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Interview

In 2007, Dan Chiasson wrote in the New Yorker that Australian poet Les Murray is “now routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” His awards include the Grace Leven Prize, the Kenneth Slessor Prize, the Petrarch Prize, and the prestigious T.S. Eliot Award. In 1999 he was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. He is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry, including Lunch and Counter Lunch (Angus & Robertson), The People’s Otherworld (HarperCollins), The Daylight Moon (Angus & Robertson; Carcanet; Persea), Subhuman Redneck Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Poems the Size of Photographs (Duffy & Snellgrove; Carcanet), and The Biplane Houses (Macmillan; Carcanet). He has also written two verse novels, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (Angus & Robertson) and Fredy Neptune (Carcanet). Other books include the essay collection A Working Forest (Duffy & Snellgrove) and Killing the Black Dog (Black Inc.), an essay and poems on his struggle with depression. He has served as editor of Poetry Australia and Quadrant, and has edited several poetry anthologies. His work has been published in numerous languages. A new book of poems, Taller When Prone (Penguin Australia), is forthcoming in 2010. He lives in his family’s home valley of Bunyah, New South Wales, and was interviewed by J. Mark Smith at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

Image: Is there a distinction for you between old-fashioned poetry and poetry that’s of the moment?

Les Murray: I’ve written on both sides of that line. There are certain effects you can only get in old-fashioned poetry and verse. It’s part of the instrument. You play a bit of this, and you play a bit of that. It depends how old-fashioned you mean. One of my favorite poets is Hesiod of Boeotia. And various Latin poets: Catullus, and Virgil, and some others.

Image: Is there a need for something in your poetry to respond to the social conditions and the reality of this moment, as opposed to, say, 1980, or 1972?

LM: “Now” is what’s obsolete in twenty years. You’ve got to watch that. You look for timeliness if you can reach it, but only occasionally do you reach it. I look back at my work now and sometimes think: That one is going to look dated for a while, but if it survives us all, eventually it’ll be okay. Other poems you think are probably free of datedness, but you can never completely see that in advance.

Image: What about a poem that mentions Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a cyborg?

LM: Our autistic son Alexander loved Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think because he first thought that Schwarzenegger really was a cyborg, a machine-man, and Alexander had the feeling that he was a machine-man too. So this giant was one of his stripe. It took him a while to realize that somebody as mechanical-sounding as that was in fact one of what he called “the regulars,” the ordinary people. He thought Arnold was a great machine-man who might defend him. It was quite interesting to see that transference. Alexander, I think, almost never shows loneliness. That might have been one place where he felt a bit lonely, and he thought that there was another member of his species. Of course, he lost it. Arnie is not of that tribe.

Image: Autism seems to have been of interest to you even before Alexander was born. A collection of yours from 1974 includes a poem called “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver.”

LM: I probably dimly intuited that it was coming. I never looked into it much until Alexander came along, but the word hung in the air somehow.

And I am a little bit that way. I mean, no father of an autistic child fails to be a bit of an autie himself. I’m what you might call a high-performing Asperger. I’m not very good at human relations, and it took me a terribly long time to deal easily with people. Even now I use expressions like “the humans.” I used that when I was a kid to distinguish between myself and other people. Very diagnostic, that one. So even if I didn’t quite know how to apply the word autistic, the intuition was there.

Image: Do you think that the condition of autism has some bearing on or is emblematic in some way of modern art or its problems?

LM: I haven’t thought that one through. It’s probably true. A lot of modern art is very autistic. There is this arbitrary law that you’re not supposed to be sentimental or have any feelings. What the bloody hell is that but autism, pretending to be some kind of automaton? I came across a wonderful phrase recently. Some fellow writing against the Conservative Party of Canada, parodying their attitudes, described the conservative image of Harvard as “the great ice-palace of the modern elite”—where it’s all intellect and no feelings allowed.

Image: In your poem “It Allows a Portrait in Line-scan at Fifteen” you describe a subjective and an objective language. You indicate that the experience of the autistic person is that they are in an objective world.

LM: 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. Earlier in life, like all autistic kids, Alexander used to refer to himself as “they,” or “she,” any pronoun but “I.” The more frightening a thing was, the further the pronoun was from “I.” If he was really scared, it was “they.” “If they’re bad, the police will put them in hospital.” Not “If I’m bad, the police will put me in hospital.” That would be too terrifying a thing to say. It’s what you might call pronomial deflection. You get it in ordinary speech too. A person will say “one” or “a man.” “A man would be a bloody fool to do that.” The queen does it. Dear old “One.”

Image: If you find there’s some quality of autism in you, how does that play out in lyric poetry, which is traditionally understood as the form that uses “I” and “you”?

LM: Lyric poetry is so thoroughly understood as being subjective that you can use any pronoun you like. Readers can take for granted that whoever or whatever a lyric poem is about, it’s also about the writer.

That’s why people don’t read modern poetry. It’s so often emotionally cold and inept. It can’t reach out to them. It talks in a deflected world of abstraction, and they don’t want that. They don’t understand that that’s really personal and has got feeling in it. The feeling is so thoroughly hidden that they think it’s not there.

People often think this in advance of poetry, before they read it, that it’s going to be difficult, impersonal, superior, and cold. When they get there, sometimes they find it’s not quite as bad as they think.

Image: My students sometimes complain that poetry makes them feel stupid.

LM: Better to feed them first than give them nothing. I hate the sense that I’ve given them nothing. The opposite is to give them a feast.

Image: How would you distinguish between what’s sentimental and what isn’t?

LM: I think it’s probably in not telling lies. There’s always something false about the sentimental. When it’s feeling without lies, it’s terribly scary, but it’s not sentimental. I think some of the time students might not so much be made to feel stupid, as be made to feel. Which is pretty hard for post-puritan victims of the Reformation.

Image: You have a poem called “The Doorman.” Any poet is something like a doorman for his own poetry, in that he keeps some words and expressions and idioms away, and others he welcomes. Could you comment on that?

LM: That poem was written a long time ago. When you’re young, and not from a very privileged background, you expect a lot of rejection. It always hurts, but you expect it. And you often lead with your chin, so of course you get the rejection you expected. That’s very much the experience of facing a bloke like the doorman. Later on, you either don’t care enough, or you’re experienced enough to know how to handle him, and he’s no particular threat. So, it’s a youthful poem.

I know people whose entire conversation is based on the expectation of being rejected. They say things two or three times, because they aren’t convinced they are being listened to. They have no authority to impose their speech, their presence, their anything, on their listener. So they use the speech of obsequiousness, rather than the speech of confidence. It’s a fairly desolating day when you realize those two things are different. Somebody is begging to be heard, and somebody is showing signs of interest or noninterest exactly as it pleases them. My father was one example. He had his confidence shattered by being treated badly by his own father, and by a series of dreadful bloody misfortunes, so he was tentative. He was assertive and tentative at the same time. But then so many people in the world are that way. And if there’s anything a doorman can smell, it’s that. Who do I have to let in? Who’s got the confidence? Who can I treat exactly as I like?

Image: Is the doorman figure that of the bully?

LM: He doesn’t bully you; he doesn’t have to. He can’t be bothered. He leaves you to feel like shit yourself.

The bully makes sure that you feel it, because he’s a bit tentative too. He wants to do it to you a few more times to make sure he got it right. The bully operates by turning everybody round him into a moral coward, so that people do not dare to defend the victim. Moral cowards are harder to put up with than bullies.

Australians are given to moral cowardice, too, because they’re a collective people. They’re like the Irish, because they are so often Irish, ancestrally. They desperately rely on acceptance, and they punish dominance. My immigrant wife, Valerie, said she learned fairly quickly in Australia that you never shine in school. If you do too many things right, you’ll start getting nicknames like “Shakespeare” and “genius,” and they’re not meant kindly. It’s a terrible impediment to Australian achievement, a terrible drag on the whole culture. Very few Australians have got the social confidence to escape it.

Image: I get the sense from your work that you have always thought of yourself as defending the honor of working people. Is that the most important aspect of your poetry?

LM: No, though there is a sort of ideal audience in my head, and mine is fairly egalitarian, without being suppressive, without being a mob. There are more important things, like getting the poem right and working something out. But I would like to use the poem not to snub people, unless it was to punish some dreadful bugger. But even then, if I snub someone, he might not have a name; he might just be a figure, like the doorman.

Image: Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by “getting it right” and “working something out.”

LM: What does some phenomenon in the world mean? What does it lead to, what does it point to, what deeper dimension can you find in it? I do a lot of that, and I think of it as contiguous to what science does: working a thing out. Seeing its less obvious connections. Surprising yourself. But I wouldn’t always want to be forensic like that. Sometimes you just want to play around and find musical, surprising stuff to say.

Image: There’s a famous passage in Wordsworth’s Preface where he speaks about poetry following where science goes.

LM: I think science has followed where poetry went. Science has got into a kind of cannibalism, where it eats itself, and it eats its practitioners. Literature had already succumbed to the same thing, to some extent: within a few years, things are seen as obsolete; something else is eating them alive. People themselves feel obsolete before they die. And science, with its fierce resolve to be antireligious, has to re-create the world all the time. It can’t take anything as a given. And each time it re-creates it, it devours the older version and its proponents. There’ll come a day when they’ll eat Darwin.

This pattern of relegation—things being made obsolete and sentenced to death because something else more wondrous turns up—has been a feature of the modern era for four hundred years.

Image: In the third book of Fredy Neptune, as Fred rides the rails across the American west (at the moment in fact that he sees the angel Moroni “blowing a long thin trumpet” on the top of a tall church in Salt Lake City), a spirit or daemon named Iowa tells him about the “promise” of Christianity:

Buy it, and nobody’s a failure. No one’s book is closed.

Refuse it, and there’s high mucks and drudges forever, even dead.

And the death gets shared round just as much, or more….

Do you understand religion in general—and Christianity in particular—as having a socially leveling function? Does it—or should it—shield people from hierarchy and social exclusion? I’m struck by what a this-worldly promise it offers, in Iowa’s words.

LM: I did visit Salt Lake City once and saw the angel statue on top of the Mormon Tabernacle blowing its long trumpet, so it wasn’t hard to transpose that experience into the vision Fred is having. I do have hopes of Christianity as a leveling force, a shield against unjust ranking and grading. Justifiable praise remains possible, but in just measure only, the sort of measure of adulation the saints will accept. I put hope in the rescues from social relegation Christians can do, and sometimes remember to do. And yes, all of the promises are as much this-worldly as otherworldly. The Kingdom was intended to be here as well as beyond, surely, even though resistance to it was possible and overwhelming on this side.

Image: You identify yourself as Catholic, I believe. I’m interested, given your Scottish and German ancestry, in what you understand yourself to have inherited from the Protestant tradition. Non-conformism, and a distrust of the law, I would venture. But not imaginative austerity.

LM: I am a Catholic, yes. A convert in my late teens, but not a fanatic as in the stereotype about converts. My wife says I still have a lot of Calvin in my soul, especially the unforgiveness. Probably true. I did get a thorough grounding in the Bible, having read all of it by ten or twelve. I’m told Catholic kids didn’t get anything like this until Vatican II.

As a kid, I grew repelled by the Calvinist atmosphere, the competitive personal holiness, the mean advantage often taken of the poorest in our community, the superiority to them and other unfortunates. And that doctrine, dying even then, of predestination, how you were what you had got—more or less money, more sexiness, more attention—and this was somehow what you deserved. We were the poorest family in our district, the wind came in through the gaps between the boards of our house, and my parents seethed in humiliation about this, because it was contrived for us by Dad’s father. Most of our neighbors were nice about it all, and never treated us as badly as my parents continually expected them to—but they never objected to the setup either. I did revere our minister, a truly saintly old fellow, but I noticed superiorities from some of the laity, and those came to rankle when I grew to understand them. They didn’t escalate into true bullying till I met with the town middle class and its teenage children. Religion didn’t help or matter one jot there.

“Sprawl” was my Dad’s term for a kind of shirtsleeve nobility of gesture. Not pinched-arse Puritan at all.

Much more importantly, I was wowed and fascinated by the sacramental bridge between earth and heaven that Catholicism offered, by the doctrine of the real presence, by that total defiance of austerity and meanness of spirit. It still lies ahead of me, though, to do a lot more forgiving of things that oppressed me and my sort of people when I was young. Not so much persons: I haven’t got a long list of individuals to forgive, only about three or four standouts, but I do have to be more merciful to climates of opinion.

“Unforgiveness” has a forward projection too, which I call moral snobbery. One reason many of the Murrays avoided sin was that we felt it beneath us. Some of us were impious and despairing because we felt beneath God’s help or mercy. Some Calvinists were kind to Aborigines out of superiority, while others dished out to them what they seemed predestined to endure.

Image: Do you feel more affinity for John Donne (to whom you have been on occasion compared, at least in your capacity for grand poetic conceits) or George Herbert? Or are there other Christian poets who have been more important for you?

LM: I admire Donne for the mathematical, almost tile-making exactitude of his patternings and reversals. He is like a Muslim wall decorator. George Herbert moves me much more. Various Scottish and Irish medieval poets too, Dunbar and the poet of that mighty anonymous hymn from Ireland, “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,” hymn 31 in John de Luca’s Australian Parish Hymn Book. And though I’m no fan of the Reformation, I do love some of its hymns: Martin Rinkart’s “Now Thank We All Our God,” for instance. I guess most of the Christian poetry I’ve read, by far, would be in hymns. I’ve sung it as well as read it. James McAuley, the tough, anti-modernist Australian poet of last generation, was a super hymnodist. Probably the only greater Australian Christian poet is Andrew Lansdown, of Perth, a Baptist. He writes too much but is great at his best. Judith Wright hit a very pure miraculous note a few times, and so did the earlier Lesbia Harford, the Catholic socialist who was supreme at reasoning in verse.

Big John Milton wasn’t an influence on me. I read his collected poems over a long weekend when I was sixteen and never went back to him. The only one of his myth-stories I liked was Samson Agonistes. Lucifer sounded like a businessman caught out and defiant in a scam. A grand scam, perhaps, but still rather like alienating a third of General Motors. I preferred Alexander Pope. Much more my sort of fellow was Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. He taught me how to do baroque diction, how to melt language and model tableaux in it. I taught myself later on how to do this under cover. You gave your work a factual plain surface and worked the baroque and the rococo underneath, so that you and your readers were free of the tyranny of modern “no nonsense” pretensions.
Image: When I mull over what you’ve written about the relation between poetry and religion (as in the poem with this title), I sometimes wonder why there should be any genuine human need for the “mobile, glancing,” small thing called poetry at all. That is, if “arrayed religion” is the larger, more humanly necessary form of poetry—“the large poem in loving repetition”—shouldn’t we all give up the writing and reading of the merely literary as something secondary and distracting?

LM: Of course most folk have given poetry up altogether, even more absolutely than they’ve abandoned church. In my home valley when I was a kid, only two men were known to consume poetry while sober, a Scots hermit who was steeped in the whole Scottish tradition and could set all the drinkers right on Burns Night, and an English-born grazier who knew all of Pope by heart and spent fifty years reciting him to the rumps of his cattle while droving them.

My point would be that poetry is lighter and quicker than church, more portable, vastly more open to heterodoxy and pointing in all directions, the mode of the spirit talking back, if you will. Arrayed, ceremonial religion is stately and slow, meant to be more impressive and to bed things more deeply in the spirit, distilling what is most likely to feed it, console it, encourage it. But it’s typically further away, more of a drive to get to, a rarer thing in busy modern times. We also need architecture we can fold into a book or a back pocket. I guess I’d add that arrayed, big religion typically claims your allegiance, your soul, while poetry generally only borrows these for a short while, and most often lets you merely audit the performance and draw from it that way. And there’s that test poetry resembles and sometimes outdoes religion in applying to subject and author alike: is it true? Does it cause meditation, even if only for a while?

Image: Would you concur with Blake’s remark that “all deities reside in the human breast”? You’ve written that “God is the poetry caught in any religion.” Does this formulation owe something to Blake?

LM: I’m no great Blake expert, but I would say that true deity, whether seen as a unity or fractioned, doesn’t just reside in the human breast, though of course it is reflected there. I wish it did so more strongly, in some cases, including the breasts of kiddy-fiddling clergy. But I also don’t forget the guiltless clergy who go at their job with tireless effort. “Caught in any religion” is just my way of saying that many traditions have something of God in them, which is his response to their seeking and imagining.

Image: How do you think the lyrical and the satiric modes are related in your poetry? Is lyric a mode that is closer to the devotional impulses of faith? Do you think that satire aligns in a different way from lyric with our deep attraction to that which is both “complete” and “inexhaustible”?

LM: I’m not a big follower of even classical satire, and I’m revolted by much of the modern article, especially that pumped out in the press and on TV. That junk is apt to be propaganda, and never for a salubrious cause—especially not since 1968. I do strike the odd satirical poem that makes me smile, though. The great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, whom I read in translation, can be as sensuous as Wordsworth while writing satire. If I do anything like satire, it’s apt to be counter to someone else’s, and very much I hope in the voice of honest indignation. There are at least four such poems in Killing the Black Dog: “A Deployment of Fashion,” “A Stage in Gentrification,” “Demo,” and “Rock Music.”

All this being said, I do think much of the rest of poetry, including the lyric mode, is better fitted for the spirit’s explorations. Though discovery can start anywhere. One feature of much modern poetry which gives me the pip is that defensive reflex of slight ridicule with which many overlay their verses so as not to be thought naïve. Grad-school writing-class verse seems especially prone to this.
Image: You spoke a moment ago about the modern phenomenon of “relegation.” How do you see this process affecting language?

LM: When I was a little kid, we had a bloke around Bunyah who still referred to girls as “flappers.” 1942, and he was still talking about flappers. When he died in the 1990s, he was still saying it. He just got frozen in that era. You can find where people are and where they’ve been by the words they use. It’s rather charming, in fact. It means that they’re not hyper-modern all the time. They slip up. You can see the trail that they’ve made through the world.

Image: You’ve spoken about the way your “novel in verse,” Fredy Neptune, is organized around a single central image. Is the poem otherwise organized by narrative?

LM: Yes, though only because I discovered the narrative by writing it. I had no idea what was going to happen. I had a couple of ideas of things that were going to happen early on, but then I had to follow on from them and find what happened next. Until I got to the last page I didn’t know how it was going to finish. I discovered it when I got there. Fred walked off the stage, as it were. He never came back to me again. The story was told. They say if you don’t get a character right it hangs around and bothers you. Fred never bothered me at all. He knew that his tale was told. People have asked me, what did Fred do next? I’ve no idea. He walked off.

Fredy Neptune is about human propensity for terrible wrong, for terrible injustice and cruelty. The sight of extreme suffering and evil has affected Fred in a curious way which is very deep but also invisible. And he has to keep it invisible, or he thinks he has. Occasionally somebody sniffs him out. Some realize that there’s something strange about Fred, but they’ve got to be very savvy to work out what it is. He never lets on. Or when he mentions it, people reject it or don’t believe it. One time he tries to tell his mother, and she will not have it. She says, “Don’t speak of these things.” So he finds himself talking to the wall after she’s gone to sleep. Finally, Marlene Dietrich speaks to him. Because she’s an actress and can tell what’s going on in a person, when they’re acting and when they’re on the square, she’s got a strong intimation of the truth, and she draws it out of him.

Image: A certain number of your earlier poems seem to come out of, or be at least partly motivated by, anger and frustration.

LM: That’s true particularly of poems I wrote when I was trying to cure myself of depression. It’s not always true of the earliest poems, but it’s true of a particular period from late in the eighties to early into the two thousands, when a whole lot of old, bad anger was being worked out. Before and after that, I’m not so sure. I’ve not been out of it for very long.

Image: Do you think the poetry worked it out?

LM: I think it did. I used to say, “I don’t believe in using poetry as therapy.” But I tell you, if you get sick enough you’ll use anything you’ve got as therapy. I used poetry as a kind of plunger to dip up old bad stuff and examine it.

Image: You gave a lecture in Rotterdam about ten years ago called “A Defense of Poetry,” in which you talked about poems and “poemes.” Has that been published anywhere?

LM: It’s in a book of essays called A Working Forest. My idea was that in any human creation there’s going to be a participation of the dream mind as well as the logical, daylight waking mind. And there’s probably also going to be some kind of participation of the body. They’re all going to be enacted in some way. And the more vigorously and simultaneously they’re enacted, the closer the approach to the condition of poetry.

Everybody’s got a few magical things in their lives. They can talk about them as if they were rational and logical, but in fact their heart is poetry. What’s the poem of your life? Well, one of them is your marriage, quite often. One of them is your favorite hobby, or hobbies. And a few other things. Your political affiliation and dreams in that direction. There usually won’t be too many. There’ll be a few small ones, and a couple big ones. That’s the standard equipment of a human soul. I call them poemes. It’s a word derived from the same sort of language as “morpheme” and “grapheme” and “phoneme” and so on.

Image: What are your dreams in the direction of politics?

LM: Haven’t got any, that’s the trouble. I don’t believe in politics. I don’t think it ever does much good. Even at the best of times, you don’t get much out of politicians. Ideology and Hollywood have superseded them, reduced them to obedience.

Image: Can I ask you about your experience of working on the draft of a proposed preamble for the Australian Constitution?

LM: I thought it was a chance to go behind the prime minister’s back and put a knife into the media, and secure people from their persecution. The media had no doubt that this was what I intended, and they tore into me. They went ape, because it would have made them a lot less able to attack individuals and groups. They would have had to be fair, instead of using all sorts of innuendo and vicious rhetorical tactics. I would have taken away a lot of their power. I used to say, if you’re going to be ruled by media, then the journalists are the elite; they’re an unelected parallel government. I didn’t succeed in my attempt.

Image: I read the text of the preamble last week. The thing that looked to me like your fingerprint on it was the word “mateship.” Was that you?

LM: No. The prime minister, John Howard, wanted that one. I told him that was the wrong register, but he wouldn’t let me step away from it. “Mateship” made the whole damn thing very easy to attack, easy to parody. What I was after was to put it in terms of protecting the individual, from government and from the collective, but I realized even as I was doing it that it was a fake. Howard was having the preamble written and put forward to the voters as a distraction that he was going to use to sink the republican referendum.

But I thought, maybe if the ploy gets out, and the people can vote on it, then enough of them will vote to make it more than a ploy. He will have shot himself in the foot. But the version I worked on didn’t get to the people. It was stopped by four members of a party called the Australian Democrats, who then cobbled together another preamble and took that to the people, and the people took it out and shot it.

No, I don’t trust politics, or politicians. Much more than politics, I do trust the power of a good idea. A good idea is fairly hard to resist when it comes up, and politics has to reassemble itself around the idea or get left behind.

Image: Would you make a distinction between politics and culture?

LM: Yes. Politics is maintenance, keeping things cool and steady. It’s administration, trying to keep things within bounds and privilege those that get closest to the trough. Whereas culture can throw up all sorts of ideas that politics never wanted.

Image: Does a poet have to keep up with cultural change?

LM: You’ll often be punished if you don’t. It’s dangerous stuff to be around because it lashes out. It’s unpredictable, electric. You never know who it’s going to hit, who it’s going to persecute, and who it’s going to approve of, take up and then drop. It’s very labile and very quick. I was writing the other day about this, and about my father. The poem has still got ink all over it where I’ve been re-writing and getting it right.

In the sixties there was a kind of bohemian revolution which was about one molecule thick lying on top of an ancient ocean of force. It changes all the time because of impulses from below. It’s glittering too. It’s pulling people toward it. Dangerous. Absolutely untrustworthy.

Well, from that, you can deduce that I’ve never been handsome. People who are handsome and socially successful never notice these things, because they’re riding on them.

Image: Do you think of poetry as a kind of counter-force to that?

LM: Mostly it’s as obedient as any other force. Most poetry’s horribly obedient. I try to be a disobedient poet. One of the best things you can do in poetry is always to be at loggerheads with what most of them are doing. Because if they’re all going along with the current values, they’re not doing their job. They’re writing a poetry-surrogate.

Being disobedient makes it harder, but it makes it more interesting. Maybe I shouldn’t whinge about being able to write. That opposition is against the current of culture itself.

Image: I wanted to ask you about Translations from the Natural World.

LM: That was when I was really badly off my head. Sick of myself. I didn’t want to hang around with myself. So I’d imagine myself out of my head, into the lives of other creatures. I did it for several months. It was good.

The world of a cat is not the world of a human. We don’t even know what these worlds are. We get an idea of some of them. I’ve got a certain awe of cats, because they’re such strange and serious creatures. They consent to live with us. They’re not subject to us. They can occasionally come up with exactly the right gesture, though. Valerie says that while I’ve been away she’s been feeling a bit down sometimes, lonely. And Min, our elder cat, will come along and pat her on the cheek with her paw. Which is to say, Be of good cheer. Be comfortable. A curious cat. A funny, mad little thing, but she always gets the emotions right. Why do they bother to do that for us?

Image: In any other book—other than Translations from the Natural World—have you thought of yourself as a poet who was a translator as well?

LM: I suppose in a superficial way I was translating in Fredy Neptune, because I was thinking in both German and English. German was the only other language I knew well enough to pretend to be a speaker. Maybe I could make a poem that was in both languages. John Kinsella, who is a madman in some ways but was onto something here, asked me, “What language is Fredy written in?” I said I thought it was written in Australian, but with English and German disguises.

But that doesn’t go as deep as what I was after with Translations from the Natural World. It was a dimension, though, that Fred could cross over: he could cross between his two worlds, the German world and the Anglo world. And somehow he steps from one into the other to hide himself. Sometimes he is forced to be in one or t’other. And he sees various things that he wouldn’t be able to see without that. When he hears about the brotherhood of all mankind, he says, “What language would it be held in?”


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