BOOK REVIEW / Glory be to God for babbled things: Translations from the natural world - Les Murray: Carcanet, pounds 6.95

Click to follow
IN 1986 Les Murray, the best poet Australia has ever had, left Sydney to return to rural New South Wales, where he was brought up. Since then his defence of the values of 'home' and 'love' has seemed less like a battle (against, for example, 'most modern writing') than like the musings of a religious man in his element. No doubt the reclamation for himself of a more natural life lies behind the project of his new book, which aims to deliver and celebrate what he calls the 'Presence' of a number of animals and plants. But this is no ordinary nature-watching. Presence - defined by a sunflower as 'Why we love what we cannot eat or mate with' - is a simultaneous sign of self and God, like the 'instress' of another Catholic poet, Gerard Hopkins. Murray's nature poems are blooms off his faith (and the stronger for that).

Most of the poems are monologues, which sets a special challenge. In an earlier poem, 'Bat's Ultrasound', Murray brilliantly invented speech for bats, whose only consonant was the 'r' in 'air' ('a rare ear' and so on), and here he finds appropriate (though less extreme) mutations of the languages even for bushes and ticks. At one level, this is a matter of fitting meaning to noise, and the full orchestra of the zoo is masterfully rendered, from the 'Octave of Elephants' ('Dawn and sundown we know you, Jehovah Brahm, / who allow us to intone our ground bass in towering calm') to the scrambled hum of mating insects. Murray is in this respect the equal of his lyre bird, nature's mimic, who can simulate (among everything else) 'a triller like a rill mirrored lyrical to a rim'.

But in other pieces what is being transmitted has no audible equivalent in the untranslated world (like the scent-language of dogs - ' 'Me]' assents his urine'); here the virtuosity is that of imaginative characterisation. Thus Murray conceives of pigs before slaughter as brutalised simpletons ('Us never knowed like slitting nor hose-biff then') and of the echidna as sleep on the move ('I am trundling doze / and wherever I put it / is exactly right'); he sees the individuality of fish submerged in the team reflex of 'The Shoal':

Eye-and-eye eye an eye

Each. What blinks is I,

Unison of the whole shoal. Thinks:

a dark idea circling by -

again the eyes' I winks.

If this isn't great poetry, it has the trick of some great poems, of making the accidents of rhyme and assonance look as though they were designed for the poem's purpose.

The plant poems are no less intriguing in their strangeness and variety. But, in general, the fatter the subject, the more contiguity with Murray's social poetry. Compare, for instance, 'Mother Sea Lion' - 'My pup has become myself / yet I'm still present' - with the effect of his daughter's marriage vows in one of eight framing 'human' poems: 'They move you to the centre of life / and us gently to the rear'. Yet while this book is the least solemn, least predictable updating of an unfashionable genre, the Hymn in Praise of Creation, it is also a powerful exhibition of the undiminished Presence of its own author.