloquialism of Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’. ‘Sex pitched for crowds’ is hardly the most ringing definition of Nazism (which would be more appropriate) and certainly not of a Nazi. Many of the other satirical poems are merely sour:

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.

The argument, in so far as there is one, lacks coherence. War is not self-righteous though the warriors engaged in it may be, so the simile misfires. Satire cannot form a gang, although satirists can. And from the point of view of sound the expression ‘People’s Australia’ might better be replaced with ‘peopled’. Of certain rugby players, old-fashioned prop forwards in particular, it can be said that however much they like charging through the mud, shouldering the opposition aside and simply ‘being physical’, the ball itself is always going to be a liability. For Murray the technical aspects of poetry are like the ball in rugby. They are not aids to self-expression but obstacles which must be overcome.

What this book shows is that however well-intentioned it is to subvert stereotypes, it is always a risky process. In the act of subversion, the original stereotype becomes lodged — a bone in the throat which may never be removed. And the effect of engagement may simply be to exchange one shallow image for another. The trouble with stereotypes and cliches is not that they are accurate or inaccurate.They are usually true in so far as they go. The point is that they are never deeply true or deeply false. One must also remember that although we may be able to change them, we are not able entirely to do without them. Our knowledge, as William James put it, grows in spots. Everyone needs a thumbnail picture of a whole range of things, anything from aardvarks and Albania to zygotes and ZZ Top.

Murray likes to let his favourite words (God, Truth, Presence, Grace) stand in for the articulation of ideas, like imposing Stonehenge slabs, which he plonks into poems with gay abandon. The intention is to create an impression of weight and depth, the words are supposed to say something just by turning up. But the actual effect is jarring. The slabs seem pointless and out of place as a Spanish monastery transplanted, stone by stone, to California:

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

After the portentous first line, we get a very shallow variation on the argument from design. This variation makes no attempt to be plausible, although it makes a considerable effort to sound plausible. Instead it arranges some of the more emotive surface aspects of the argument — one is left with a loose configuration of important-sounding words. All sorts of objection can be raised to it — Why should an afterlife be timeless? Do inequality and injustice also require the timeless? In what sense do they require it? In what sense is the term ‘real’ being used? And so on.

Murray is at his strongest when he is simply observing and describing. Probably the most winning poem in the book is ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’, which takes as its subject his autistic child and simply catalogues, with a real sense of expertise, the unusual ways in which the child behaves:

When he worshipped fruit, he screamed as if poisoned when it was fed to him.
A one-word first conversation: Blane. — Yes! Plane, that’s right baby! — Blane.
He has forgotten nothing and remembers the precise quality of experiences.
It requires rulings: Is stealing very playing up, as bad as murder?
He counts at a glance not looking. And he has never been lost.

What Murray best likes to describe is water for which he can usually find any number of adjectives (‘Wash water, cattle water, irrigation-pipe-tang water/ and water of the Kyle’) and which is a feature of two of the book’s more impressive poems,’Water-gardening in an Old Farm Dam’ and ‘The Warm Rain’. Both of these are catalogues of warm observations and both have a sharply circumscribed subject. The second is probably preferable because the first person narrator is relatively anonymous — in a Murray poem ‘I’ is usually a herald of self-pity and sentimentality. Nevertheless in each poem the narrator interjects with a deliberatly naive exclamation of the kind which the later Heaney sometimes uses: ‘I love green, humanised water’; ‘I love it all, I agree with it.’ Objects and situations receive, whether they like it or not, a kind of bardic imprimatur. Perhaps one is supposed to read this as some kind of hard-won simplicity. A lot of the time it just sounds like babytalk.

Murray’s reputation did not come out of thin air. The much more impressive early poems from the 1960s are cooler in tone, moving through long stately sentences with a more conventional and careful use of grammar. He showed a capacity (long since lost or repressed) for formal ingenuity in the fine sequence ‘Walking To The Cattle Place’. An example of the attractive sound-patterns the early style sometimes created is the beginning of ‘The Fire Autumn’ from 1969’s The Weatherboard Cathedral:

The walls of the country this year, the forest escarpments,
the seacoast stump-mountains are fired with amber and buff
like autumn in the Jura, October legends of fall,
some hilltops are sailing the storm-rains with almost bare poles
and the logs that still smoulder in gullies are not far from mist.

Sonorous though they are, these early works never give the impression of total mastery, and when they try to be satirical they can be as crude and ugly as his later material. Because Murray, early or late, never quite attains a stable, original voice, one is quite conscious of the echoes within them:

Watching from the barn the seedlight and nearly-all-down
currents of a spring day, I see the only lines bearing
consistent strain are the straight ones: fence, house corner,
outermost furrows. The drifts of grass coming and canes
are whorled and sod-bunching, are issuant with dusts.
The wind-lap outlines of lagoon are pollen-concurred
and the light rising out of them stretches in figments and wings.

Beneath the Yeatsian title of this (‘Thinking About Aboriginal Land Rights I Visit The Farm I will Not Inherit’) this shunts pleasantly along the same grooves of diction as one finds in sixties Heaney. This is because the Irish and Australian poets both owe a lot to the outlook of Wordsworth, the diction of Hopkins and the rhythms of Dylan Thomas.

Even in these mostly descriptive poems, with their defiantly rural subject matter, Murray’s habit of creating awful neologisms is to be found. In the course of his career he has created ‘moveless’, ‘abolishment’, ‘alma-matricide’, ‘mattressphere’, ‘Neverwhere’, ‘sound-proletariat’, ‘ever-dive’, ‘unsmell’, and, best of all perhaps, ‘pee-submissive’.

In a related way, his aphorisms can be remarkably daft: ‘Modernism’s not modern: it’s police and despair’, ‘The horror of Time is, that people don’t snap out of it’, ‘an idea is always a social climb’, ‘We’re remarkable and not;/ we’re the ordinary discovered on a strange planet’, ‘A human is a comet streamed in language far down time’.

Murray now seems to conceive of poetry as a mildly transparent code, a way of recasting something ordinary (‘it’s raining out’) in a peculiar way (‘now is wetfall’). As a conception of poetry this is not the worst, and at least it shows that he does have some conception of it. But against other notions of what poetry might be about (for example: precision, compression, conversation, truth, beauty) it looks weak.

The reason why poetry as code now seems to appeal to Murray is partly to do with the ideology of the book. Its brand of well-spoken Redneckery requires a language of exclusion, even if Murray is the only one who speaks it. Murray affects the satirical manner of a public poet at times when this book is really a longing for withdrawal — a backing into the Outback. It is not an attempt to persuade anybody to come onto his side — the only person being persuaded by what is going on is Murray himself. Murray is not trying to convert me or anyone else to his side. He is scarcely even trying to connect. I suspect, therefore, that this is a bad book. I know it leaves me ‘moveless’.

This review first appeared in Metre magazine No. 2, available from David Wheatley, Department of English, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
The guest editor for the special Australian section of that issue of Metre was Simon Caterson.

John Redmond is a poet and critic, and the assistant editor of Thumbscrew magazine, PO Box 657, Oxford OX2 6PH, United Kingdom. His first collection of poems, Thumb’s Width, is due from Carcanet in January 2001. He has a homepage on the Internet at

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