‘Contour-Line by Contour’: Landscape Change as an Index of History in the Poetry of Les Murray

WITH the sequence The Idyll Wheel (1989) Les Murray brought to a close the mythic journey of 'home-coming', which had sustained much of his best work over two decades, at least since the end of 'Noonday Axeman':

I will be always coming back here on the up-train, peering, leaning out of the window to see, on far-off ridges, the sky between the trees, and over the racket of the rails, to hear the echo and the silence.

This journey of return to what the French poet Yves Bonnefoy called l'arrfere-pays, and Murray in a translation of the equivalent Aboriginal term came to see as his spirit country, developed a number of generic characteristics over the years from 'Noonday Axeman' to 'The Returnees' and The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song-Cycle. The observer is in actual physical motion through a landscape in a vehicle (train, car or boat) which to a certain extent demarcates mind and world, or which mediates, if you like, between meditator and meditated. The movement of temporal observation through the space of the poem unwinds the attenuation of consciousness inherent in the observer's exile, which is the interior (as much as the exterior) starting-point of the poem. Distance shrinks, and the tension between outside and inside, the sense of an embattled mind in hostile territory, is released as the observer reconnects with an intimately known landscape through the process which The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle calls 'relearning that country'. The Cycle moves from the level of place-names marked on official road-maps, to the secret ones known only to denizens of the local community, to the ones sacred to individuals: the sacred sites of identity, where the mind is not, like that of Milton's Satan, 'its own place'.

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Published 1 May 1994 in Volume 16 No. 3. Subjects: Australian landscape - Literary portrayal, Landscape & identity, Pastoral poetry, Perceptions of nature, Writer's inspiration, Les Murray.

Cite as: Leer, Martin. ‘‘Contour-Line by Contour’: Landscape Change as an Index of History in the Poetry of Les Murray.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 1994. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.41f1d836d7.