Continuous Creation: Last Poems
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022
Reviewed by Will Carpenter
Published roughly three years after Les Murray’s death in 2019, Continuous Creation: Last Poems is an after-dinner drink: it settles the plenty that preceded it with a small, bold finality—and it is a welcome prolongation of the evening. Murray’s close friend Jamie Grant, who assembled the book, notes in its preface that by the time he could return to the Murray family home in Bunyah after the onset of the Covid pandemic, “the garden outside was overgrown and the living areas were chaotic, but the study where Les had written his poems seemed as if he had just left it.” The three-quarters of a book that Murray’s wife, Valerie, had typed up was tucked in a folder on the center of the poet’s writing desk, while the remaining quarter was pulled from a box containing handwritten drafts and correspondence. From those relatively straightforward circumstances comes a posthumous collection of rather slight images, stories, and histories to punctuate a life of poetry vast and sprawling.
Unlike many poets who lived to see the twenty-first century, Murray was perhaps most recognizable in his writing when his poems blew an object or situation up to such a size that it could contain all else; but Creation regards each of its subjects through a viewfinder, bringing to fruition a shrinking, an isolating emblematized by Poems the Size of Photographs (2003)—where Murray may begin in earnest such parceling up of a world once inexhaustibly whole. In “Windfall,” a poem from Creation, “Kangaroo sleeping / ahead on the road turns out / to be twigs and leaves.” The haiku finds its central mechanism in an instant’s slipping by rather than in its arrest or explosion. The sleeping (or dead) kangaroo exists only to introduce its own sudden and total disappearance into the bush; more properly, by revealing that there never was a kangaroo, the turn after the second line erases the moment of the first two. Such fleeting glances in the last book hardly occupy the space once reserved for the kind exuberant elaboration that gives us a (partial!) description of a shower in an earlier poem:
tropics that sweat for you, torrent that braces with its heat,
inflames you with its chill, action sauna, inverse bidet,
sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river,
reminding all your fluids, streaming off your points, awakening
the tacky soap to blossom and ripe autumn, releasing the squeezed
Despite the effusiveness that characterizes so much of Murray’s previous work, many of the poems in Creation feature syntax as clipped as their scopes are modest. For example, “Weebill” begins,
Caught a weebill in my car grille,
bird twice the weight of a hefty beetle.
Only heard it when I left the bush.
If it couldn’t home it would likely perish.
Murray did often traffic in brief poems (indeed, he flirted with haiku on previous occasions) but until somewhat recently his short stuff tended more toward epigram than image: “Brutal policy, / like inferior art, knows / whose fault it all is.” Such statements assert their authority over great swaths of existence—they speak in dicta that reach far and grasp firmly—whereas Murray’s little images retreat into, even from, themselves. Mostly absent from the final book, along with poems that entertain multifarious imagistic possibilities, are the aphorisms, though one acts as the collection’s namesake; “Continuous Creation” reads,
We bring nothing into this world
except our gradual ability
to create it, out of all that vanishes
and all that will outlast us.
Subversive enjambments temper the poem’s awed sincerity, furnishing a blend of reverence and good humor that so often distinguishes Murray’s work. Grant did a fine job choosing the book’s title poem. Nevertheless, the last poems have been denied much of the abstraction and musing that—alongside his masterful expansion—lend Murray’s poetry its particular expression.
Creation’s most comprehensive poems, though likely its most difficult to comprehend, are its historical catalogues, which define eras; conduct narrative genealogy; personalize temporally distant events; and, in one instance, synopsize a lifelong friendship. A considerable portion of their significance derives from allusions frequently, though not always, accessible by internet research. Certain references are traceable only through what Murray’s youngest daughter termed “The Great Book”: a hulking ledger of postcards, newspaper snippets, labels, and the like that Murray compiled as a longtime hobby. Perhaps the Great Book helps to explain lines that seem, on their faces, to amount to little more than trivia and cleverness, like these from “Failford Cemetery”:
He was two years old when Trafalgar was fought
and his father was ship’s carpenter of the HMS Victory.
His uncle was the flag captain who supported
a dying Nelson on the ship’s quarterdeck:
“Kismet, Hardy.” If the Royal Navy allowed
a captain and a carpenter of such consanguinity
to serve in one vessel, then Kiss me! indeed.
By questioning the feasibility of a story alleging that two relatives, officer and warrant officer, would be allowed to work aboard the same vessel (unbecoming fraternization would then have been unavoidable)—and by evoking Admiral Nelson’s much-debated last words—“Cemetery” draws out the uncertainty of legacy and oral transmission. Significantly, it gives primacy not to an important bit of naval history, but to the local lore attached thereto. The poem, like the Great Book, concerns itself with history’s mutability despite, and certainly because of, notable events. Still, I might be tempted to poke fun at Murray for a bit of pedantry.
Although Murray’s acumen, polish, and newfound reserve take center stage in the last poems, his fondest readers ought to rejoice in the fact that he does allow himself to get carried away at times. Curiously, such moments are concentrated in the final poems of the collection—those unfinished by Murray and his wife—suggesting that Murray’s recent spareness resulted from a shift in taste, or something else entirely, rather than, say, exhaustion. One unfinished poem, “Cherokee Rose,” begins,
A towering willow tree
refreshed by spring, and jammed
with soft white pearl-shell
a cascade of faces
down tiers and staircases
becoming a shatter
a darkening currency
distilled into a surface
spreading along lake water.
Berets and gob caps
increase above sailormen
whole companies of headgear.
Pound might have summarized this poem: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Perhaps, at most, he’d invert his lines to follow more closely a poet who arrives in the city only by starting in the bush. As it is, though, I know I’m reading Les Murray, and glad of it.