Going to “Church” with Les Murray
The first time Les Murray’s poem, “Church,” was published, in 2005, it was accompanied by an interview with the poet. Valentina Polukhina asked: “You are regarded as an eccentric Australian voice, a rural poet speaking for an urban culture, a Roman Catholic speaking for a largely secular people. Are you comfortable with such perceptions?”.
In his down-to-earth style, Murray responded:
I don’t speak for anyone. I speak to the poetry public. They can be Catholic, they can be Jewish, they can be whatever they like. I just speak as I am. I am a Catholic and I don’t believe that other people are necessarily secular. I think that intellectuals are mostly secular or are required to pretend that they are. But broader people are very varied; a lot of them are religious, lots of the Catholic. I speak to those who want to read me.
Les Murray traveled from his home in northern New South Wales to give a poetry reading in St Andrews last week, and “Church” was one of the poems read. It was a rare treat to hear a poet I’ve been reading for at least 15 years read their own poetry, but to hear the images of my childhood (not too far removed from Murray’s own, in terms of geography or background) be voiced in metaphor was something quite eztraordinary. In this case, I think his true blue Australian accent, which was music to my own anxiously expatriotic ears, imbued his poetry with additional depth. Two poems particularly struck me, a newly written unpublished poem about the significance of the canonization of Mother Mary MacKillop, and this one, “Church.”
In memoriam Joseph Brodsky
The wish to be right
Has decamped in great numbers
But some come to God
In hopes of being wrong.
Goodbye to gentrifical force,
To being than under that horse
As the poor climbed its every leg.
The building is an angular egg:
High on the end wall hangs
The Gospel, from before he was books.
All judging ends in his fix,
all, including his own.
Freedom still eats freedom,
Justice eats justice, love –
Even love. But the retarded man says
Church makes me want to be naughty.
In English evolution, we’re money,
genes to spend in the Darwin shops
on more genes, till personhood stops.
Church rose from the original, Jewish evolution.
Naked in a muddy trench
With many thousands, one is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.
I’ve been pondering on this poem a great deal over the last 10 days and I wanted to share it with you, and get your thoughts on it: on Murray’s statement about what kind of poet he is, and finally on what it might mean to be a “religious poet.” This article by Alan Wilson on Murray as a religious poet provided food for thought, particularly his exploration of Murray’s poem, “Poetry and Religion.”
So, what do you think? What are the images this poem evokes for you? Does it sit well? Or does it grate? Are you challenged? Humbled? Incensed?
The Les Murray reading I attended last week was sponsored by StAnza – Scotland’s International poetry festival, held in St Andrews each March, along with the English Department of the University of St Andrews. Last year, the festival was headlined by Seamus Heaney. The 2011 festival will be held 16-21 March. Headliners and festival themes were recently announced and include Ciaran Carson, Selima Hill, Douglas Dunn, Paul Farley, Julia Donaldson, Fiona Sampson, and Yang Lian.
Reference: Polukhina, Valentina. “Les Murray in Conversation with Valentina Polukhina.” Two Lives. Ed. Deriev, Alexander. Vol. 4-5: Ars Interpres Publications, 2005. 297-300. Print.