‘Nearly all deep fertile soil’: Les Murray, His Son and Autism

Abstract

‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’ is one of Les Murray’s most well-known poems. It was written in 1993, first published in 1994, and featured in his 1996 book Subhuman Redneck Poems. The poem profiles, but does not name, Murray’s and his wife Valerie Murray’s second son (fourth child) Alexander, who, at three, was medically diagnosed as autistic. Both because the poem is Murray’s portrait of his son, and because it was Alexander’s autism diagnosis that prompted Murray’s full recognition of his own autism, this poem is also inherently as much about Murray as it is about Alexander. It explores not only their relationship as parent and child, but each of their relationships with autism, and how their shared autistic love of words, movies, and portraits deepens these relationships.

‘It Allows’ represents a midpoint in Murray’s understanding of, and writing about, autism. His first poem on this topic was 1974’s ‘Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver’, where he discusses autists as a group with a culture, history and future. It was another three decades before Murray explicitly described his own experience of autism in his 2006 poem ‘The Tune on Your Mind’. In between them ‘It Allows’ presents a period of profound discovery, for both Murray and his son. This close analysis of ‘It Allows’ attends to the difficulties and delights of those discoveries, contextualising them within Murray’s life and writing.

The poem ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’ (hereafter referred to as ‘It Allows’) was written by Les Murray in 1993, first published in 1994, and featured in his 1996 book Subhuman Redneck Poems. The poem profiles, but does not name, Murray’s and his wife Valerie Murray’s second son (fourth child) Alexander, who, at three, was medically diagnosed as autistic. Both because the poem is Murray’s portrait of his son, and because it was Alexander’s autism diagnosis that prompted Murray’s full recognition of his own autism, this poem is also inherently as much about Murray as it is about Alexander. It explores not only their relationship as parent and child, but also each of their relationships with autism, and how their shared autistic love of words, movies and portraits deepens these relationships.

‘It Allows’ represents a midpoint in Murray’s understanding of, and writing about, autism. His first poem on this topic was 1974’s ‘Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver’, where he discusses autists as a group with a culture, history and future. It was another three decades before Murray explicitly described his own experience of autism in his 2006 poem ‘The Tune on Your Mind’. In between them ‘It Allows’ presents a period of profound discovery, for both Murray and his son. This close analysis of ‘It Allows’ attends to the difficulties and delights of those discoveries, contextualising them within Murray’s life and writing.

A common topic throughout Murray’s writing on autism, echoing the experiences of many autistic people, is determining the role that medical definitions should have in one’s understanding of their own condition. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterises autism as ‘Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction’, and ‘Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities’ (American Psychiatric Association 50). However, as autistic rhetorician Melanie Yergeau argues, medical terminology denies autistic people their authorial power, and presents their bodies for medical professionals to narrate:

What autism provided was a discursive framework, a lens through which others could story my life. My hand and full-body movements became self-stimulatory behaviors; my years-long obsession with maps and the Electric Light Orchestra became perseverations; my repetition of lines from the movie Airplane! Became echolalia. My very being became a story, a text in dire need of professional analysis. This, my body, this was autism – and suddenly, with the neuropsychologist’s signature on my diagnostic papers, I was no longer my body’s author. (Introduction)

‘It Allows’, then, is a poem of authorship. Since Alexander’s autism diagnosis was a key event in both his and Murray’s life, the concept of autism in this poem is inevitably influenced by medical discourse. Yet, within and through this poem, Alexander and Murray take control of the words by which medical professionals defined them, and forge their own autistic definitions of themselves.

‘It Allows’ is also one of many poems on the topic of disabled children. However, it is remarkable within this genre for two reasons. One of those reasons is its subversion of the typically reductive and negative representation of disabled children in poetry. While disabled people of all ages are routinely dehumanised in poetry (Davidson 1), the dehumanisation of disabled children in poetry is particularly blatant and cruel. Take, for example, the poem ‘Deaf School’ by the celebrated English nondisabled poet Ted Hughes. This is the first third:

The deaf children were monkey-nimble, fish-tremulous and sudden.

Their faces were alert and simple

Like faces of little animals, small night lemurs caught in the

flash-light.

They lacked a dimension,

They lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound

and responses to sound.

The whole body was removed

From the vibration of air, they lived through the eyes,

The clear simple look, the instant full attention.

Their selves were not woven into a voice

In nine lines Hughes strips deaf people of personhood, complexity, sufficiency, embodiment and voice. As the D/deaf poet Raymond Antrobus says of this poem: ‘It’s such a way to use your power as a poet, to frame, or to in a way to assault, people you don’t understand’ (00:06:06–00:06:21). In the same way that medical professionals frequently define autistic children in terms of lack, according to Hughes the deaf children lack ‘a dimension’, ‘sound and responses to sound’, and ‘voice’.

The cruelty is not only in the poem’s words themselves but where, and by whom, the words will be read and analysed. Since they describe children, they are more likely to be presented to, and discussed by, classes of school children. The promise to a D/deaf child of the title ‘Deaf School’ is the rare opportunity of being represented in literature, to read of someone who resembles you. Imagine, then, how it would feel to read this poem and instead be repeatedly told how ‘lack[ing]’ and ‘simple’ Hughes believes you are, and to experience the sense of entitlement with which he likens you to animals. Then imagine experiencing this as the only D/deaf child in the class, or the school.

As a disabled person, Murray was well-acquainted with the humiliation of being dehumanised within a peer group at school, especially when it was enacted through figurative language. He explains his resulting understanding of the dishonesty and slipperiness of referring to humans as anything other than humans as follows:

I know a poet who is careful to flag his every image with ‘like’ or ‘resembles’ or some such. The surf doesn’t fold its long green notes and cash them in foam-change on the beach, with him; rather, the waves of the surf are like long green folded notes cashed in foam on the beach. By the same strict token, no prime minister was ever a drover’s dog. My colleague doesn’t go beyond simile into the farther ranges of metaphor because to telescope statements overmuch is to lie. He is scrupulous not to let metaphor collapse into identity. This is very Protestant of him, though he is not Christian. It is also very responsible, because metaphor is dangerous stuff, the more so, perhaps, as it becomes worn and baggy with overuse and we forget it is metaphor. (‘The Best’)

The dangers of the metaphorisation of disabled people cannot be overstated since they include murder. One form of this is genocide, such as the Nazi genocide of disabled people, which occurred from 1933 until after World War II. In early twentieth century German medical parlance, disabled people were routinely referred to as ‘empty shells of human beings’ (Lifton 47). Then when the Nazis, who had classified disabled people as a cause of impurity within the German race, came to power in 1933, they were able to capitalise on the resulting devaluation of disabled people to enact one of their first pieces of legislation – the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (Lifton 16). As a result of this law there were at least five hundred thousand victims of forced sterilisation and then, from 1939 when euthanasia began, at least seven hundred and fifty thousand disabled people were murdered (Evans 18).

Another form of the murder of disabled people legitimised by metaphor is filicide. Its frequency is difficult to quantify since the relevant information is often not collected or disaggregated from other data. However, the authors of The Ruderman White Paper on Media Coverage of the Murder of People with Disabilities by their Caregivers calculated that, during the four years of their study of news reports, a disabled person was murdered by their parent or caregiver ‘approximately every week’ (Perry 6). They also note that autistic people, famously metaphorised in 1967 by Bruno Bettelheim as ‘empty fortress[es]’, are ‘among the most victimised’ (Bettelheim; Perry 10). In ‘It Allows’ Murray contrasts the background of these grim facts with Alexander’s question ‘Is stealing very playing up, as bad as murder?1 This emphasises that, while some nonautistic adults do not understand how ‘bad’ murder is, this fifteen-year-old autistic young person does.

As a result of Murray’s understanding of the dangers of metaphor, and even though Murray has a well-recognised talent for metaphor, it is almost completely absent in ‘It Allows’. Instead Murray sketches Alexander through a collection of his actions and speech. They are presented as one stanza of forty-two lines, containing sixty-three empirical statements.

The other reason ‘It Allows’ is remarkable as a poem on the topic of disabled children is specific to those written by a parent about their child. Most in this genre are written by nondisabled parents, whereas Murray is not only disabled, but has the same impairment as his son. Consequently, the unnamed comparator to Alexander is not a child without autism, but Murray’s own experience with autism; and their relationship is characterised by equality rather than a parent-dominated hierarchy.

Murray also uses his experience as a disabled poet to ensure that ‘It Allows’ is accessible to as many people as possible. Nondisabled people often assume a closed loop of nondisabledness within poetry – the audience assumes that the poet is nondisabled, and the poet assumes that the audience is nondisabled. As Sandra Alland explains: ‘most non-disabled and hearing people don't even think about reading, watching or listening to disabled and D/deaf writers. They don't imagine our existence at all, except perhaps as bad metaphors for their own work’ (Alland). Presenting one’s work as a disabled poet entails not simply contending with the audience’s conceptions of your work, but the intersection of their conceptions of your work and their conceptions of you as a disabled person. Often they will either engage with your work minus any reference to your impairments, or with your impairments but not your work. Similarly, being a disabled audience member frequently means engaging with work that has been written with consideration for nondisabled audience members only. When a nondisabled poet uses the word ‘shadow’, they assume their audience knows what that looks like. When a nondisabled poet mentions the sound of grass rustling, they assume their audience experiences it as a soft sound, rather than painfully loud, or as a vibration. The cumulative impact of being a disabled poet, then, is a visceral awareness of the diversity of the audience and its experiences.

Murray was aware that, in 1993 when he wrote ‘It Allows’, his audience consisted of two groups. A small proportion were autistic people, or lived with autistic people. Those of us in these groups intimately understood the context from which Murray was writing and, especially because the opportunity to read a poem about an autistic person, by an autistic person, had thus far rarely occurred, were hungry for the details. The majority of the audience, however, had most likely only encountered representations of autism in either Oliver Sacks’s essay on Temple Grandin, or the internationally successful movie Rain Man (1988). Murray uses mystery to draw these people into the poem, but still asks that they engage with the complexity of who Alexander is, rather than simplifying Alexander’s life for them, and ignoring the portion of the audience who have knowledge of autism. Often writers in Murray’s position prioritise one group or the other. It is rare that someone genuinely attempts to write to both.

Of course, the success of Murray’s attempt to write to both people with knowledge of autism and people without knowledge of autism depends on the criteria one uses to measure success. Certainly a number of autistic people feel that ‘It Allows’ resonates with their own childhoods. For example, autistic poet Joanne Limburg wrote her poem ‘Alice’s It’, to illustrate her own experiences as an autistic young adult, ‘in appreciative response’ to ‘It Allows’. Another example is Daniel Tammet, an autistic writer and translator with whom Murray corresponded from 2012 until Murray’s death in 2019. When they agreed that Tammet would translate forty of Murray’s poems into French, the choice of which poems to translate was Tammet’s, and he deliberately chose to avoid ‘It Allows’ because Alexander’s experiences were too overwhelmingly similar to his own:

It’s a very powerful poem, and precisely for that reason I didn’t translate it. It was just too powerful for me. … The autism is not the one that I had, but at the same time there were points of similarity of course. I was in my twenties when I read this poem for the first time. I found it very intense. I think the first time I read it it was so intense, it was a little bit like when I would go to the cinema and feel overwhelmed by the film’s images and emotions, conveyed by the images. (‘Two Poets’ 00:19:42–00:20:21)

Critics who have not identified as autistic employ emotive adjectives when referring to ‘It Allows’, however it is difficult to gauge their resulting understanding of autism. They frequently comment on the poem as a whole in passing with words such as ‘remarkable’ and ‘moving’, but rarely elaborate (Nelson; Matthews).

The poem’s title, ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’, is unusual and intriguing. There are no indications as to what ‘Line Scan’ is, what ‘Fifteen’ is a measure of, or even what type of thing the ‘It’ that has given permission for this portrait to occur might be. The first twelve lines of the poem delay clarification, instead opting to gradually introduce the portrait’s subject:

He retains a slight ‘Martian’ accent, from the years of single phrases.

He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection.

It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at

frantic speed through crashing doors.

He likes cyborgs. Their taciturn power, with his intonation.

It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing.

He can read about soils, populations and New Zealand. On neutral topics he’s

illiterate.

Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?

He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually.

He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand.

He can only lie in a panicked shout SorrySorryIdidn’tdoit! warding off conflict

with others and himself.

When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked

fruit.

His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil.

It is not until line thirteen – ‘Giggling, he climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted from “refrigerator” parents’ – that Murray provides the framework that situates the title’s contextless pieces of information. This line exhibits its significance through its distinctive structure: ‘Giggling’ is the shortest fragment that begins any line in this poem; while the rest of the line (‘he climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted from “refrigerator” parents’) is the longest of the poem’s fragments, having twice as many syllables or feet without punctuation breaks than any others. From line thirteen we understand that Murray is one of the ‘us’ who are the parents of the child with ‘autism’; and that ‘he’ who is ‘Giggling’ and the one who ‘climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist’ is that child with autism, Alexander. It would seem, then, that throughout the poem ‘he’ refers to Alexander, and ‘it’ refers to autism. Having made these assumptions we can return to the title and infer that ‘Fifteen’ is Alexander’s age, and ‘Line Scan’ is the method by which this poetic portrait was created.

As a method ‘line scan’ both invokes and creates a number of dimensions. Autistic literary academic James McGrath, in his discussion of this poem, identifies three implications of line scan: It refers to the interpretation of poetry, and the centrality of lines to that process; it makes explicit that this poem is Murray’s subjective representation of Alexander, which might or might not have anything in common with Alexander’s picture of himself, or the method Alexander would use to create that picture; and ‘[l]ine scan [in comparison to area scan] is also the most effective [camera] technology for creating still images of rapid movement’ (105). In addition to McGrath’s third point, line scan cameras provide a much higher resolution, and therefore a much more detailed picture, than area scan cameras.

Furthermore, these differences between line scan and area scan correspond to the differences in how autistic and nonautistic people assess and assimilate new information. Autistic people are most likely to utilise a line scan method, referred to by autistic writer Ian Ford as ‘trees-first learning’, where each detail is examined in isolation, and then added to a dynamic whole (Pattern 13). Nonautistic people, by contrast, are most likely to utilise an area scan method, where they begin with a static whole, from which they then scrutinise prominent details, referred to by Ford as ‘forest-first learning’ (Pattern 13).

Jamie Grant, who has not identified as autistic, asserts that the phrase line scan was coined by Murray to ‘describe the radical, unprecedented, yet entirely successful experiment which this poem comprises’ (130). However, while Murray may have brought line scan into a poetic context it is, as noted above, a term from photography. And since Murray had an interest in photography, he is likely to have acquired the term rather than created it. Similarly, it is unclear to what degree line scan as a poetic method is ‘unprecedented’. Grant does not provide evidence for either claim, and I have not been able to locate Murray discussing line scan. Nevertheless, since line scan emulates autistic perception, we may take it as an autistic poetic technique.

Another autistic feature of this poem is its subject positions. Murray’s portrait of Alexander might initially seem to only have two subject positions – ‘he’ as Alexander (‘He retains a slight Martian accent, from the years of single phrases’), and ‘it’ as autism (‘It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors’). However, there are a further two subject positions – the other ‘it’s that do not directly substitute for the word autism (‘He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually’), and those lines where the subject is not given a pronoun (‘Only animated films were proper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit then authorised the rest’).

This technique of employing multiple subject positions foregrounds Alexander’s tendency of using a variety of pronouns, rather than just ‘I’ to refer to himself. This pronoun variety is part of autism that ‘dislikes I-contact’. Sometimes Alexander refers to himself as ‘I’ (‘I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!’), and sometimes Alexander refers to himself as ‘they’ (‘If they (that is, he) are bad the police will put them in hospital’.)

This is a technique common to autistic people that Murray refers to as ‘pronomial deflection’ (‘A Conversation’). Murray demonstrates this technique while describing it, since he is autistic and is therefore describing himself as well as Alexander, when he states: ‘They live in a world where it is very hard to speak in the first person. They often talk in facts. Getting through to “I” is damn hard’ (‘A Conversation’).

Pronomial deflection is a well-documented, though not comprehensively-theorised, autistic trait. Yergeau explains:

One of our [autistic people’s] trademark lacks, a lack that supposedly evinces and touches upon many an autistic symptom, involves our idiosyncratic usage of pronouns. Since Kanner’s seminal autism publication in 1943, autistics have been known for our pronoun weirdness. Among other examples, autistics have tendencies toward pronominal reversal, wherein we might reference another person as ‘me’ and ourselves as ‘you’. … I would suggest that pro(nouns) indicate standpoints, but the autistic are in continuous motion. As such, there is no place to stand … Or, put another way, autistic pronouns might be read as a kind of stim, a deeply embodied placeholder that can signify multiple meanings and relationships. (210)

The multiple meanings and relationships in this poem are enacted through the four subject positions, which each present a different set of information. From the ‘he’ as Alexander position (‘He knows all the breeds of fowls, and the counties of Ireland’), which occurs more frequently throughout the poem than the other three positions combined, we know three fundamental elements of Alexander’s character: First, he is extremely active. He swims (‘He swam in the midwinter dam at night’), ‘surfs’, ‘bowls’, ‘walks for miles’, and often runs (‘For many years he hasn’t trailed his left arm while running’). Second, he is highly skilled in a number of areas including playing video games (‘When a runaway, he made uproar in the police station, playing at three times adult speed’), remembering (‘He has forgotten nothing, and remembers the precise quality of experiences’), and counting (‘He counts at a glance, not looking’). Third, like many autistic people, he has intense interests. Autistic intense interests are often portrayed as meaningless methods of disconnection however, as autistic economist Tyler Cowen describes, they are the exact opposite:

Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately. When it comes to their areas of interest, autistics are the true infovores, as I will call them. Autistics are sometimes portrayed as soulless zombies, but in fact they are the ones with the strongest interest in human codes of meaning. (2)

Alexander engages with some of his intense interests, such as fruit and their configurations, individually (‘When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked fruit’); and some interests, such as drawing, soil, and countries, he combines (‘He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand’, ‘His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil’, ‘He sometimes drew the farm amid Chinese or Balinese rice terraces’). His favourite intense interest, however, is words. This, as I will regularly describe throughout this paper, is a significant facilitator of his and Murray’s deep connection, since they have it in common.

The second position is autism signified by ‘it’. It ‘allows a portrait’, ‘is gradually allowing him affection’, ‘does not allow proportion’, ‘runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing’, ‘forbade all naturalistic films’, ‘requires rulings’, ‘withdrew speech for years’, ‘won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in it’, ‘had no rules about cold’, and ‘dislikes I-contact’. These are all manifestations of the medical and most well-known characterisation of autism as restraining and rigid.

And yet, surrounding ‘he’ as Alexander and ‘it’ as autism, are other ‘it’s – the third position – that only become obvious when you think neurodivergently, as Alexander and Murray do (‘His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil’). From this position autism, ‘it’, could be either the reason Alexander draws, or what he draws, or both (‘draw[s] it continually’); the reason he is skilled at drawing (‘can draw it freehand’); and the reason he is creative and curious (‘it is nearly all deep fertile soil’, ‘it, as a multi-purpose tool’). These ‘it’s offer potential points of creative connection, since they conceptualise autism as a human condition, rather than a problem to be solved.

The fourth position is represented by those lines describing emotions or activities that are not attributed to their subject (‘Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears’). There are only four of these, but they are important because they directly address Alexander and Murray’s relationship. Two of these lines involve movies (‘Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?’, ‘Only animated films were proper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit then authorised the rest’). Movies are a common method by which autistic people develop knowledge about the world. Since Murray, too, enjoys movies, and movies are referenced in four lines in this poem, it can be inferred that movies are an intense interest that Alexander and Murray have in common, and one of the ways in which they spent time together (The other two lines are ‘He likes cyborgs. Their taciturn power, with his intonation’ and ‘It long forbade all naturalistic films. They were Adult movies’). Another of the unattributed lines describes Alexander beginning to speak, either with his father or mother or both (‘A one-word first conversation: Blane. – Yes! Blane, that’s right, baby! – Blane.’) Together with the only unattributed half line, ‘Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking’, it illustrates the autistic love of words, and playing with words, that Alexander and Murray share.

The other line without attribution focuses our attention on Alexander’s future, and the things that terrify him – ‘Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears’. This statement and ‘I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!’ provide insight into the conflicting thoughts Alexander has on the relationships between himself and people beyond his family: He has no current wish to have a partner. Simultaneously, however, he recognises how different he is compared with other young people, that other people use that difference to separate him from other young people, and that this separation, and the resulting loneliness, are likely to continue. As Murray wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Our Alec is ashamed he’s not in real secondary school, just in the Support Unit class. Bitter, to be just bright enough to sense your deep relegation, eh?’ (qtd. in Alexander 253).

Alexander’s being in the ‘Support Unit class’, the pressure that he feels to ‘get smart’, and Murray’s reference to his being ‘just bright enough’, suggest that Alexander, like an estimated one third of autistic people, has been medically diagnosed as intellectually impaired (Casanova and Casanova 173). It follows then that as Alexander is ‘looking terrified into the years’, Murray is also, since he knows how difficult it was for him, as an autistic person without an intellectual impairment, to manage societal prejudice against autistic people.

Together the four subject positions demonstrate that, while one of them may at first seem distinct from the others, they are all in fact Alexander. This concept, that Alexander is not one-dimensional, is of course a point that could and should be made about every person, but it is a crucial point to make about disabled people. A persistent cultural myth is that impairment is not part of the person, but something else from somewhere else that possesses the person, confining them and forcing them into being an inferior version of themselves. Moreover, the myth maintains, the impaired person will continue to be an inferior version of themselves until the impairment is removed via treatment or cure, then they will finally be a real person. This poem demonstrates that, even if one labels autism as ‘it’ and catalogues what ‘it’ does, ‘it’ cannot be cleanly cut out of Alexander. And, even if that were possible, what would be removed would be, for example, both his absolute distress (‘It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors’), and his talent for drawing (‘He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand’). And whom would the person without both of those be? Certainly not Alexander. As autistic advocate Jim Sinclair states in their seminal speech ‘Don’t Mourn for Us’:

Autism isn’t something a person has, or a ‘shell’ that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence.

‘It Allows’ further explicates this point by involving both ‘he’ and ‘it’ in each of Alexander’s preferences. It is therefore impossible to ascribe those preferences exclusively to either Alexander or autism. For example, in ‘It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing’, ‘it’ chooses to run. However, in ‘When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked fruit’, ‘he’ chooses to run. Similarly, in ‘When he worshipped fruit, he screamed as if poisoned when it was fed to him’ ‘he’ objects to consuming fruit. However, in ‘It still won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in it’, ‘it’ objects to consuming fruit.

The other central theme that becomes evident from combining the four positions is progress. This is further emphasised by the repetition of the phrase ‘begun to’ (‘He’d begun to talk,’ ‘I was sure Bell’s palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to’). This contradicts the prevailing myth that every delay an autistic child has will be permanent. Despite the fact that the development of any child is not linear, if an autistic child’s development slows, pauses, or reverses, it is often assumed that they will never be capable of any more than they are at that time. Though Alexander’s progress might seem slow compared with other people his age, his skills and confidence are continually developing. For example, previously ‘[h]e’d begun to talk, then returned to babble, then silence’, now he asks complex questions such as ‘Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?’ And creates words (‘Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking’).

Furthermore, Alexander’s progress did not finish at fifteen. As Murray pointed out in 2002 in response to a question on this poem: ‘It’s the only poem Alexander knows and approves, or used to. He’s now 24 and it’s behind him’ (‘A Word or Two’). Even as Murray composed this poem, he wrote two thirds of its statements in the past tense, indicating that they described Alexander at earlier points in his life.

The only line that mentions Alexander’s age specifies ‘when he was eight’ (‘Don’t say word! when he was eight forbade the word “autistic” in his presence’), implying that this was a significant time in Alexander’s development. Indeed, in the biography of Murray by Peter Alexander, who did not identify as autistic, there is evidence that Alexander’s slowed progression as a child was not because of autism alone, or perhaps not because of autism at all. The only factor that can be definitively correlated with Alexander’s slowed progress is the Sydney city environment in which the Murray family were living. When they made their long-awaited move from Sydney to the northern New South Wales town of Bunyah in 1985, Alexander was seven. And though Murray and Valerie were concerned that he would be negatively affected by the move, he flourished:

Above all was the relief of finding that Alexander fitted into his new school without problems and in fact seemed to improve rapidly at Bunyah. He adopted Murray’s own childhood practice of going for immensely long walks through the friendly countryside, and his parents could follow his progress through phone calls from farmers many kilometres away: ‘Your boy’s just gone by here’. (218)

Twenty-five years later, this progress had not slowed, as evidenced by Peter Alexander’s epilogue to Murray’s biography, written ‘as the end of the millennium approached: ‘Alexander was about to start working in a local nursery, where his love of fertile soils and natural growth would find full expression’ (295).

Emphasising the falseness of the myth of fixity, the poem frequently switches from one tense to another. The first half of the poem has three blocks of one tense (one present, and two past). However, surrounding those, and throughout the second half of the poem, each line is a different tense from the previous line. A quarter of the lines contain more than one tense, most often switching from present to past (‘He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually’), and sometimes past to present (‘He grilled an egg he’d broken into bread. Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking’).

The sustained shifting from one tense to another also contributes to the sensation of continuous movement within the poem. This denotes both autistic perception, and the awkwardness that Alexander experiences from being out of synchronisation with societal expectations. When most people, including his family, are asleep, he runs around the house; at the greengrocers, where nonautistic convention says that visitors should only look at the fruit for long enough to decide whether to buy it, he worships fruit; when other children his age are talking, he is in silence. The degree of some of this asynchrony is immense: while living in a northern New South Wales town, he has an accent which is not just from another country, but from another planet; as a child he plays videogames at adult speed, and not just faster than adults, but three times faster; he swam in the dam, not just in midwinter, but also at night, whereas most people, if they swam in winter at all, would swim during the day. Consequently, many of his actions are attempts to mediate between his preferences, and what nonautistic culture expects of him: his ‘Martian’ accent sits between silence and standard speech; his ‘rictus-smile’ is a compromise between his lack of interest in smiling and the request that he do so; his eating dried fruit means he satisfies others’ wishes that he eats something fruit-like, while avoiding eating the fruit he ‘worship[s]’.

The negative consequences for Alexander of not conforming to nonautistic demands are demonstrated, as McGrath notes, by a story midway through the poem (112). Representing the story’s traumatic nature, it is told in fragments. In chronological order they are: ‘When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocer’s to worship stacked fruit’, then ‘If they (that is, he) are bad the police will put them in hospital’, then ‘When a runaway, he made uproar in the police station, playing at three times adult speed.’ They imply a story of misinterpretations as follows: From Alexander’s position he was simply enthralled by wonder, enjoying his intense interest in fruit. From a nonautistic position, however, a young person standing in a shop looking at the fruit in awe is suspicious. They may have asked Alexander to leave but, since his attention was completely focused on the fruit, he would not have heard them. They would have interpreted this as him wilfully ignoring them, and called the police, who would have taken Alexander by force to the police station. It is only here that a full understanding of the situation is attempted and, presumably with the involvement of Alexander’s parents, achieved.

While this poem is a depiction of Alexander, when compared with information about Murray, it is also a record of the many characteristics they have in common. Three of these can be found in ‘The Tune on Your Mind’, from Murray’s 2006 book The Biplane Houses.2 Here are the final six lines:

Lectures instead of chat. The want

of people skills. The need for Rules.

Never towing a line from the Ship of Fools.

The avoided eyes. Great memory.

Horror not seeming to perturb —

Hyssop can be a bitter herb.

Murray has ‘The need for Rules’, and Alexander ‘requires rulings’; Murray maintains ‘The avoided eyes’, and Alexander ‘dislikes I-contact’; Murray has a ‘Great memory’, and Alexander ‘has forgotten nothing, and remembers the precise quality of experiences’. Additionally, as I noted earlier, both Murray and Alexander regularly walked for extended distances as children. Also, just as Alexander ‘no longer hugs to disarm’, Murray feels similarly: ‘I used to be a bit afraid of people who went in for hugging and kissing and all the manifestations. It’s still a highly artificial exercise for me’ (‘Wisdom Interviews’). As well, in a number of interviews, his memoir Killing the Black Dog, and in the poem ‘Panic Attack’, Murray discusses experiencing distress that, like Alexander’s, ‘does not allow proportion’. This is the first third of the poem:

The body had a nightmare.

Awake. No need of the movie.

No need of light, to keep hips

and shoulders rotating in bed

on the gimbals of wet eyes.

Pounding heart, chest pains –

should it be the right arm hurting?3

Also documented in ‘It Allows’ are some of the joys Murray and Alexander share. One of these is the land on which they live in Bunyah. Alexander ‘lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually’, just as Murray wrote of the forty acres frequently. As mentioned earlier Alexander and Murray also share a love of, and belief in the power of, words. For example, they both enjoy creating words. In ‘It Allows’ Murray states that Alexander labelled ‘Exchanges of soil-knowledge’ ‘landtalking’. In the same compound-word style, Murray in his essay ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’ writes: ‘I call properly integrated poetic discourse Whole-speak, while discourses based on the supposed primacy or indeed exclusive sovereignty of daylight reason I call Narrowspeak’ (319).

Concomitantly, words have the potential to inflict pain, carrying their histories with them as they do. This poem presents Murray and Alexander’s mutual discomfort with the word ‘autism’. Alexander’s discomfort with this word increased to the point that, when he was eight, he would not allow it to be spoken in his presence (‘Don’t say word!’) For Murray, the word autism has additional painful resonances because, when the ‘dim Freudian psychiatrist’ labelled Alexander autistic, he also labelled Murray and Murray’s wife as ‘“refrigerator” parent[s]’.

The long discredited ‘refrigerator parent’ theory began with the theorisation of autism in 1943. When Leo Kanner, one of the two paediatricians credited with designating autism as a medical diagnosis, profiled the eleven boys that he labelled as autistic, he also noted of their parents that ‘[i]n the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers’ (250). Over the next decade he expanded this comment into the theory that parents subconsciously caused their child’s autism, which prompted a number of related books, including Bruno Bettelheim’s aforementioned The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. Another decade later Kanner retracted his theory. However, Bettelheim’s sensationalised adaption of Kanner’s theory had already become more popular than Kanner’s writing. Bettelheim had been imprisoned for ten and a half months in Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps and, both before that time and after, had had contact with children whom he labelled as autistic. From these experiences he believed he recognised similarities between a set of concentration camp prisoners and all autistic children:

The moslem [concentration camp prisoner who did not react to Nazi cruelty] who let the SS get hold of him, not just physically but emotionally too, went on to internalize the SS attitude that he was less than a man, that he was not to act on his own, that he had no personal will. But having transformed his inner experience to accord with his outer reality he ended up, though for entirely different reasons, with a view of himself and the world very similar to that of the autistic child. (65–66)

To be called a ‘“refrigerator” parent’ then, in addition to being branded responsible for your child developing autism, is akin to being called a Nazi. And, in addition to the general understanding of Nazi as someone who tortured and murdered Jewish people, Murray knows that they also tortured and murdered disabled people. This may be part of the reason the word ‘Nazi’ holds such an intense charge in Murray’s poetry, from this time in the early 1980s and onwards, when Alexander was diagnosed autistic. In ‘Immigrant Voyage’, for example, from Murray’s 1977 book Ethnic Radio, the word Nazi is inconsequential, since its impact will soon fade: ‘ahead of them, epithets: / wog, reffo, Commo Nazi, things which can be forgotten’.4 However, in ‘Rock Music’, from Subhuman Redneck Poems, the book that also contains ‘It Allows’, the word Nazi is destructive: ‘Sex is a Nazi. The students all knew / this at your school. To it, everyone’s subhuman / for parts of their lives. Some are all their lives’.5

Alexander’s and Murray’s discomfort with autism, then, is not from the condition itself. They have in common a complex relationship with the condition of autism, including immense joy. Their discomfort is with the word ‘autism’, as a result of the contexts in which that word has been used against them. Therefore, out of respect for both of their feelings, Murray substitutes ‘it’ for all but two mentions of autism in this poem, including in the title. As McGrath observes, between the four versions of this poem that have been published, the only differences are in the word autism – in when and how often it is included – which suggests that this was the most important and difficult detail for Murray to finalise (106).

In the version of the poem that I have been analysing, which has been the final version since 2003, autism appears by name twice, drawing attention to its most significant points. One of those, (‘Don’t say word! when he was eight forbade the word “autistic” in his presence’), as mentioned earlier, is the only time the poem notes Alexander’s age, since this was when Alexander began to thrive. The other, ‘Giggling, he climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted from “refrigerator” parents’, in addition to its ‘“refrigerator” parent’ accusation, is half of the centre of the poem. The other half is ‘I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!’ Together these lines highlight the injustice in the contradictions in the cultural conceptions of, and consequent reality for, a psychiatrist and an autistic young person, on which this entire poem rests. The ‘Freudian psychiatrist’ is university-educated, and an expert in human communication and relationships, and yet he displays none of this when meeting with Murray, Murray’s wife and Alexander. He employs a long out-of-date theory as evidence for his conclusion that Murray and Murray’s wife are completely insensitive, and also caused their child to be completely insensitive. The psychiatrist does this with no acknowledgement that his words and implications, even if they were true, are deeply insensitive. Further, he does not acknowledge any disparity between how he defines autism, and the autistic boy who is ‘giggling’ and ‘climb[ing] all over’ him. In contrast, Alexander, the young person who attends a ‘Support Unit class’, and is assumed to have less intelligence, and no sensitivity towards other people, is deeply aware of the differences and distances between him and other people, and feels responsible for reducing them (qtd. in Alexander 253).

Even though there were many possible negative and enduring affects that the psychiatrist’s pronouncements might have had on Murray and Alexander’s relationship, and even though a common stereotype of autistic people insists that neither Murray nor Alexander are capable of relationships with other humans, the poem attests to a relationship between them of strength and vitality. This is evidenced by each trusting the other to sensitively answer questions that are difficult to ask: ‘Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?’ reveals that Alexander is unsure of a piece of information that he knows others might consider obvious. Consequently he chooses to ask this question of his father, someone he knows will answer his question without ridiculing him for his lack of basic knowledge. The answer is important to Alexander because he relates to cyborgs (‘He likes cyborgs. Their taciturn power, with his intonation’), and because he needs this information to construct his understanding of the world. Equally, ‘I was sure Bell’s palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to’ demonstrates that Alexander is the only person Murray trusts to tell him the truth about a condition he found ‘depressing’ (Alexander 252).

The trust between them is also indicated by the title (‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’), which suggests that Alexander has previously refused, but now allowed, Murray to write this poem. Allowing Murray to talk publicly about his autism is for Alexander a significant act of trust, especially given his previous discomfort with people even saying the word ‘autistic’. The title also suggests how deeply Murray both respects and values that trust and their relationship, by not writing this poem until Alexander gave him permission.

Murray always thought a great deal of Alexander. In his biography of Murray, Peter Alexander says that Alexander was ‘a beautiful child whom Murray found it a joy to be with’ (215). In an interview in The Guardian in 2004 Murray said ‘Alexander is a terribly interesting human being, he comes out with wonderful things, but the price he pays for it is hard’ (‘Voice of the Outback’). In a 2018 documentary Murray said of Alexander: ‘He makes you rethink your mind and how minds work. And how you are the person you are rather than some other person’ (Murray and Murray 00:13:12–00:13:24). It is easy to imagine, then, how much Murray might have wanted to explore, and could have explored, his and Alexander’s relationship in poetry. However, before ‘It Allows’, Murray published little about Alexander. Poems such as ‘Exile Prolonged by Real Reasons’ from The People’s Otherworld and ‘Like the Joy at His First Lie’ from Dog Fox Field only refer to Alexander covertly. And I have located only one line that mentions Alexander directly, from the poem ‘Extract From a Verse Letter to Dennis Haskell’, in the book The Daylight Moon: ‘She’s on leave from teaching. Alec goes to special school by bus’.6

Having taken up the opportunity to write ‘It Allows’ when Alexander gave it to him, Murray uses it to describe his and his wife’s ‘learning on the job’ of being the parents of an autistic child (‘Two Poets’ 00:25:33–00:25:35.) Judging from this poem then, what Murray learned was not just awareness, but acceptance, of Alexander’s, and his own, autism. Accompanying this acceptance came a deeper understanding of their autistic perception which is, as Ivor Indyk observes, ‘marked by an acute and unhurried attentiveness to the details which define one’s place in the natural landscape’ (78). This understanding motivated Murray to later write another Alexander-related poem – ‘To one Outside the Culture’, contained in 2002’s Poems the Size of Photographs:

Still ask me about adult stuff

when you want. But remember that day

in Madame Tussaud’s basement

when all the grownups looked careful

and some young ones had to smirk?

You were right to cry out in horror

at the cut-off heads there

and the rusty dried trickles

shocked out of their eyes and ears.

Here Murray addresses Alexander both exclusively and publicly. He encourages Alexander to ask him anything, and affirms his reactions to distressing scenes even, or especially, when his reaction is unique within a group. As such he assures Alexander of his right to his own reactions, and the strength and reliability of their relationship.

‘To One Outside the Culture’ is clearly the continuation of a connection that is constituted as much by autism as it is by family. Both men recognise their similarities and differences to the world and each other. Through each other they can contain the prejudice of other’s to the background of their lives, and define themselves by their shared joys.

Footnotes

  1. ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’ is quoted from Murray's Collected Poems, 2018.

  2. ‘The Tune on Your Mind’ is quoted from Murray’s Collected Poems, 2018.

  3. ‘Panic Attack’ is quoted from Murray’s Collected Poems, 2018.

  4. ‘Immigrant Voyage’ is quoted from Murray’s Collected Poems, 2018.

  5. ‘Rock Music’ is quoted from Murray’s Collected Poems, 2018.

  6. ‘Extract from a Verse Letter to Dennis Haskell’ is quoted from Murray’s Collected Poems, 2018.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Les Murray, Disabled writers, Autism.

Cite as: Tink, Amanda. ‘‘Nearly all deep fertile soil’: Les Murray, His Son and Autism.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.6d7c5d602c.