Friday, January 23, 2009

Peter F. Alexander on "The Sydney Highrise Variations"

The leading scholar and biographer of Les Murray, Peter F. Alexander of the University of New South Wales, crafted this new commentary on Les' poem The Sydney Highrise Variations specifically for our upcoming Poetry Scores CD. Peter retains the copyright - and has earned our abundant appreciation and gratiutude.


Les Murray’s ‘The Sydney Highrise Variations’:
a Commentary

By Peter F. Alexander
University of New South Wales


‘The Sydney Highrise Variations’ is a set of five linked poems which Murray first published in 1980, and subsequently included in his volume The People’s Otherworld (1982). The entire sequence is a meditation about the complex culture of the modern world, and Australia’s place in it.

1 Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980

The first of the poems sets the scene and introduces the sequence. Compelled by the breakdown of his car to spend time amid the traffic on the high peak of Gladesville Bridge, the speaker has the chance to reflect on his city, his country, and Australians’ place in the twentieth century.

Gladesville Road Bridge is one of several that cross Sydney Harbour, providing spectacular views of the city spreading around its glittering, many-armed drowned valley. Everywhere he looks, the speaker sees evidence of the past and intimations of the future.

It is significant that the breakdown of technology, in the form of his ‘sick’ car, has provided the speaker with this time for reflection, and it is on technology that he begins to focus as he waits for a repairman. Although his ‘beloved engine’ is immobilized, he describes the bridge itself as a technical triumph characteristic of the modern world, ‘a great building of the double century’ and calls it ‘gigantic pure form’.

The images he assembles to describe the bridge convey it in terms of human ingenuity: ‘it was inked in by scaffolding and workers’. It is also abstract and religious, ‘a ponderous grotto, all entrance and vast shade’. But more, the bridge is a nuclear explosion, ‘a sketched stupendous ground-burst’, and it is a space probe aimed at the future.

It is, in fact, anything the viewer asks it to be. And all of this multivalent technology seems to get Murray’s tentative approval: ‘it feels good. It feels right’. The ‘brute-force effects’ of the twentieth century appeal to him almost in spite of himself. ‘They answer something in us. Anything in us’.

2 View of Sydney, Australia from Gladesville Road Bridge.

In the second poem of the series the speaker looks east, down-harbour, to where the Sydney Harbour Bridge links the view, and he looks back into the past to the time when British ships first sailed in from the ocean, and when the harbour was known by its Aboriginal name, Warrang.

This view is back to the origins of Sydney, and above it, startlingly, stands the new city rising above the old. In one of his characteristic uses of concrete poetry, Murray gives us a series of short lines evocative, in their very appearance on the page, of the stacked windows of skyscrapers:

Ingots of sheer
affluence poles
bomb-drawing grid
of columnar profit
piecrust and scintillant
tunnels in the sky
high windows printouts
repeat their lines
repeat their lines

All around the new high-rise city is what Murray calls ‘the old order’. South and west spread the urban villas in their quarter-acre gardens, and to the north in the form of the leafy suburbs which Murray calls ‘the built-in paradise forest’. In 1980 Murray himself was living in one of these northern suburbs, Chatswood.

3 The Flight from Manhattan.

With this third section comes a change in tone and mood. The ambiguous title of this poem suggests not only that Manhattan (in the shape of skyscrapers) has flown to Sydney, but also that Murray anticipates that architecture will come to spurn and flee high-rise structures in general, so that multi-storey buildings may gradually sink into the past. ‘It is possible the heights of this view are a museum.’

The central business district of Sydney, with its ‘hot-air money-dryers’ and the central phallic tower with its cable supports which Murray describes as ‘Freud’s cobwebbed poem’, is already looking old-fashioned. Murray associates them with an Australian ambition to be like others. There is, finally, something foreign and temporary about them: ‘They rose like nouveau accents/and stilled, for a time, the city’s conversation.’

To Murray they represent a monied class to which he does not belong, and to which he does not aspire. ‘Employment and neckties and ruling themes ascended/into the towers. But they never filled them’.

4 The C19-20

In the fourth section of the poem Murray begins to focus on the twentieth century’s troubled consciousness of itself, and its links with the nineteenth century.

The twentieth century rose out of the nineteenth, and Murray visualizes them as a single aircraft with the codename ‘C19-20’. This bi-cellular era is unlike any previous period in that it is aware, for the first time, of having a quite different character from what came before.

The technology of this self-conscious double century has delivered a constant stream of miraculous gifts. It has also produced a civilization which Murray compares to a cargo cult, materialistic and ultimately empty.

As he stands on Gladesville Bridge by his paralyzed car, he seems to hear the struggle for the soul of the twentieth century going on in ideological conflict around him. Those who wish to move towards more rapid evolution struggle with those who try to take us back into ourselves:

‘Darwinians and Lawrentians/are wrestling for the controls,/We must take her into space!/ We must fly in potent circles!’

5 The Recession of the Joneses

In this conclusion to the sequence, Murray sees the whole of Sydney and all it represents as an attempt to catch up with the modern world symbolized by the United States, and his title suggests, slightly scornfully, that Australians are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

But this is not enough for him. What he longs for is the emergence of an authentic Australian vernacular, not just in architecture but in every kind of national expression. ‘When we create our own high style/ skill and the shadow will not then part’.

And the poem-series concludes with a vision of Sydney as not so much a transplanted foreign city as a gathering of Australian small towns writ large: ‘Six hundred glittering and genteel towns/gathered to be urban in plein air’.

The whole poem sequence derives its tension from this ambiguous response to the modern world. Murray ultimately is both excited and repelled by modernity, even as he feels himself ‘vibrant with modernity’s strange anger’. His is an older and a newer vision, both seeing modernism’s history and anticipating what will replace it.

c) Peter F. Alexander
UNSW, Sydney, January 2009.


Photo of Sydney Harbour by Christopher Chan.

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