Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ariel and Co

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ariel and Co

Article excerpt

Ariel and Co.

YOU OPEN A MAGAZINE AND READ. The poems certainly look like poems-written in lines, with some degree of attention to words used and words not used. Yet you can't help feeling the essential art has been given away, the poet too eager to be seen by critics, so the discourse of the poem is nearly indistinguishable from the classroom explanations of an unenthusiastic lecturer. The poems might intrigue the mind but don't touch the body or the emotions. Gone is the subterranean music that leaves a critic drop jawed and mute. So much of what you see is conceptual art-art that says, "Look at me, I'm art. I dare you to say I am not art. I am approved by my fellow artists. They get me. They know what I'm about."

And there it is. You want to remind people what poetry can do, how it can sing beyond the genius of the sea, but your voice has grown hoarse with such hectoring.

Then one lucky morning you read a great poet.1 Let's say you take up the New Selected Poems of Les Murray, and your thumb finds near the middle of the book a little poem called "Ariel":

Upward, cheeping, on huddling wings,

these small brown mynas have gained

a keener height than their kind ever sustained

but whichever of them falls first

falls to the hawk circling under

who drove them up.

Nothing's free when it is explained.

This too is a work of conceptual art-aimed at the critic, but also at any reader of poetry. And it begins in the great realm of the forgotten common-nature-that world you have to lift your eyes from a "smartphone" to apprehend. Life and death are at stake. Survival itself is at stake, and beauty and song rolled into gently artful lines. What is "gained" is "sustained," but not too long, and not, of course, "explained," and what "falls first" meets a well-timed line break as it "falls" yet again in space and in our consciousness. The poem is an importance, a small thing with magnitude, like a bird. Your mouth considers other sounds-gained keener kind-your eye notes the delayed information about the hawk "who drove them up." And the fuller pleasures of poetry make themselves available. The proper response is gratitude, I suppose, which you can take into your living, breathing, seeing and hearing day, your sensual day, the only day you have.

From its first page, Murray's New Selected Poems roars to life with another image of flight-equally violent, equally beautiful-in "The Burning Truck":

It began at dawn with fighter planes:

they came in off the sea and didn't rise,

they leaped the sandbar one and one and one

coming so fast the crockery they shook down

off my kitchen shelves was spinning in the air

when they were gone.

They came in off the sea and drew a wave

of lagging cannon-shells across our roofs.

Windows spat glass, a truck took sudden fire,

out leaped the driver, but the truck ran on,

growing enormous, shambling by our street doors,

coming and coming . . .

Murray is Australia's best known poet, and perhaps he has in mind the Japanese attack on Darwin in World War II. He doesn't say. Nor does he say whose point of view this is, though it seems based on someone's actual memories of an event. The beginning is all movie action in words, and then we have that burning truck, perhaps calling to mind Robert Southwell's "Burning Babe" with its mysticism and religious vision. And this is the core of Les Murray's work: this verbal excitement, this astonishment at the world charged with the grandeur of God. The burning truck keeps rolling, burning and melting, "over the tramlines, past the church, on past / the last lit windows, and then out of the world / with its disciples." One thinks of the visionary leap at the end of Larkin's "High Windows" to that "sun-comprehending glass." The word "disciples" offers scriptural connotations, but perhaps these are secular disciples taking sides in war, or perhaps merely those who will be left fumbling for the story of a great event. …

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