Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Accordion Music, by Les Murray -- It can drop a breathy quote

Philip Harvey
 Accordion Music, by Les Murray

A backstrapped family Bible that consoles virtue and sin,
for it opens top and bottom, and harps both out and in:

it shuffles a deep pack of cards, flirts an inverted fan
and stretches to a shelf of books about the pain of man.

It can play the sob in Jesus!, the cavernous baastards note,
it can wheedle you for cigarettes or drop a breathy quote:

it can conjure Paris up, or home, unclench a chinstrap jaw
but it never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war.

Underneath the lone streetlight outside a crossroads hall
where bullocks pass and dead girls waltz and mental gum trees fall

two brothers play their plough-rein days and long gone spoon-licked nights.
The fiddle stitching through this quilt lifts up in singing flights,

the other’s mourning, meaning tune goes arching up and down
as life undulates like a heavy snake through the rocked accordion.

On first reading the poem is a straightforward celebration of the aerophone instrument known as the accordion, or more colloquially still, the squeezebox. The instrument’s physical appearance is described in best Martian-style (see blog on the Anglo-Saxon Riddle), its sounds are recorded in close detail, and its social memories carefully collected. It has the characteristics of a typical Murray riddle poem, in fact, with only title and final word giving the reader an unequivocal answer to the poem’s contents.

Reading the poem again we notice that there is a second main subject, which is interchangeable with the first. What starts out as an analogy in the opening line, the fact that an accordion can look like a large family Bible being opened and closed, becomes itself a subject, even the main subject of the poem. It is a poem about the Bible. Unless we are in any doubt about this, we have only to attend to some of the lines. For indeed the Bible “stretches to a shelf of books about the pain of man.” It “never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war”. The music of the accordion “consoles virtue and sin”, but so also does the Word of the Bible. Some phrases are overt: “It can play the sob in Jesus!” Others carry their own references but more subtly. For example, that the Bible “harps both out and in” instantly conjures an image of the Psalmist, for anyone who cares to notice this possibility. That “life undulates like a heavy snake” comes as no surprise to readers of the early chapters of Genesis. The physical appearance of the Bible is used as an analogy for the accordion, but equally the accordion and all its works are an analogy for the Bible.

For this reason the poem is not only catholic (small-c) in its appreciation of the diverse beauty of Scripture, its power to proclaim and reveal, the poem is also seriously anti-fundamentalist. Line by line we notice how the poet gives different definitions of Scripture, all of them at odds with the view that Bible is any one person’s possession or exists as a set of open-and-shut explanations about existence. That it is a family Bible, one of those cumbersome numbers beloved of the Victorians, tells us that the Bible is about family, it is about us, all of us in it together, the good, the bad and the (against all odds) unbelievably holy. The Bible does indeed shuffle “a deep pack of cards”, that we can be playing with deep into the night. It is not too proud to beg, as we are told when “it can wheedle you for cigarettes”, and we are never in doubt who live with Scripture familiarly, that it can “drop a breathy quote.” That sort of late night jazz is around every corner of Scripture and shows up with amazing phrasing at Pentecost.

There is yet another level of meaning in this poem and the clue is in the metre. The poet actually writes the poem in the jaunty pentameters beloved of the Australian bush poets, and more particularly Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson. This prosodic and musical homage takes on new meanings when we move from a world of Paris and war (i.e. 1914-1918) to a similarly lost world of “a crossroads hall where bullocks pass and dead girls waltz,” the passing world of bush life before the 1960s. It is the lost world of the poet’s childhood, the world of his parents. It is the accordion that both mourns and honours that time of memory. By juxtaposing the half-rhyme words “mourning, meaning” the poet deftly indicates that the mourning is the meaning. It is a tonal contrast in the music itself. Les Murray’s father played the violin, so it is easy to say that the fiddler in this poem can be his father (if you wish), lifting the tune of loss played by the accordionist. These two simple things, the accordion and the Bible, offer up enough meaning for those who love life, its patterns and beauty, and must endure what life brings them, including pain and loss.

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

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