THE SUNDAY POEM

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Internationally acclaimed Australian master from a farm in New South Wales. His poems slither between tenderness (for human beings and the natural world), razor-sharp description, passionate belief in sacredness, poetry and art, and rage. Uncompromising, strongly crafted, deeply felt, they find (and make) beauty in unexpected places: in human dispossession and ungainliness as well as landscape and animals. With great authority and power, they hold intellectual, social, personal and religious elements fierily in play at once. Many collections, two verse novels and a Collected. The title of his prize-winning Subhuman Redneck Poems stubbornly, unglamorously identifies with the "poor white" underclass from which Murray comes.

This is a specially extended Sunday Poem because with a poem as closely-written as this, every sound, stress, and word has full weight, like tiny pieces of wood in a beautifully-joined chair. It'd be a shame not to show the full works.

The poem, about the agony of taking clothes off, clothes itself in classic shape. Poets today use traditional forms newly. A sonnet must be 14 lines, but may create close relationships between words and thoughts in other ways than rhyme. "A sonnet is eight and six, a waist and a middle", says Seamus Heaney. Murray uses this "waisted" shape in block form, for a poem about not having a waist: about the misery of your own (block) form.

The first eight lines (the "octet"), are physical description with an emotional message. The first syllable ricochets through the octet: back, fatter, strappy, back. The octet's second and second-last lines are the only ones that don't have that short "a". Instead they have short "e": belch, outstretched. Short "i" echoes through fifties, wincing, pit, pistol, families; short "o" in shot, and pocket. The octet is a sonic maze of pistol shot vowels whose aggression is underscored by sharp consonants: "k", "t", "st", back, fatter, step, pit edge, waiting, pistol shot, laughter, pocket; hawk, outstretched, point to point, cars, back.

Deliberately unattractive words (belch) lead to a deliberately unattractive commercial image: greening waves cashing themselves into foam like cheques turned into greenbacks. The metaphor (bitter at the lucrative holiday business) is intellectual, but slides makes it physical. The waves becoming foam are a promise (the cheque) made real in cash: then the foam slithers back into sea. Change is double: both money and transformation (a "sea change", as in Ariel's song from Shakespeare's The Tempest) from wave to foam, and back.

The stop-start rhythm (breaking the line in different places), stresses emotionally key words (they come out if you say it aloud): back, fifties, fatter, step, sand, horror; edge, pistol shot (two stresses, dragging the line over the line break), laughter. It gets the stop-start of waves and the poet's to-and-fro (of action and feeling) summed up in the transferred epithet wincing. Walking, here, is wincing. "W" connects them. Sea edge is pit-edge: the beach which should be paradise is hell.

Ocean profits from this hell. The words She turns turn the spotlight from nature to humanity. Ridicule and Ocean are personified. Ocean, a singular who keeps becoming plural waves, parallels the ridicule which looks down in contempt: the singular idea turns into a plural human actuality (averted faces, families). The singular glare of sun and sea turns into a mocking sea of human eyes.

The poem's first free-flowing line gives an overview of the beach as a hawk's wingspan. Lovely: but in the next line the hawk continues the pursuit suggested in wincing, horror, pistol, averted, glare. The whole beach is hunting the poet. To an English ear (and Australia does have "point to points"), the wings' description suggests a race meeting, adding to the sense of persecutory social gathering. The octet's last word rings back to its first. Front and back, the hunted poet is surrounded by surf. The ocean is persecutory commercial society, the beach a predator looking down on him, the sea of cars more surf. The whole description breathes violence, pursuit, and a savage sense of the outsider, a man marked down, marked out. The title bitterly points out that this alienation always was home.

"Sonnet", says Heaney, "is about movement in a form." Different poems move differently from octet to sestet (the last six lines). In Muldoon's rhymed sonnet, "Quoof", (Sunday Poem No 4), the sestet develops the octet (after sexual suggestiveness at home, sexual experience in a New World), the movement is continuous. Murray's sestet is a move from description to reflection. He has described himself as a reflective rather than lyric poet; one of his big themes is inequality and the way it cripples you. This move accompanies a shift from personal "I" to universal "you". Reflecting on where he came from (emotionally, geographically), the poet moves to other people, inviting readers to share the alienation.

New vowels, binding together the sestet's first two lines, echo a persecuting word in the octet: peer, there, bared, pick up glare. Short vowels echo the octet in more openly aggressive words: pistol and ridicule (again); kills, killed, crippling. The softer consonants also lead to savagery: the "l" of still to ridicule, pistol, kills, killed, crippling, towel, still, smiled, play ball; "p" (peer) to pistol, crippling, play. Both "p" and "l" take us back to sharp "st"s: pistol, gets, spattered, dressed, neatly, still shut, wet T-shirt, and (the climax) breasts.

The last three lines give the octet's persecution-by-glare and hawk a more active menace. Clothed body is a shut mouth, so bared bodies presumably bare their teeth. Relations with other bodies is where the injustice bites. Happy bodies pair off as curved mouths smiled to each other, the only hint of sex in an archetypally sexual scene: but here ridicule is a pistol, women and men are separated by what it does. Smiled recalls ridicule: paired bodies smiling superiorly at the fat. Murray is working towards that lone red (burnt, blushing) boy. When he tries to play ball (join in, join the system, the social gathering), wetness reveals what he cannot bear to bare. The last word, breasts, though prepared for harmonically by dressed and wet, is the big shock. Dressed or not, when wet those awful breasts are exposed. The inequality of bodies will out.

If the octet is a chase, the sestet closes in for the kill (after killed, spattering implies blood), turning ridicule into murder, laughter to slaughter. The victim is both that miserable boy there now, and a revelation of the poet as he was. The pain packed into these lines reaches out to other people.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`On Home Beaches' is taken from Subhuman Redneck Poems, Carcanet Press

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