Ken Babstock on Les Murray

by Les Murray

Us all on sore cement was we.
Not warmed then with glares. Not glutting mush
under that pole the lightning’s tied to.
No farrow-shit in milk to make us randy.
Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp.
We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.
Us all fuckers then. And Big, huh? Tusked
the balls-biting dog and gutsed him wet.
Us shoved down the soft cement of rivers.
Us snored the earth hollow, filled farrow, grunted.
Never stopped growing. We sloughed, we soughed
and balked no weird till the high ridgebacks was us
with weight-buried hooves. Or bristly, with milk.
Us never knowed like slitting nor hose-biff then.
Not the terrible sheet-cutting screams up ahead.
The burnt water kicking. This gone already feeling
here in no place with our heads on upside down.

— From Translations from the Natural World
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993)

Australian poet Les Murray appears on the short list for the Canadian-based, lucrative Griffin (International) poetry prize for his selected poems, Learning Human. This poem, Pigs, was first collected in his Translations from the Natural World  given the titles, you may already have guessed the project Murray set for himself.

You may even have tried it yourself with a household pet. Is there a growl in your voice when you talk to a dog? Can you make that pretty purring noise and speak English simultaneously? Since well before our first encounters with Dr. Doolittle, we’re each aware of a communication gap between us and our planetary cohabitants. We grew, acquired language, and learned quickly to exhort, complain and query, while our goldfish continued his rounds in obstinate silence. (Even had the gall to go belly-up without a goodbye.)

Our language is being changed constantly by very human endeavours. It gets bent, infected and sometimes brightened by science, technology and commerce. Murray, in these poems, makes English a sort of sponge, acquiring new twists and valencies through an act of imagination that amounts to an invitation to various critters and beasts: “Come on in, change my tongue. Liven my speech that I might not forget you.”

Look at all the heavy, fattened consonants preceding short vowel sounds, all those B’s, G’s, D’s and P’s that make us blow out little puffs of air when they’re read aloud. By the eighth line, Murray’s got us all grunting and huffing up a storm, bumping shoulders and rumps with mud on our snouts.

This is a poem to be read aloud, not in that Poetry Voice we’ve all heard, but with our jowels flapping and drool on our chins. Pretend you’ve got a wad of rotten cabbage and who-knows-what else in your mouth. It’s to be read to our smart friends and our kids at the same time. Notice the sentence lengths and rhythm: all short, terse stompings-around that end definitively with a full-stop, and all manner of variations on the iambic line.

Pigs aren’t much for grace and speed. The longest sentence comes at the moment of this pig’s most perfect memory (a near-Romantic image of wildness from the porcine collective unconscious), then the period again, like a sucking hole left in mud by a hind trotter.

And just as we were beginning to have fun throwing our weight around in the slop-pen of our anthropomorphizing, “sheet-cutting screams up ahead.” We’re suddenly aware of all the paste-tense verbs that led to this line; all those D’s that ended the active verbs will arrive, at the end of the poem, stationed at the beginning of “Death.” The closing image would be horror enough, but how much more effective that Murray conveyed it with sliding, oozing, open vowels, and those D’s in “heads on upside down” kick-starting the mechanical zzz sound of a saw.

Ken Babstock’s last collection of poetry, Methodist Hatchet, won the Griffin Prize. This column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, April 21, 2001. Look for more reprints from Babstock’s column in the coming weeks.