Sunday, October 19, 2008

The time Les Murray almost died

For 2009, Poetry Scores is setting to music The Sydney Highrise Variations, the great Australian poet (actually, the greatest Australian poet) Les Murray's meditation on modernity, vertical space and the rise of the city.

Though I have met Les under extraordinary circumstances and would venture to consider myself one of his vast number of international friends, Poetry Scores is far out of our depth in comprehending the sources of his work, since none of us working on the score have ever so much as visited Australia.

So we enlisted the help of Les' biographer, Peter F. Alexander, who has tentatively agreed to footnote Les' poem for our score and to provide an essay about the poem in the context of his life. I have just finished reading Peter's penetrating and evocative biography of the poet, Les Murray: A Life in Progress, which I read in less than two days, pausing only to sleep and interview Barack Obama by telephone. I was interested to see that the bio makes no mention of Les' epic poem about Sydney, so Peter has volunteered for an altogether fresh piece of work, which makes his offer to help us more impressive (and exciting).

After finishing the book, I contacted Peter at home in Sydney, where he is finishing a book on the South African writer Alan Patton. I wated to know if we could publish here the breathtaking prelude of A Life in Progress, which chronicles the time Les nearly died. He agreed. This piece is published courtesy of the author and his publisher, Oxford University Press, and we ask that anyone reading this prose and loving it as much as I do contact Peter before making any use of it. The photo of Les recovering from the incident is by his wife, Valerie Murray, also borrowed from Peter's book, also not ours to give away.


Chapter 1: Prelude

Do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered —T. S. Eliot

At 11.15 on the morning of 18 July 1996 an ambulance drove onto the long bridge over the Manning River outside Taree, and in brilliant winter sunshine sped across it towards Newcastle, the siren wailing briefly as it passed through knots of traffic. The vehicle contained only one patient, a big man with the brassy complexion and sulphurous eyes of someone affected by severe jaundice. The medical records travelling with him named him as a Mr Leslie Allan Murray, and included the results of a CAT scan showing a large liver abscess; the accompanying notes clinically remarked that the patient was a diabetic suffering near-complete renal failure, that there was evidence of gas in the liver abscess, and that septic shock was setting in. Immediate surgery was indicated.

He was in great pain, but sedated into calm. He lay semi-conscious, unable to see the passing forests and the occasional glimpses of scalloped, surf-fringed coast, but knowing exactly where he was because he knew every turn of this road like the inside of his own pocket. The ambulance raced south, over the Manning River, up which his great-great-great-grandmother had sailed in 1851 and beside which the Murrays had prospered and multiplied. Past Purfleet, as on the morning he had come by, aged twelve, behind his mother’s hearse, and had seen a then-unknown Aboriginal man, Uncle Eddie Lobban,[1] remove his hat and bow his head in a gesture of mourning never forgotten. Past the turn to Old Bar, where cousin Leila lived with her memories of his childhood; onto the fast multi-lane stretch south to Coolongolook and Buladelah.
This was the length of Pacific Highway that traversed his Country, the stretch, crowded with holiday traffic, that he had fixed in the mind for ever in ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’:

It is the season of the Long Narrow City; it has crossed the Myall, it has entered the North Coast,
that big stunning snake; it is looped through the hills, burning all night there.
Hitching and flying on the downgrades, processionally balancing on the climbs,
it echoes in O’Sullivan’s Gap, in the tight coats of the flooded-gum trees;
the tops of palms exclaim at it unmoved, there near Wootton.

Through the edge of the Kiwarrak Forest, over the Bungwahl Creek, down to Nabiac where he had been born fifty-eight years before. The ambulance siren announced his presence now again briefly, and he thought of that birth and how it had killed his mother twelve years later: at least the family had risen far enough for him to have an ambulance now.

South to Wang Wauk where his father had cut timber years before, snigging it out with a bullock-team. Over the Wang Wauk River, which upstream has its humbler beginnings in the creek beside which he had lived all his childhood and youth. It was up that valley, which his family had once owned in its entirety, one of the sacred places of the mind with its forested hills and its winding rock-strewn streams, that there lay the abandoned remains of the tiny house in which he had been brought up, and from which his father had been evicted in such bitterness in the early 1970s. And there, within a kilometre of the ruined foundations of his childhood home, was his beloved Forty Acres, the farm he had planted with fruit trees, the dam he had dappled with lotuses brought from Kakadu, and the little house in which his wife Valerie, packing up at this moment to follow the ambulance, was doing the last-minute checks. As she was about to walk out, her eye fell on the big oil-portrait of him above the sofa, and she burst into tears.

The big man in the ambulance wondered in sedated calm if he would ever traverse these roads again. Through Coolongolook, where he had stood on the banks of the quiet river one evening at the end of 1956, watching the mayflies, and had known that he was going to be a poet. Through the stately forests of O’Sullivan’s Gap, where the goannas beg for picnickers’ sandwiches; past Wootton and Buladelah, where the still presence of the Myall lakes can be felt, and on south towards the smudge of Newcastle, the steel city, his mother’s city, first visited with her at the age of four, all unforgotten:

John Brown, glowing far and down,
wartime Newcastle was a brown town,
handrolled cough and cardigan, rain on paving bricks
big smoke to a four-year-old from the green sticks.
Train city, mother’s city, coming on dark,
Japanese shell holes awesome in a park,
electric light and upstairs, encountered first that day,
sailors and funny ladies in Jerry’s Fish CafĂ©.

The pain came in waves which the pethidine allowed him to float over. He had planned to refurbish his parents’ graves and had not done it. Now, he thought with drugged satisfaction, his own name could be added to the stone with little extra cost. His one regret was that he had not finished Fredy Neptune: now he would die not knowing how it ended.

The ambulance howled its way through early afternoon traffic, and found the John Hunter Hospital forewarned. The big man was wheeled into casualty and checked. The verdict was alarming: ‘He’s nearly dead’. He was prepared for surgery immediately. Convinced he was dying, he felt neither fear nor regret at the prospect. Wheeled rapidly down wide corridors, he stared unblinking at lights passing rhythmically above him:

Ribbed glass glare-panels flow
over you down urgent corridors,
dismissing midday outside. Slow,

they’d resemble wet spade-widths in a pit;
you’ve left grief behind you, for others;
your funeral: who’ll know you’d re-planned it?

God, at the end of prose,
somehow be our poem—
when forebrainy consciousness goes

By 4 p.m., within two hours of admission, his chest was being opened, as his wife, struggling towards the hospital through the traffic, was rammed from behind at a traffic light. The last thing he heard, as he sank into drugged darkness, was the surgeon remarking, ‘We might lose this one’.

Within hours of his admission the John Hunter Hospital got the first of the hundreds of phonecalls. This harbinger of the storm was from London: ‘This is Clive James. How’s Les Murray doing?’ The writer and broadcaster is a name to conjure with in his native land, and there was a brief fanfare of silence from the woman on the switchboard before urgent internal enquiries began: ‘Who is Les Murray?’ James was glad to tell her: ‘You’ve got the most important poet in Australia there. I’m sure you’ll take good care of him’.[3] And one of his surgeons, Peter Saul, who read and collected Les Murray’s volumes, was able to add to this answer: one of the best poets writing in English, his country’s foremost literary voice, the unofficial Australian Laureate. Saul could have said, though he did not, that his extraordinary patient was a former farm-boy who could read more than twenty languages, and lift the back of a motorcar by hand: ‘This man, who warms cold ground by lying on it, who handparks his car...’ He did not say that Murray was that rarest of beings, a writer through whom a national consciousness shapes and expresses itself. The receptionist’s hesitation is understandable: ‘Who is Les Murray?’ was not a simple question. To approach an answer to it we have to go back to the beginning.


[1] Les Murray later learned his name: Eddie Lobban was well known to the Purfleet community. Murray’s addition to the typescript of an early draft of this book: PA.
[2] ‘You Find You Can Leave It All’. All poems not otherwise attributed are by Les Murray.
[3] Interview with Clive James, Cambridge, 3 January 1999.


I'll be back with many more reflections from Peter's wonderful book.

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