The Biplane Houses by Les Murray
Black Inc., 2006
Given the title of Les Murray's latest book, you'd perhaps expect that 'The Shining Slopes and Planes' – the poem in which the term “biplane houses” appears – would provide a key to unlocking this collection. In a sense it does: the poem evokes a runway full of simple Australian houses, entities that appear the least likely to sprout wings, organic or mechanistic, and fly. The poem implies that it is the people within these houses that possess the possibility for a non-literal take off, a spiritual or at least psychological flight. But for this reviewer the poem 'The Tune on Your Mind' offers a more satisfying access point to Murray's first collection with Black Inc.
This poem reveals that Murray has the Autism Spectrum Disorder known as Asperger's Syndrome. This condition is a higher functioning form of autism than the one from which his son suffers and that Murray wrote about in 'It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen' from Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996). People with Asperger's Syndrome have encyclopedic memories pertaining to special interest areas. They also tend to dominate conversations with monologues due to an inability to understand conversational cues; and they struggle to empathise with others. Therefore, they must apply special rules for communication and engagement in order to function in social settings. In addition to all this, they don't suffer fools gladly. Murray lists these aspects of the disorder in 'The Tune on Your Mind':
Lectures instead of chat. The want
of people skills. The need for Rules.
Never towing a line from the Ship of Fools.
The avoided eyes. Great memory.
Horror not seeming to perturb –
Hyssop can be a bitter herb.
Here Murray appears to acknowledge the fact that he suffers from a condition that is likely to have made a strong contribution to the Les Murray that many in Australian literary circles (and beyond) have viewed as a caustic and relationally difficult man. The poem, while not an apology, appears to offer at least an explanation for his personality traits. It documents a moment of self-awareness and in so doing becomes an act of sharing. Some, however, may see the poem as merely offering excuses.
Regardless, it's interesting to reflect on what the poem can tell us about Murray the poet, as well as Murray the person (not that Murray or anyone else can be divided up in this way). His last three collections, while containing some outstanding poems, have tended to lecture, the “lectures instead of chat” that 'The Tune on Your Mind' emphasises. To paraphrase the storytelling dictum, there has been a predisposition in Murray's recent poetry (some might say in all his poetry) to tell readers about the universe, rather than show it to us.
Murray can be playful; he employs an alien's view of earth that can produce some astonishing imagery. His description of foals and other flora and fauna in 'Pastoral Sketches' in this collection is an example. But there hasn't been lately, for this reviewer, enough of a personal sense of mystery flowing from Murray and into his work. There has been more the sense that life, God, the natural world, people, religion and politics are mysterious; but, unfortunately, the reader has been compelled to merely 'listen' to the poetic phenomenon known as 'Les Murray' to have these mysteries explained to them. Perhaps Murray has, more so than ever, taken on the mantle of prophet for Australians in our “biplane houses”.
I've mentioned the need to access and unlock Murray's poetry. It may be that those with huge intellects, steeped in learning – whether in Australian and/or world history, etymology, poetics, religion and politics – have little trouble accessing Murray's poetry. But the truth of the matter is that Murray, for mere mortals, is a difficult poet. But because he is labelled Australia's premier poet, he remains the poet to whom many non-poetry readers turn to get a handle on 'what's happening in Australian poetry'. And that's a bit like deciding to get in touch with postmodernism by making Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology your first port of call; or, having never polished off a supermarket wine, deciding you'll wrap your lips around a bottle of Grange to get a taste for Australian wine.
Murray's cadence may become easier to navigate once the reader has heard him recite his poems. Even then, however, you can become entangled rather than liberated by his punch and swagger, given his penchant for interchanging line endings and traditional punctuation as points of emphasis. In 'A Leviathan of Land', for example:
As the Inland was passing over
lungless flies quizzing road kill
got clogged with aerial plaster
Is the 'Inland' passing over lungless flies? Or are the lungless flies doing their quizzing below the Inland's pass? Or both? Personally, I don't mind; it all works to bend, twist and turn the image into itself and out again. But when this meandering happens regularly in Murray's work (and to even more entangling degrees), you can find yourself pulling up when perhaps the poet would prefer you rolled on. At its best this kind of line ending sleight-of-hand creates fascinating juxtapositions. At its worst, combined with difficult syntax and obscure subject matter and punning, you feel like you're reading end-on-end cryptic crossword clues.
But back to 'The Tune on Your Mind'. The poem describes how Asperger's has the unfortunate side-effect of making a person a conversational lecturer. And The Biplane Houses has plenty of poems that do this, such as 'The Test', 'The Statistics of Good' and 'Airscapes'. These are strong poems in themselves, but the reader could be left with the sense of having a natural phenomenon or political reality explained for them rather than opened up and prodded. Thankfully, there are also poems in this collection that adhere to the essay form, one that Murray has made his own in his long career. If he constructed his 'lecture' poems as 'essays' this would be a stronger collection, as he has done in 'A Levitation of the Land':
Teenagers in the tan foreshortening
regained, for moments, their child voices,
and in the double image, Vanuatu to New Zealand
an echo-Australia gathered out on the ocean
having once more scattered itself from its urn.
The sense the poem offers is of Australia as a kind of floating continent in Asia/the world; unclear of its place, unable to assert or understand its identity. Murray in the space of six stanzas presents a meditation on our culture stronger and deeper than many sociologists could produce in numerous books; or lectures.
When he doesn't lecture and instead dialogues with the reader (and the universe, God, nature, etc) Murray is outstanding. At his best, he deserves the plaudits that are heaped upon him. The fun and games punning and language poetry of 'Black Belt' and 'A Dialect History of Australia'; the incomparable imagery, sensitivity (in all senses of the word) and intelligence in 'The Nostril Songs' and 'Lattice Door'; the imagistic engagements with history and present Australian culture in 'On the Central Coast Line', 'On the North Coast Line' and 'The Newcastle Rounds' – these works confirm for us Murray's reputation for grandeur, tautness, passion and political sensibility; a sensibility far more complex than that suggested by many of his critics.
Despite this, however, Murray still sets up a 'good vs. evil' battle between city and country. I don't have space here to elucidate this ongoing theme in Murray's work except to say that, despite the obvious quality of poems such as 'Lifestyle', it's hard to reconcile the fact that Australia's premier poet doesn't think much of the reality that 80 percent of the population gathers together in concrete and steel, rather than woodland and pasture. On the other hand Murray is clearly a poet passionate about people. Works such as 'For an 80th Birthday', an unsentimental in-memoriam piece, and 'Barker Unchained', offering a celebration of a friend's life as a teacher, are works full of love and grace. Religious concerns, another regular (but often overlooked) theme in Murray's work are also present in this collection and come to the fore in the collection's opening poem 'Averted', the resurrection poem 'Post Mortem', 'Church' and several others.
While it has its weaknesses, The Biplane Houses reminds us of Murray's strengths and the reasons for so much Australian poetry being measured against his output. The emotional and personal concerns aired in 'The Tune on Your Mind' and the strengths of this collection tell me that, despite the fact that Murray is rounding on 70, his best works may be yet to come.