Thursday, 8 January 2015

Liner Notes to ‘Incunabular’ by Les Murray

 Philip Harvey
 The poem is available online but cannot be copied, so this is a scan. The scan is of a recognisable font, that used for The New Yorker, where the poem first appeared. Did Les Murray read incunabula in the Fisher Library in Sydney? It seems unlikely, but who knows, maybe the librarians permitted students to read the fifteenth century imprints in Rare Books. Later in the poem Murray talks about open shelves, suggesting his main occupation was working through books from the General Collection. The poem describes the poet’s life at university, many years ago. It contains some of the classic traits of a Murray poem: minute descriptions of surfaces and sounds, compaction of surprise words into short spaces, self-reference coupled with definitive statements. It is a subject he returns to frequently in his life: the re-creation of buildings in words, with all that they may mean at the private and public level. We encounter early his defiant assertion of being ‘bush folk’ who are somehow judged to lack the culture that libraries contain. How Murray arrives at these uncomfortable conclusions is best left to our imaginations, but from the start we sense that the poem itself is written to right some perceived wrong: the poet is out to prove something to the world. The word ‘point’ is active, so that his life was pointing towards books and libraries from an early age, then when he’s there he comes before the points made by power, only to notice in books the points power did not make. Murray carries his own stuff that he’s not going let on about too early. He neatly uses bush images to evoke the library and its contents: the roof was like a “steep tent” and sometimes the book contents brought little return, “few grapes for many rows.” He might be a bit of an outsider, but here he instantly feels like an insider: the Library is home away from home. The male-female dichotomy is on show, where by contrast with the mysterious feminine of the library, its “stiletto heels clacking” and “lipsticked gargoyle”, the university owns the “phallic they were going to be marked by.” Although we can afford to be amused by this pronounced contrast, it also betrays an anxious identification with these places. University students have some growing up to do. The gorgeous triad “vogue, value, theory” offers the librarians a new classification scheme, though exactly where a cataloguer determines to put each book, whether in Vogue, Value, or Theory, is never elucidated by the poet.  It’s why we have cataloguers. We imagine young Murray being most drawn to the Value section of the Fisher Library. Verse Seven is the overt dream verse of this Murray poem, he loves dream in a poem, where the dreamscape quality of any large library comes into play. The concept of there being “floors below reality” clearly appeals, as does the prospect of “philologies with pages still uncut”. Any lover of words stares drooling, or at least in awe, at the idea of words and their meanings still to be unlocked, words forgotten waiting to be rediscovered: Les Murray is the kid in the lolly shop. The puns on the word ‘rut’ are irrefutable. While the student is digging deep into new knowledge (rut) and even getting off with the thought of so much great material to enjoy (rutting), he also intimates that such a place could become somewhere where he gets stuck and cannot escape, if he’s not careful (in a rut). Libraries can be like that, but they are not unique, by any means. The conclusion describes wittily the concerns of older library users when faced with the digital revolution and its discontents, even its lack of content. His nostalgia is premature, we could argue, while libraries continue to make the books and their access a main priority. The poet would be heartened to know that today (2015) surveys in America show that it is people under 35 who want book libraries and search them out, one reason being they already have the digital stuff in their hand, like an old hat. A Silicon Valley baseball cap, perhaps. The final line is a piece of Murray cross-referencing. When interviewed by Clive James on TV years ago, Murray proclaimed that sitting in libraries reading was his “surf”. This is a clean joke that possibly only an Australian could fully appreciate, living in a country where surfing is one pastime many of us do because it brings the greatest free pleasure for the longest time. Surfers ride the waves all day, free of care, while the poet in his library does the same with his reading. The poet knows he doesn’t own the Fisher Library either, it is “endowed” by the Fisher King, free for his perpetual use, just as surfers know they don’t own the ocean. That’s the joke, man!

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