Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

Dog Fox FieldDog Fox Field by Les Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic:
poetry is presence.

Give this man a Nobel Prize! Why not?—are we not long overdo for an Australian? for an Anglophone poet? It would be an interesting political gesture too, given that Murray’s nuanced politics, expressed in this volume as a series of compelling socio-historical critiques, do not very well overlap the Left-Right spectrum. They could perhaps be least-confusingly captioned as “the Left of the Right”:


Honey gave sweetness
to Athens and Rome,
and later, when splendour
might rise nearer home,

sweetness was still honey
since, pious or lax,
every cloister had its apiary
for honey and wax

but when kings and new doctrines
drained those deep hives
then millions of people
were shipped from their lives

to grow the high sugar
from which were refined
frigates, perukes, human races
and the liberal mind.

Not a happy ending, according to Les. For him anti-capitalism and cultural conservatism are of a piece; a kind of Chestertonian democrat, he praises all creation and gives the praise, as the dedication goes, “to the glory of God.” This is a poetry that judges social trends (see “The Fall of Aphrodite Street,” a perhaps unseemly lament/celebration over AIDS’s rollback of the sexual revolution, during which corrupt scholars “taught that everything outstanding / was knobs on a skin machine”) but never people.

Like a good postcolonial critic, Murray blames it all on the eighteenth century (“That’s the Enlightenment: Surface Paradise”) and on the English (see “In Murray’s Dictionary,” in which the eighteenth-century vanishing from the language of the word aplace as away‘s antonym indexes the development of capitalism and imperialism: a maritime elite uproots itself and spreads its disease of nowhereness over the globe). A clever and hilarious poem about Hollywood (“Manners of the Supranation”) brings it all up to date, even if the final long poem indulges a bit of post-Cold-War optimism before Murray’s religion saves him from dull ’90s meliorism: “Has the miracle come, the full stop of peace? To hope so is sound— / but bad and unwritten poetry do make the world go round / and God, to save your freedom, must only be privately found.” And anyway, like a good reactionary or else a good anarchist (and maybe that’s what we should call him: Tory Anarchist), Murray finds no meaningful difference between communism and capitalism (see “To the Soviet Americans”) so perceives nothing much to celebrate in the triumph of one or the other.

But we didn’t come here to talk just about politics. Murray, convinced that “nowhere” is no good option, does places, flora and fauna, weather and landscape, which he argues becomes part of the human world—see “Assimilation of Background”—and see also this:


A window glimmering in wheeltracked clay
and someone skipping on the windowsill;
spins of her skipping-rope widen away.
She is dancing light and water
out of the cold side of the hill
and I’ve brought rhyme to meet her;
rhyme has been ill.

Murray is not interested in difficulty for its own sake, and has somewhat disingenuously repudiated modernism, but he loves to play with sounds and to find beautiful and interesting metaphors, both of these very much for their own sakes, as metaphor and sound-likeness are the essence of poetry. (I guess one would most readily compare him to Hopkins.) For me, though, this makes some of his more Australia-specific poems opaque, if beautiful. But Murray writes of people and animals too; there is a poem from the cows’ point of view (“All me have just been milked”), a poem about a “farmer at fifty,” and an especially poignant one called “The Torturer’s Apprentice” that shows how social exclusion has to potential to create monsters. There is a whimsical self-portrait, “The Up-to-Date Scarecrow.” Murray also does history: there are poems about nineteenth-century Ottoman politics, about a Hapsburg horseman, about a seventeenth-century naval battle, about soldiers in the Second World War. In one of my favorites, the first, an Australian town is transported building by building, to a new location: “Relativities / interchanged our world like a chess game,” for what is the world for Murray but changeable in its God-given constancy? In another poem, he takes the “Hastings Rivers Cruise” and imagines it as it was during a famous murder in 1826. Poems about how skyscrapers are mirrors, poems about a passenger plane with a mid-flight emergency, poems about spiderwebs, about airports, a poem that is a kind of vernacular tale of humorous revenge…what can’t Les Murray write a poem about?

Somebody or other once distinguished between two kinds of poets. The one kind, the stylist, has certain words or classes of words that will never get into his or her poetry; the other, the universalist, will find a place for every word in the language. Virgil as against Homer; Jonson as against Shakespeare; Tennyson as against Whitman. Murray is of the latter kind.

This is a collection, a “slim volume,” but Murray, in keeping with his commitment to infinite variety, his higher Catholicism, does not seem to be one of those poets who uses the collection as a unit. The unity here is not unity of form, subject, or imagery, but rather of sensibility—an outlook on life. The title poem, though, must carry some weight. The phrase “dog fox field” comes from the history of World War II, in which the Nazi test for “feeblemindedness” consisted of the ability to invent a sentence containing those word. For Murray, Dog Fox Field is the name of a location, the uniquely modern killing field where those are sent who cannot measure up to the smug standard of reason. Poetry, which makes up all sorts of phrases that do not make rational sense and cannot satisfy the capitalist/communist rationalizers from Planet Enlightenment, is thus the name of resistance to this monitory modernity, the escape from Dog Fox Field via its very invention, its naming by the poet, whose language finds a place for everyone and everything, a place Murray has elsewhere called “the vernacular republic,” but a place on no map, atopic and utopic, apolitical as grace.

(And I have some more quotes at my Tumblr if you’re interested.)

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