A poet faces the abyss

Les is more
By JAMES PARKER  |  June 8, 2011

poet and author Les Murray 

Depression: the mind grapples — the culture grapples — to frame it. Serotonin hiccup? Existential banana-skin? Anger blow-back? Fall from grace? To me, 17 years ago, it felt like sudden and forcible withdrawal from a drug I didn't know I was on. My source, my thing — gone! Desperately, I researched the problem. You'd find me kneeling like a penitent in the Psychology section, flapping through jargony books. I also used Literature: of the charred little genre of the depresso-memoir I was soon a connoisseur — William Styron's Darkness Visible (not bad), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up (excellent), and so on. Les Murray's Killing the Black Dog, I think, would have been useful to me back then. Or maybe not. Maybe it would have shoveled me deeper into the gloom. Who knows? I certainly didn't.

Fattest, baldest, and most Australian of the great poets, Les lost his shit in 1985. The trigger: an encounter, at a function in his honor, with an old schoolmate. "This woman cheerfully recalled to me one of the nicknames she had bestowed on me thirty-odd years previously, and within a day or two I began to come apart." If you know the work of Les at all, and the great Les themes — hatred of snobs and bullies, and a corollary soulful identification with everything ostracized and uncool — this all fits right in. The injured child, playground target, grows large and famous, but the Great Tease snakes out of the past and jabs him again, right in the brainpan. Same venom, same accuracy, but this time — ach! — "cheerfully." Down he goes, like a sack of potatoes.

Weepings, tinglings, mindless panics, phantom heart attacks; "a coppery taste in the mouth, which I termed intense insipidity." Pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt (fuck the Nanny State!), Les implores the young patrolman to shoot him dead. Slowly, though, slowly, via "a close questioning of past trauma," and a recognition that his galloping horrors are largely chemical mirages, driven by an "illusion-hormone," he starts to pull out of it. Appended to the memoir are "The Black Dog Poems," and this is where the real battle happens. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee: there's Les, prostrate beneath his condition, and then there's his genius, gloves lowered, circling and trash-talking in its amazing, omnivorous language. "Black kelp boiled in my head." "A Hindenburg of vast rage/ rots . . . above your life."

Killing the Black Dog was written in 1997, and an Afterword from 2009 notes ruefully the subsequent recurrence of Les's depression: "I know now that you can't kill the Dog." Can you take it for a walk? Throw a stick for it? Poop-scoop? Space doesn't permit much more than a mention of his new collection Taller When Prone (published simultaneously in the US with the Black Dog reprint), but if you're looking for a pick-me-up after the plunging problematics of the memoir, here it is. With rough 'n' ready prosody, and a pulling-in of slang, science, high talk and low, Les has built the zany instrument of his verse, and he swipes it over the world like a Geiger counter. The needle jolts, continually. A police car "lies in cover like a long-jawed/flat dog beside the traffic stream." A field "looked like high speed/So new-mown was the hay." Rejoice, rejoice. "At full tilt, air gleamed — /And a window-struck kingfisher,/snatched up, lay on my palm,/still beating faintly." What can a poet do, in the end, but bang his head against the pane of reality and hope to be scooped off the floor?

Related: Interview: James Carroll, Interview: Robert Siegel, Learning curve, More more >
  Topics: Books , Les Murray, INTERVIEW, poet
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