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A Sprawl of Poems That Hurt and Heal


THE VERNACULAR REPUBLIC: SELECTED POEMS by Les A. Murray, New York, Persea Books, 102 pp. $8.95.

DAYLIGHT MOON AND OTHER POEMS by Les A. Murray, New York, Persea Books, 111 pp. $17.95, cloth; $9.95, paper.

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LES MURRAY is a proud Australian. He chafes against the colonial past of Australia. His ``New Oxford Book of Australian Verse,'' published in 1986, was meant to demonstrate that Australia has a poetry all its own. It succeeded. It includes a generous selection of Aboriginal songs. There are also pieces from the Dulngulg song cycle and tabi (occasional songs) from northwest Australia. One also comes upon, with a start, some poets whom one had thought were English because of their prominence. Peter Porter for example.

Throughout, the spirit of the place is palpable, as in Robert Gray's fine opening: ``Once, playing cricket, beneath a toast-dry hill'' (from ``Curriculum Vitae'').

Murray's fierce independence is summed up in the title of his selected poems, ``The Vernacular Republic.'' It points away from the King's English toward a quality he calls, with fierce good humor, ``sprawl.'' Over against colonial niceness and precision, sprawl suggests his ironic uncouthness.

But, as Murray practices it, sprawl is not easy. His poetic sprawl is manifest, for example, in the range of genre and styles. Sometimes he gives us Hopkins (or is it Whitman?), as in ``Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels''; sometimes Ben Johnson (or is it John Crowe Ransom?), as in ``Proud heart, since the light of making lace/ for an exiled prince died in your eyes''; sometimes it's a chastened Wordsworth, as in ``It is good to come out after driving and walk on bare grass.''

Sprawl - shown in Murray's range of styles and his big, roomy voice - may suggest a relaxed point of view. But the depth of his feelings is revealed in caustic wit. He is very good at wielding the satirical whip. His targets always survive his flaying, just barely. His rage at those who relegate others comes out in ``The Doorman'': ``He is a craftsman, and these are his tools:/ unyielding correctness, thin mouth, a nose for clout,/ modulations of boredom...'' Notice how plain description modulates into something subtler.

In Murray's most recent book, ``The Daylight Moon,'' we see further dimensions of sprawl. As he says in the opening poem, ``Sprawl is the quality/ of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce/ into a farm utility truck..'' He opposes British class not with democratic mass but with the specific need of the hour. Sprawl is not universally condoned. The poem ends: ``It may have to leave the Earth./ Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek/ and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.'' Sprawl, then, is a moral stance, as well as an aesthetic one.

Murray's rough Christianity - sometimes sprawl seems to be his name for charity - is committed to giving voice to those who have been shot - or shot at - for practicing sprawl. In ``Easter 1984'' it would appear that Jesus may be among them. The poem begins menacingly, ``When we saw human dignity/ healing humans in the middle of the day/ we moved in on him slowly/ under the incalculable gravity/ of old freedom, of our own freedom.... If this was God, we would get even.'' Later he calls Jesus ``the companionway of our species.'' Murray has said that one of his heroes is ``Grandfather Hesiod,'' the ancient Greek poet, the ``farmer poet,'' who challenged the epical, heroic, military tradition of Homer.

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Murray's poems are big, worldly things that may put off poetry readers habituated to the romantic, self-preening minimalism still in fashion on either side of the Atlantic. Relax, and read about ``the angel/ poverty wrestles with in vast places/ to know the power of abandon/ people want, with control, to touch/ when they tell hillbilly stories...'' (from ``Fastness''). His way is the ancient way of the wise man who speaks for a people, giving voice to their desires to be more true to themselves.

As he says in the last poem of ``The Daylight Moon,'' ``I travel a road cut through time/ by bare feet and boots without socks...'' That hurts, and that heals.

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