Book excerpt

New Selected Poems

Les Murray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Les Murray is the author of twelve 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.

The Burning Truck

 

i.m. 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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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 –

nothing happens.

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.

4

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 loudly – yet 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.

 

Copyright © 2007, 2012, 2014 by Les Murray