Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2019

Green Shadows and Other Poems, by Gerald Murnane

As regular readers know, I’m outside my comfort zone when reviewing poetry.  But Gerald Murnane’s poetry is the exact opposite of what I expected: unlike a lot of modern Australian poetry which I find obscure and irrelevant to my interests, Murnane’s poems are not only accessible but also very interesting indeed.

The first one in the book is titled ‘If this is a poem’ and it’s very short…

If this is a poem
I mean, if Lesbia Harford
might not disown
it or Thomas Hardy

might read it through,
then I’ve somehow betrayed
or never knew
my true vocation. (p.1)

Murnane also muses on what he should have written in ‘On first reading William Carlos Williams’ … and in ‘The Darkling Thrush’ he castigates himself for having an emotional response to certain poems, thus being one of those ignorant critics/ who rely on what they call feelingsWhen so much of Murnane’s fiction has exhorted me not to identify the narrator with the author, I hesitate to suggest that these poems are reflections on his own life, yet with many of them it seems impossible to do otherwise.  For, as the blurb tells us, Murnane is now in his eightieth year, and surely here he is reflecting on the directions his writing career has taken…

The blurber is in no doubt that the poems are expressions of authentic memory:

The forty-five poems collected here are in a strikingly different mode to his fiction – without framing or digressions, and with very few images, they speak openly to the reader of the author’s memories, beliefs and experiences. They are for this reason an important addition to his internationally recognised works of fiction, from Tamarisk Row and The Plains to Barley Patch, A Million Windows and Border Districts. [Underlining mine.]

Yet I wonder.  Murnane lives in a small town, and he’s a widower among widows.  So what seem to be recent intimate experiences in the poems ‘Rosalie isn’t speaking’ and ‘Angela is the first’, seem risky to me.  Surely, he writes, she’ll never hear of its being published, unless you, Reader, make bold to inform her.  Just imagine Rosalie — if she exists — reading this:

I can only hope to get over my unease
by finding its true source
by learning why I have this urge to appease
persons of no importance

to me — sorry, Rosalie! (p.15)

And ‘Piss-weak’ might get him into trouble too!

You join what they call a service-club
in a little township to pay the place back
for its welcoming you, so you say, but in fact,
the club recruited you, and you didn’t have the guts

to refuse.  (p.30)

Murnane has made a virtue of inhibition in his fiction: is he now in his old age abandoning that inhibition to express tactless opinions that might see him friendless in Goroke? Whatever for?

Academics who study Murnane will find this collection very revealing, because some poems seem to illuminate the thinking behind his fiction.  This is the blurb again:

The poems include tributes to his mother and father and to his family, and to places that have played a formative role in his life, like Gippsland, Bendigo, Warrnambool, the Western District, and of course Goroke. Especially moving are his poems dedicated to authors who have influenced him – Lesbia Harford and Thomas Hardy, William Carlos Williams, Henry Handel Richardson, Marcel Proust, and with particular force, the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, who gives the collection its title, revered ‘not only for his writings / but for his losing his reason when / he was forced from the district he had wanted as his for life.’

I liked the poems that revealed his thinking about places.  For example, in ‘Ode to Gippsland’ this author of The Plains writes of feeling uneasy in the damp forest when he was more used to the comforting plains of his native district.

I had lived all my life with plains at the back of my mind
and actual plains to my west if I needed to flee
You made me uneasy; your topography seemed awry:
an unwelcoming zone between snow and my enemy, the sea. (p.10)

and in the same poem, recalling how Shakespeare’s Marc Antony/ would sometimes address Cleopatra simply as ‘Egypt, he confesses that …

In the worst of our rages, I called my wife simply ‘Gippsland’. (p.10)

Murnane revisits themes from his fiction such as ambivalent faith in ‘A Certain Sort of Atheist’ and ambivalent sex in ‘There’s no such thing’ but he can also be playful as in ‘The Ballad of G.M.’:

My mother knew her American films;
I was often at her side
And I knew the end was not far off
when she took out her hankie and cried. (p.4)

In the same poem, he reminisces about the stoicism of bush living:

There was never a wind like the wind from the north
that came on us out of the blue
It was nothing to taste the desert all day,
but we saw the summer through. (p.5)

However, I took no pleasure in reading the verse about authors Murnane despises, and didn’t find it ‘moving’ at all, and not just because most of these authors are favourites of mine.  I also didn’t like the scorn in ‘Non-travellers’ for those of us who like to ‘see the world’ and I dislike his characterisation of our treasured memories as trashy recollections of barely known people and places! There’s also an anti-Semitic element in ‘Anzac 2015’ that I didn’t like at all, and it bothers me (a lot) that a literary hero of mine would use it. Best to move on quickly from those ones.

Maria Takolander also reviewed it for the (limited paywall) Saturday Paper.  And in a review that is mostly more about A Season Earth, so did Owen Alexander at the SMH.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Green Shadows and Other Poems
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2019, 104pp
ISBN: 9781925336986
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo, and good bookshops everywhere.

 


Responses

  1. Hm. Disappointing – think I’ll stick to Hardy and WCW

    Like

    • Ah, that reminds me, I forgot to look for other reviews, will do that now…

      Like

  2. It sounds like the lot of the poetry is tongue in cheek… ?

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    • I can’t tell, Kim. All I can say is that it’s utterly unlike his prose!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to admit I hardly ever read poetry. I wouldn’t have a clue how to review it. You did a good job here. I read more when I was younger and was not so old and jaded, haha.

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  4. Honestly, I can’t remember the last book of poetry I read (and have never reviewed any) but I enjoyed the parts you quoted.

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  5. This sounds like an “interesting” read, one that intrigues me but one that with my current pile I’m unlikely to get to (and you’re not encouraging me). I would be intrigued to see if my reactions are the same as yours!! But really, my next Murnane must be Border districts.

    Like

    • Well, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about with Murnane, but I must say that the more of his fiction that you’ve read, the more these poems are going to make sense. I can’t wait to see what you make of Border Districts!

      Liked by 1 person


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