Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Three Interiors, by Les Murray -- What is below resembles what's above


Philip Harvey
This is the ninth in a series of essays about the book in poetry, first released at this site.

We cannot read in the dark. But we have to learn to read things when we are in the dark. And we learn to read ourselves in the dark.

What a strange poem is ‘Three Interiors’ by Les Murray, this paean to the waking state. It is a triad of unconnected places - a public building in outback Broken Hill, a monastic Baroque library in Switzerland, an unnamed home at night that could be the poet’s home at Bunyah, but as well anyone’s house in the dark past midnight. We go with the flow of words, initially, admiring how the poem is like the vast room at Broken Hill, a “coloured mime of myriadness” that it is itself “Beauty all suspended in air”; how the poem is like the library floor, “settled suavely level and hardened”; and how it is like that sensation in the kitchen dark, “a stopping, teeming caution.”

But, being who we are, readers with a desire to make connections and meanings, we go into analysis soon enough. We notice touchstone words in each stanza. The poet’s interest in the Broken Hill building is about beauty and splendour, but more importantly about form, fact, and figure. It is a product of human engineering that requires good sense as much as proportion and building materials. The building is a testament to reason. The touchstones in the library stanza are ‘meditation’ and ‘quiet’, but we also have images in motion that describe the relationship between the old Earth we all inhabit and heaven, about which we are given earthly hints and resemblances. We are in a place of learning and peace. The building is a testament to mystery. The “last interior” is a place of dark, of hurt and fear, or at least a place where these feelings are experienced in safe, measured time. We see the touchstone words ‘balance’ and ‘gravity’, which are concomitant with the experience of the dark, but also with being at home.

The title of the poem ‘Three Interiors’ has been described by Peter Steele as “laden, looking as this [poem] does not simply to what is roofed and walled in, but to a place’s soul or genius and, more delicately, to the senses sleeping under the roof of language.” This is another useful way forward in reading the poem. Each stanza is deeply descriptive of an interior state of being, so that we are stepping through a physical place, which is well and good, but also going through there body and soul. We note how the poem opens in marvel, shifts to meditation, and concludes in fears overcome by calm. It emulates the movement of the Pater Noster, though is a poem before it is a prayer. That we conclude in the dark, and what the dark can do to any of us at times, makes us aware that the poem is not intended to be read in a purely linear fashion. 

Indeed, the poem is not just a triad of interiors for which the link is Memory, but a trinity of interiors, each speaking to the others and in that conversation producing harmony out of their very different states. Once the basic English components of the poem have been established, we are in a position to meditate on each of these places in ourselves. We may acknowledge them as existing in the same person, be that me the individual reader, or you the individual reader, or anyone.

Les Murray is a great one for libraries. He gets into reveries about libraries, has described them as his surf, and is plainly a believer in their certain good. He got into just such a reverie during his visit in December to the Carmelite Library, noting that where he grew up there were no libraries and it was when he went to town, and the university, that these incredible places opened up to him. (I asked if there were Mechanics’ Institute libraries in his childhood, but he said they had all gone.) His reverie on the particular library at St Gallen takes us to another concern of this poem, the role of the book in our lives.

The books themselves, that vertical live leather brickwork,
in the violin-curved, gleaming bays, have all turned their backs
on the casual tourist and, clasped in meditation, they pray
in coined Greek, canonical Latin, pointed Hebrew.

Theological librarians have special reason for enjoying the wry punning on what used to be called the Sacred Languages. They would not be so happy at the idea of the books having their backs turned on the visitors, the job of a librarian being to connect knowledge to the searcher by any means whatsoever, even though we see that the  poet has the books imitating the behaviour of their old makers, collectors, and keepers, the monks of the abbey. Some would complain that Murray idealises the library when he calls it “an utterly quiet pre-industrial machine room / on a submarine to Heaven.” Let them complain, only, Les Murray is using the St Gallen example to affirm the inestimable value of the written word in our work of reaching heaven. The gorgeous Rococo surfaces, we notice more closely, are secondary to the “vaguely heavenly personages who've swum up from the serried volumes below” and who, like those who “pad in blanket slippers” over the famous parquetry floor, are the only reason why ultimately all of this marvellous cultural effort is made in the first place.     

In the same essay Peter Steele talks about how implicitly in much of Murray’s poetry “the world itself is a library, a library made not (as at some other hands) for stupefaction, but for copious divulging. So it is appropriate that when he considers St Gallen’s library the reader is led into a microcosm, a place which is also a condition: and that the condition should be one of pluriform energies and performances.” This is another useful lead into the poem. In this trinity of interiors, the library is in conversation with the other interiors. To extend the Steelian idea, the poem is acknowledging books as an essential source for its existence, is placing the library as a centre of knowledge that gives form and substance to everything under discussion in the poem, and is fixing the library as a necessary part of the total reality being described with such care throughout the poem. Everything in existence is a ‘book’ for us to read; it is thanks to libraries that we can think in this way about the world.

The more we read ‘Three Interiors’ and meditate on the linkages between the three stanzas, the more we learn about how poems defy linearity and simple narrative drive. Even now as we speak we notice how the intricate construction of the building in Broken Hill is in the same creative province as the vaulted ceilings and “honey-lucent” floor of the St Gallen library. We connect the clasps of the books with the more challenging  “doorjambs without a switch”. We improve our acceptance of how consciousness is free in space and must live with the contradictoriness of that condition. The dark sayings in the final stanza each speak to lines of light in the first two stanzas. There are new inter-relationships being noticed through every fresh reading.

Source of Peter Steele quotes: ‘Les Murray : Watching with his Mouth’ by Peter Steele, in ‘The Poetry of Les Murray : Critical Essays’, edited by Laurie Hergenhan and Bruce Clunies Ross. (University of Queensland Press, 2001) 

Three Interiors
Les Murray

The mansard roof of the Barrier Industrial Council's
pale-blue Second Empire building in Broken Hill
announces the form of a sprightly, intricately painted
pressed metal ceiling, spaciously stepped and tie-beamed
high over the main meeting hall. The factual light
of the vast room is altered, in its dusty rising
toward that coloured mime of myriadness, that figured
carpet of the mind, whose marvel comes down the clean walls
almost to the shoulder-stain level, the rubbings of mass defiance
which circle the hall miner-high above worn-out timber flooring.
Beauty all suspended in air — I write from memory
but it was so when we were there. A consistent splendour,
quite abstract, bloc-voted, crystalline with colour junctions
and regulated tendrils, high in its applied symphonic theory
above the projection hatch, over sports gear and the odd steel chair
marooned on the splintery extents of the former dance floor.

The softly vaulted ceiling of St Gallen's monastic library
is beautifully iced in Rococo butter cream with scrolled pipework
surf-dense around islands holding russet-clad, vaguely heavenly
personages who've swum up from the serried volumes below.
The books themselves, that vertical live leather brickwork,
in the violin-curved, gleaming bays, have all turned their backs
on the casual tourist and, clasped in meditation, they pray
in coined Greek, canonical Latin, pointed Hebrew.
It is an utterly quiet pre-industrial machine room
on a submarine to Heaven, and the deck, the famous floor
over which you pad in blanket slippers, has flowed in
honey-lucent around the footings, settled suavely level and hardened:
only the winding darker woods and underwater star-points
of the parquetry belie that impression. What is below
resembles what's above, but just enough, as cloud-shadow,
runways and old lake shores half noticed in mellow wheat land.
                                                                        *****
The last interior is darkness. Befuddled past-midnight
fear, testing each step like deep water, that when you open
the eventual refrigerator, cold but no light will envelop you.
Bony hurts that persuade you the names of your guides now
are balance, and gravity. You can fall up things, but not far.
A stopping, teeming caution. As of prey. The dark is arbitrary
delivering wheeled smashes, murmurings, something that scuttled,
doorjambs without a switch. The dark has no subject matter
but is alive with theory. Its best respites are: no surprises.
Nothing touching you. Or panic-stilling chance embraces.
Darkness is the cloth for pained eyes, and lovely in colour,
splendid in the lungs of great singers. Also the needed matrix
of constellations, flaring Ginzas, desert moons, apparent snow,
verandah-edged night rain. Dark is like that: all productions.
Almost nothing there is caused, or has results. Dark is all one interior
permitting only inner life. Concealing what will seize it.

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