The Three Crosses Monument in Gdansk, Poland, memorializes the shipyard workers killed on Black Thursday in 1970. While it honors those who died resisting Communism, the monument is also inscribed with a warning from “You Who Wronged,” by Czesław Miłosz: “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.” With the eyes of a poet, the great Australian writer Simon Leys remembered what he saw in Mao’s China. He lanced the bamboo curtain drawn over the Cultural Revolution and crossed swords with Mao apologists in the West. When he addressed the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Leys lectured on “Lies That Tell the Truth.” With self-deprecation, he admitted that his audience would forget his remarks but urged them to remember the epigraph of his lecture, supplied by the late Australian poet Les Murray: “To think clearly in human terms you have to be impelled by a poem.” Miłosz’s Poland was caught between Hitler and Stalin. But in Leys’s peaceful, prosperous Australia, Murray resisted the tandem enemies of memory: distance and time.
The Australian poet Banjo Paterson’s classic “Clancy of the Overflow” tracks a lone stockman on a long cattle drive: “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.” The bush consoles Clancy in the midst of a vast solitude in the Great South Land as “he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plain extended,/ And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.”
Murray works within this poetic memory stretching back to aboriginal Australia, a lineage which also includes the natural poets aboard the First Fleet:
Europe’s boats on their first strange shore looked humble
but, Mass over, men started renaming the creatures.
(“Second Essay on Interest: The Emu”)
Murray’s obituarists remembered him as Australia’s greatest poet. Paterson, the great bush balladist, is his most formidable rival for the title. In 1895, Paterson authored the unofficial Aussie national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda,” and a century later Murray was asked to provide a draft preamble to the country’s constitution. Paterson’s “Man from Snowy River” holds a place in Australian memory similar to “Paul Revere’s Ride” in New England’s. Longfellow’s rider raced a warning past the British. Paterson’s riders are roused to rope the prized “colt from old Regret” running free with the wild brumbies. A young rider, the symbol of Australia in her national adolescence, strains to keep up with a troop of leathery veterans trying to head off the horses before they reach the shelter of the hills. Approaching the climax of the poem, Paterson’s old hero returns to lend a hand:
So Clancy rode to wheel them—he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stockhorse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With the stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.
Paterson wrote poems you can sing from memory. In “Kiss of the Whip,” Murray helps us quietly remember:
For ten or twelve thousand
years this was the sonic barrier’s
one human fracture. Whip-cracking is that:
thonged lightning making the leanest thunder.
Indeed, the things Murray helps us remember are so familiar that they are often forgotten. In the kitchen: “one of the milder borders/ of the just endurable/ is the squint taste of a lemon.” In the shower: “that toga/ worn on either or both shoulders, fluted drapery, silk whispering to the tiles/ with its spiralling frothy hem continuous round the gurgle-hole.” At play: “lawn bowlers step down clutching their nuclei.” On the page: “Lying back so smugly/ phallic, the ampersand/ in the deckchair of itself.”
While a student at the University of Sydney in the 1950s, Murray was fascinated by the Catholic Church’s “intransigent defiance of all ordinary contemporary thinking,” and he converted from his family’s Free Kirk Presbyterianism. In his conversion, he was preceded by James McAuley, the founder of Quadrant, Australia’s leading literary and cultural journal. McAuley was a Cold Warrior poet whose expressive pathos is best shown in “Pietà.” Writing after the death of his day-old newborn, McAuley preserves the only memory that he and his wife have of their sixth child:
One touch, and that was all
She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible,
Are those made with the Cross.
Murray’s faith provided him new vicarious memories pulled from the long living tradition of the Church. “The Sacrament, which it refused to water down to a mere metaphor, drew me especially,” he wrote in his memoir; “without such vertically steep walls of claim, where could we rejects go for shelter?” After his son is diagnosed with autism, Murray the misfit suddenly remembers his own tics and tendencies in “The Tune on Your Mind”:
Asperges me hyssopo
the snatch of plainsong went,
Thou sprinklest me with hyssop
was the clerical intent,
not Asparagus with hiccups
and never autistic savant.
Murray lived to see Australia’s first saint canonized on his birthday. In “The Canonisation,” he recalls the saintly sacrifices of his fellow Scotch-Australian:
Mary MacKillop, born 1842,
what are the clergy giving you
on my birthday, Mother Mary?
Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of Australian icon?
Well yes. Black flies in the buggy.
Bush pianos. The cheek-sawing wimple
in summer: you did do local penance.
Murray dedicated each of his books: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. He wrote down his memories under the wondrous glory of the stars of the Southern Cross. He never forgot the words of another poet who composed in the shadow of the cross: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Les Murray died on April 29, 2019.