Poems from The Biplane Houses
The following poems appear in Les Murray's 2006 poetry volume, The Biplane Houses. The first three are among a number of Les Murray's recent poems connected with houses.
Having tacked loose tin panels
of the car shed together
Peter the carpenter walks straight up
the ladder, no hands,
and buttons down lapels of the roof.
Now his light weight is on the house
overhead, and then he's back down
bearing long straps of a wiry green
Alpine grass, root-woven, fine as fur
that has grown in our metal rain gutters.
Bird-seeded, or fetched by the wind
it has had twenty years up there
being nourished on cloud-dust, on washings
of radiant iron, on nesting debris
in which pinch-sized trees had also sprouted.
Now it tangles on the ground. And the laundry
drips jowls of coloured weight
below one walking stucco stucco
up and down overlaps, to fix
the biplane houses of Australia.
This house, in lattice to the eaves,
diagonals tacked across diagonals,
is cool as a bottle in wicker.
The sun, through stiff lozenge leaves,
prints verandahs in yellow Argyle.
Under human weight, the aged floorboards
are subtly joined, and walk with you;
French windows along them flicker.
In this former hospital's painted wards
lamplit crises have powdered to grief.
Inner walling, worn back to lead-blue,
stays moveless as the one person still
living here stands up from reading,
the one who returned here from her life,
up steps, inside the guesswork walls,
since in there love for her had persisted.
The house has stopped its desperate travelling.
It won't fly to New Orleans, or to Hungary again,
though it counts, and swears, in Magyar.
It is left in English with its life suspended,
meals in the freezer, clothes on airy shelves,
ski badges prickling a wall chart of the Alps.
The house plays radio, its lights clock on and off
but it won't answer the phone, even in Swiss German.
Since the second recession of helped steps
the house quotes from its life and can't explain:
dress-cutter's chalk. Melbourne Cup day 1950.
Alphorn skullcaps. Wartime soy flour, with an onion!
All earlier houses and times, in black and white,
are boxed by aged children visiting to dust this one
on its leafy corner and still, for a while, in colour.
High on the Gloucester road
just before it wriggles its hips
level with eagles down the gorge
into the coastal hills
there were five beige pea-chickens
sloping under the farm fence
in a nervous unison of head-tufts
up to the garden where they lived
then along the gutter and bank
adult birds, grazing in full serpent.
Their colours are too saturate and cool
to see at first with dryland eyes
trained to drab and ginger. No one here
believes in green deeply enough. In greens
so blue, so malachite. Animal cobalt too
and arrow bustles, those so unparalleled.
The wail lingers, and their cane
surrection of iridium plaques. Great spirits,
Hindoostan in the palette of New Zealand!
They don't succeed at feral.
Things rush them from dry grass.
Haggard teeth climb to them. World birds,
human birds, flown by their own volition
they led us to palaces.
The train coming on up the Coast
fitting like a snake into water
is fleeing the sacrificial crust
of suburbs built into fire forest.
Today, smoke towers above there.
We've winged along sills of the sea
we've traversed the Welsh and Geordie
placenames where pickaxe coughing
won coal from miners' crystal lungs.
No one aboard looks wealthy:
wives, non-drivers, Aborigines,
sun-crackled workers. The style
of country trains isn't lifestyle.
River levees round old chain-gang towns
fall away behind our run of windows.
By cuttings like hangars filled with rock
to Stroud Road, and Stratford on the Avon,
both named by Robert Dawson, who ordered
convicts hung for drowning Native children
but the Governor stopped him. God
help especially the underdogs of underdogs
and the country now is spread hide
harnessed with sparse human things
and miles ahead, dawning into mind
under its approaching cobalt-inked
Chinese scroll of drapefold mountains
waits Dawson's homesick Gloucester
where Catholics weren't allowed to live.
There people crowd out onto the platform
to blow smoke like a regiment, before windows
carry them on, as ivory phantoms
who might not quip, or sue,
between the haunches of the hills
where the pioneer Isabella Mary Kelly
(She poisons flour! Sleeps with bushrangers
She flogs her convicts herself!)
refusing any man's protection
rode with pocket pistols. Which
on this coast, made her the Kelly
whom slander forced to bear the whole guilt,
when it was real, of European settlement.
Now her name gets misremembered:
Kelly's crossing, Kate Kelly's Crossing
and few battlers on this train
think they live in a European settlement
and on a platform down the first
subtropic river, patched velvet girls
get met by their mothers' lovers,
lawn bowlers step down clutching their nuclei
and a walking frame is hoisted yea! like swords.