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Anchored in the local earth

John Tranter reviews

««Lunch and Counter Lunch» by Les Murray

This review was first published in «The Australian», 2 November 1974
Provenance: this text was scanned and edited by John Tranter in 2008.

The avant-garde internationalist may find the scent of gum leaves a little overpowering in this book…

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Les Murray’s fourth book of verse, Lunch and Counter Lunch, is much what one would expect from this talented and hard-working writer. In it the themes of his earlier books are continued, developed, varied and amplified.


The farming and forest country of his youth is much in evidence again, in the shape of anecdotes, yarns, family histories and careful meditations. Seven poems about the police construct a many-sided picture of the town and the country cop and their ambiguous status both in myth and in grimy reality.


There is a delightful portrait of a Hungarian exiled in old age and Australia, a rather too clever sequence of sonnets about the poet’s days at Sydney University, a witty and extended exercise on the theme of broadbeans, a poem about aqualung diving (for a Japanese battleship) that spreads through a wide field of references — the book is extremely varied, yet held together by Murray’s forceful personality.


The centre of the book’s landscape is the farm country of the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Murray excels in the description of country people, as in The Edge of the Forest and the family portrait Their Cities, Their Universities, and in the precise rendering of landscape, as in Escaping Out There and Cycling in the Lake Country.


All the poems in the book — and they are many and varied — show both a wit that is instinctively Australian and a type of insight peculiar to this author: a blend of the religious and the cultural-historical, anchored firmly in the local earth.


As he says, “Who am I to throw clay / at a Valiant abandoned in glare / stripped raw and daubed CONSTIPATED — CANT PASS A THING / we are a colloquial nation . . .”, and, in the same poem, “No ruins in Australia? / Here are the ruins of seas / and ruins in the mouth.”


The nationalistic tone evident in some of his earlier work has become less jingoistic and more thoughtful, and each poem in this book is worth careful consideration. The language is sometimes complicated, but always accurate, and the thinking behind the many statements that the poems give out is the result of an intelligence that is both logical and sensitive.


Les Murray represents no particular school, and, viewed in the context of specifically 20th-century poetry, his verse seems not so much unique as individualist, not so much parochial as indigenous, not so much “modern” as contemporary.


His virtues lie in an honest simplicity and a wry storyteller’s wit, in a sophisticated linguistic skill and a plain yet flexible vernacular.


Where he is self-conscious, it is a case of the writer being a little self-conscious about himself — his humor, his knowledge of the bush and its lore, his ability to yarn — never the poem being excessively conscious about its own place in the modern scheme of things.


I think it is not unfair to say that he aims, in the main, to speak to many people, and has chosen his implements with that broad target very much in mind. His poems can be read with enjoyment and understanding by young and old.


It is worth noting, though, that there has been a growing interest in current overseas experiment among many of the younger local writers and readers of poetry, and it is difficult to fit Murray anywhere into this picture, so localised are many of his concerns.


The avant-garde internationalist may find the scent of gum leaves a little overpowering in this book, and the author’s insistence on a carefully articulated “plain speech” a definite limitation to areas of experiment and possible discovery.


Yet the book’s virtues speak for themselves, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. In all, Lunch and Counter Lunch offers a varied, well-balanced and nourishing diet of home-grown poems.

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