Poems the Size of Photographs

by Les A. Murray
ISBN: 0374235201

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A Review of: Poems the Size of Photographs
by Jana Prikryl

In his 1983 collection, The People's Otherworld, Les Murray swerved from his central preoccupations with nature and his own rural youth to write a series of poems about the modern metropolis. One of those poems stands out today as especially, eerily, prescient:

The iron ball was loose in the old five-storey city
clearing bombsites for them. They rose like
nouveaux accents
and stilled, for a time, the city's conversation.

In that poem Murray concludes with equal clairvoyance that our "glittering and genteel towns" are "more complex in their levels than their heights/ and vibrant with modernity's strange anger."
Twenty years later, Poems the Size of Photographs returns to examine modernity, in general, and those two "bombsites," in particular. In two poems looking back on 9/11, Murray's old mistrust of all things nouveaux is adjusted to make room for his indictment of the alternative: the terrorist attacks arise "from minds that couldn't invent/ the land-galaxies of dot painting// or new breakthrough zeroes, or jazz." As always, Murray's moral position is at once invigorating and consoling, but I read a difference between the 1983 poem and this one that goes beyond his sudden love of technology's "breakthrough zeroes."
The difference runs through this entire collection, and is heralded by its title. These poems are indeed the size of photographs, but having come to love Murray's rambling style, his poems the size of motion pictures, his essays in verse form, I read these slimmer versions as shadows of their predecessors rather than rich new encapsulations. "Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition," Murray wrote in 1987 in a poem called "Poetry and Religion", and most of his forty-year career has been spent realizing the statement. Roughly speaking, the poems that have made his reputation as Australia's leading poet are poems that eye the poetry-as-religion theme from every angle, with wonderfully cluttered, staircasing stanzas that stack details, analogies, anecdotes on top of one another to provide a whole portrait of his subject. Murray's poems work the imagination into a fresh limberness; there is a sense after finishing a bout with his pages that one can think more fully, more inventively, about everything.
Complementing this structural walk-about is soft, supple language. Metaphor possesses Murray: in The Daylight Moon, his 1987 collection, an old-fashioned milk-truck "was the high-tyred barn of crisp mornings,/ reeking Diesel and mammary,/ hazy in its roped interior/ as a carpet under beaters." In one sentence, Murray has fired off four separate metaphors for the milk truck-farm, engine, mother, museum-in a way that miraculously builds rather than confuses the image. Murray tends to sermonize on behalf of the common man (and his opinions are always remarkably sane), but you don't quaff a poem like "The Milk Lorry" to sympathize with those who deliver the stuff; you read it for the variety of ideas tucked into its phrases-"the glancing hold was a magazine of casque armour,/ a tinplate 'tween-decks, a seminar engrossed// in one swaying tradition." His poems offer pretty pictures and new ways of seeing them.
That combination is less abundant in Poems the Size of Photographs. The poems here feel slighter in a way not fully explained by their brevity. Not only does Murray give himself less room to elaborate thoughts and spin visual ideas around them; he also fills the book with dry proverbs and shards of wordplay that don't cohere. In a very nice poem called "Reclaim the Sites", Murray offers alternative names for city streets, but the cleverness becomes too cute:

Radar Strip, Bread-Fragrance Corner,
Fumbletrouser, Delight Bridge, Timeless Square?

"Bread-Fragrance Corner" is lovely, and "Timeless Square" is alright. But "Delight Bridge"? It's filler inside a poem whose toy-like simplicity does not reward further play. Is it a sign of the times that short, one-dimensional poems make this collection feel spiffier and more "modern" than Murray's earlier works? Brevity and simplicity may suggest forward motion in our poetry culture, but the conceits behind most of Murray's new verses are strangely callow.
Many of these poems are less than five lines long, and only a handful resonate with the clear note of haiku. More often, the quickies tend to lecture the reader-as in "The Test", which was disappointingly chosen to conclude the book. Here is the poem in its entirety:

How good is their best?
And how good is their rest?
The first is a question to be asked of an artist.
Both are the questions to be asked of a culture.

It's ironic that Murray ends the book on so pithiless, pedantic a note when earlier in the volume he complained that "Too much/ of poetry is criticism now." Already, critics have kissed such hectoring lines with their quotation marks, probably because the aphoristic mode seems to tap the poet's beliefs so directly. "The Test" makes a wise enough maxim; that it fails as poetry can easily be overlooked.
Poems the Size of Photographs seems deliberately angled to line up with new ideas, modern developments, recent troubles-and this is another of its departures from Murray's more traditional oeuvre, which has concerned itself mainly with landscape, with rural Australia, Murray's youth on a dairy farm, language, art, and religion. As in the past, this volume presents lovely glimpses of nature ("a bolt of live tan water/ is continuously tugged/ off miles of table/ by thunderous white claws"), but you get the sense that nature is no longer alone. The handful of poems that offer a single image of natural scenes free of urban allusions happen to deal with waterfalls, or with rain, with water falling-and in a poet as Christian as Murray, the meaning of such images is transparent. "Brief, that place in the year," he writes,

when a blossoming pear tree
with its sweet laundered scent
reinhabits wooden roads
that arch and diverge up
into its electronic snow city.

That word "electronic" drives a small modern shock through the stanza, and there is a melancholy significance in the poem's placement in the book, too, caught between the two verses about 9/11: brief is that place in the year, indeed.
But with perfect thematic symmetry, Murray offers redemption: some of the loveliest poems in the book deal with the flight of birds. "Humans are flown, or fall;/ humans can't fly," begins a sonnet about animals that "throw the ground away with wire feet." In a poem called "The Body in Physics", injured birds when released "pause a beat/ and drop upwards, into gravity that once more/ blows as well as sucks. Fliers' gravity." In these poems nature redeems our human clay, and Murray partly redeems the flatness of the rest of the book. He leaves room for words to develop an image into clarity, and his aperture opens with exquisite compassion for his subject-as in "Succour", a poem about refugees in a shelter:

It's like a school, and the lesson
has moved now from papers to round
volumes of steaming food
which they seem to treat like knowledge,

re-learning it slowly, copying it
into themselves with hesitant spoons.

Listen to those soothing repetitions: school, moved, volumes, food, seem-culminating with "spoons" at the end of the poem. "Succour" again reinforces the sense that man has sullied the natural order (Adam and Eve, of course, were the first refugees). And if nature is snafu'd, then Poems the Size of Photographs attempts to provide a new language for this state of affairs. The vocabulary Murray invents (or identifies) is one of images, not words-a pessimistic gesture, coming from a poet-but he pulls it off as a lark, with a dash of wit. The book opens on this theme, in fact, with a poem called "The New Hieroglyphics", which provides a list of image-symbols deciphered for inhabitants of the postmodern post-polyglot world. "All peoples are at times cat in water with this language," Murray concludes, "but it does promote international bird on shoulder."
References to pictographs, speech balloons, "the different lexicons," are scattered throughout this collection, signaling Murray's new interest in overt symbols, with the rudimentary nature of human communication in the face of cultural barriers and (more pertinently) cultural conflicts. To embody these messages, Murray deliberately thickens his verbal strokes and inflicts structural simplicity on these poems. "The New Hieroglyphics" is merely a linear list of pictographs, but punchy as many of them are, the result, overall, is a bit monotonous and jejune. This type of wordplay was evident thirty years ago, in Murray's 1974 collection, Lunch and Counter Lunch:

why not name suburbs for ideas
which equally have shaped our years?

I shall play a set of tennis
in the gardens of Red Menace

Shall I scorn to plant a dahlia
in the soil of White Australia?

The difference is that a poem like "The Canberra Suburbs' Infinite Extension" (above) injects a hint of levity, and a dose of leavening, into a volume generally packed with meatier stuff. Poems the Size of Photographs presents much less contrast, in terms of both the weight of its ideas and the forms they take. These new poems are playful and a pleasure to read, but they offer no sense of amazement-of, in Murray's own words, "working always beyond// your own intelligence." I fear Murray had more enlightening (and more prophetic) things to say about modernity in 1983, when he didn't install the theme at the overt centre of his book. This diminutive new volume reminds me uncomfortably of another stanza from 1987's "Poetry and Religion", with its reverence for "the large poem in loving repetition,"-"A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,/ may be like a soldier's one short marriage night/ to die and live by. But that is a small religion."

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