Green Shadows is the title poem and pervading spirit behind Gerald Murnane’s collection of poetic reflections and learnings in Green Shadows and Other Poems (Giramondo Publishing). Who is Gerald Murnane, recently described by the New York Times as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of” who could win the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Is Murnane his own hero John Clare, whom he describes as … a peasant poet unperturbed by the literary elite comfortable in himself and his own dialect, isolated in his rural world, a family man, a family that was ultimately lost to his world?
Murnane is an 80-year-old man living in a small rural Victorian township, Goroke. He is a father and grandfather, a widower, ex-teacher, lecturer and golfer. He is deeply eccentric (read Poetic Truth) with a life full of “purely impractical things”, “imaginary horse races”, “maps of countless places” and even the Magyar Hungarian language, which he reads and writes.
But he also knows, “I am a man who has everything. I have a simple life and tomorrow I will have oatmeal for breakfast…” He lives in a single room reflecting, learning, thinking, sharing – arguably what many 80-year-olds do, but equipped with a way of words, and an honesty that resonates with “the Reader”.
He is a “stay-put” who does not travel. He lives in invented worlds, isolated but alive to the world, a seeker of “Poetic Truth” where …. “images are piling up/in their minds whose only concern/are routine, the familiar, or at most, a few adjustments.” In his isolation and in his meditative reflections he … “sees not sight but the very thing we’d all/like to see. I’ll call it the Real/ or the True or the Ultimate …” He seeks and learns and shares.
He chooses this “monastic” life even though he calculates that “less than six per cent; as it were/ all of the stuff that gave me inspiration / stands faith; religion; Catholic Church.” He selects this “Cistercian Life”, a life like Merton, a writing monk, choosing “pen and paper and a view of rural scenery…” “I wanted to live my lifetime of seclusion…I’ve made no vow of silence but I haven’t spoken…” He does not choose poverty but avoids material trappings, he lives a chaste life after losing his wife, he seeks a spirituality in “poetic truth” but in true monk style also loves his mead, the horseraces and his rural setting.
The collection of poems in Green Shadows is intensely autobiographical but, at the same time, accessible and evocative. His style is full of odes, stanzas, patterns and higher order thinking, but it is also real and raw, open and honest. He speaks without limits. He blends form with deep substance. He is a master but not mastered by his poetry. His language is simple and unadorned, often prose like a ‘prosetry’ style.
He speaks with an integrity, particularly on subjects that he is immersed in as an old man, reminiscing and reflecting, sharing his stories. The poems are intensely personal but there is no hint of hubris or ego. He is allowing his ‘Reader’ to sit with him and listen. Murnane reflects about his writing: “I still find the process itself mysterious and awesome…as the sudden coming into being of these fully developed poems…(that) needed the best part of a lifetime.”
His six poems, Poetic Topics, are revealing as he reflects on the themes which have survived for him, and what he has learned.
He is scathing about “Crap-books” of the literary elite, and of “Political Philosophy”.
He hints at eternity and the uncertainty about some of the big questions of life. “I’ll see it as no less absurd/ that a mass of stone should master the feat/ of thinking than that every word/ of this poem came out of a lump of meat…”
Many of his poems are rooted in his place, but his memory and reading allow him to dream and visit the world. He can muse in his odes to Gippsland, Western Districts, from Coate Water to Glinton, Chiltern, Bordertown, even a Sunrise in the Antipodes. But he does this as a “local sparrow” settled under roofs, who migrated from England. His sense of place is strong and comfortable but he accepts that, because of his background, his experience of being in this land will be as an introduced species.
He states that his recent novel, Border Districts, winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, will be his last. Green Shadows ends with Last Poem. “It merely tells how for sixty years, I wrote/ about only what mattered most/ to me, and whether or not/ my stuff was read, and then stopped.” Will this be his last poem? We hope not. In Green Shadows Murnane has shared his life well. We can only hope as “Readers” that he will share further.
Review by Craig Lawn