Sunday, January 13, 2008

When tapped give tongue. Let me say firstly that poets from abroad carry and extra air of authority — a false one, of course. I catch myself ascribing more to them than I do Canadian poets. In this way, the greatest living poets of our age are judged in part by how far away they were born. Thus, an Irish master like Paul Muldoon isn't as great as either the Polish-born Czeslaw Milosz or the Chilean-born Pablo Neruda. And neither, in my flawed metrics, would be as great as Les Murray of Australia.

He's so far away, after all.

I know. Foolish. The other thing is that Ottawa poets tend to isolate themselves from global incursion. I was accused of just such a misstep this summer. And it's not intentional. I'm not being insular, it's just that there are a good number of Canadian poets well worth reading and being inspired by.

Ottawa's de facto ringleader, rob mclennan, is very interested in the local (and national) project. Could that be a part of it? The book I quoted from in relation to DG Jones a couple of weeks ago, for instance, was a gift from him. I expect a lot of us are influenced in a hundred little ways by rob's very local and national (rather than international or supranational) outlook.

And besides, there's the nightmare of finding poetry titles from elsewhere in the world, what with distribution being what it is.

All of which is a lead up to this bit of news: a woman in Australia sent me a copy of Les Murray's The Vernacular Republic through Bookmooch (at my request), and it came just in the mail the last few days. Very cool, although it came with a warning. She told me that the much-hated and recently turfed conservative prime minister of that country, John Howard, thinks very highly of Murray. Murray, who had a political life before he had a writing life, is not to the taste of forward-thinking reading public of Australia I gather. Hmmm...

Rainwater tank
Les Murray

Empty rings when tapped give tongue,
rings that are tense with water talk:
as he sounds them, ring by rung,
Joe Mitchell's reddened knuckles walk.

The cattledog's head sinks down a notch
and another notch; beside the tank,
and Mitchell's boy, with an old jack-plane,
lifts mustaches from a plank.

From the puddle that the tank has dripped
hens peck glimmerings and uptilt
their heads to shape the quickness down;
petunias live on what gets spilt.

The tankstand spider adds a spittle
thread to her portrait of her soul.
Pencil-grey and stacked like shillings
out of a banker's paper roll

stands the tank, roof-water drinker.
The downpipe stares drought into it.
Briefly the kitchen tap turns on
then off. But the tank says Debit, Debit.

(from The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981, A&R Modern Poets)

Image-wise, it's pretty rich for a poem about a water barrel, don't you think? In stanza one, Joe Mitchell raps on the tank to see how much water is in it “ring by rung”. In stanza two we get the wonderful image of his boy's woodplane producing shavings that look like “mustaches”. In stanza three, we see the ground, complete with hens and flowers which “live on what gets spilt”. As the poem draws to a close (spider's thread is “spittle”, the tank looks like “stacked” “shillings”) we get the final image of taking and lending, “Debit, Debit.”

But it's the language that really does me in. Take the word “tank” for instance, a wonderfully sonorous word which begins and ends with a plosive sound. In the first stanza, “tank” is a ghost; you've heard about it in the title of the poem but it isn't uttered. In the remaining four stanzas, Murray presents it no less than five times, giving a sombre, almost church-like repetition (including in its final instances: “tankstand” and “stands the tank” -- brilliant.)

If one were to check the level of a barrel by tapping, one would hear hollow sounds until hitting the water level. Then the reverberations would be considerably more muffled and at a lower pitch. Here, Murray reproduces his aural memory by giving a lot of assonance in the first four stanzas (plus the first line of the final stanza) in the 'ah' and 'ih' range, at the front of the mouth. And then in the third-from-last line the “downpipe stares drought into it”. 'Ah' and 'ih' are turned into the reverberating “ay” and “eye” and complimented with the think Os of “downpipe” and “drought”. If the poem reproduced the look of a barrel (which it does, with its evenly spaced grooves), then it locating water so far down (and ironically with the word “drought”) -- well, your tank would be more than 80 percent empty. Sombre indeed.