Saturday, 27 April 2013

Les Murray - Troop Train Returning

There’s as much reflection in the going to war as there is in the coming home.  And this is how I would like to introduce a poet I admire and one of Australia’s greatest contemporary poets, Les Murray.  Les is a prolific writer who has written more than most people could ever wish to achieve.  Though for all of that, he is a controversial figure in Australian literature.  He’s made himself that way by being outspoken, critical of academics in the literary world, critical of the city upper-class throughout Australia’s history, champion of the battling country folk, the marginalised, the oppressed.  I see parallels between Les’s view on the world and that of Charles Bukowski – both appear to come from deprived, difficult child-hoods.  Except in Les Murray’s case, a truly gifted intellect took him on to university and established academic success.  Les Murray writes great descriptive poetry through which the exact use of words and perfect turn of phrase paints an emotional image of the scenes he describes in his writing.  Les grew up in the country, near Taree in New South Wales.  Consequently, many of his poems are set in the bush and rural surroundings.  His poem, Troop Train Returning is fitting for our ANZAC day remembrance.  It describes the mood of Aussie soldiers, the survivors of WWII, on the final leg of returning to homes out west to pick up their lives, wheat belt towns, sheep, cattle farms and properties.  What’s amazing about this poem, is that Les Murray obviously wrote it from imagination, not personal experience.  And he wrote it when he was a young man (maybe influenced by the cinemascope, picture theatre news reels of his day).  Anybody who has driven the miles, followed the rail tracks, the telephone lines, crossed the cattle grids linking outback towns like, Dalby, Walgett, Winton, Mildura, Cloncurry, Quilpie or Hay will know that Les has nailed it in, Troop Train Returning.
Troop Train Returning
Les Murray (1938 – )
Beyond the Divide
the days become immense,
beyond our war
in the level lands of wheat,
the things that we defended are still here,
the willow-trees pruned neatly cattle-high,
the summer roads where far-back bullock drays
foundered in earth and mouldered into yarns.
From a ringbarked tree, as we go cheering by
a tower and a whirlwind of white birds,
as we speed by
with a whistle for the plains.
On kitbags in the aisle, old terrors doze,
clumsy as rifles in a peacetime train.
Stopped at a siding
under miles of sun,
I watched a friend I mightn’t see again
shyly shake hands, becoming a civilian,
and an old Ford truck
receding to the sky.
I walk about.  The silo, tall as Time,
casts on bright straws its coldly southward shade.
All things are spaced out here
each in its value.
the pepper-trees beside the crossroads pub
are dim with peace,
pumpkins are stones
in fields so loosely green.
In a little while, I’ll be afraid to look
out for my house and the people that I love,
they have been buried in the moon so long.
Beyond all wars
in the noonday lands of wheat,
the whistle summons shouters from the bar,
refills the train with jokes and window noise.
this perfect plain
casts out the things we’ve done
as we jostle here, relaxed as farmers, smoking,
held at this siding
till the red clicks green.
My contribution to this post is also written from imagination – imagination of a young man who went to war from a Queensland country town but did not return.  Jimmy Oliver (QX13185) was my grandmother’s young brother.  He enlisted with the 8th Division, 2/10 Field Regiment, fall of Singapore, prisoner of war, died in Sandakan, Borneo, a mere five months before the Japanese surrendered.  My poem has no title, but it comes from my mother as a little girl recalling a time when Jimmy visited the farm on leave.  I can only imagine his pride and excitement of having already tasted city life beyond the Pioneer Valley and now off to adventure overseas ………
1941, Friday, 3rd January          The Commanding Officer received a telephone communication.  All pre-embarkation leave must be completed by the 21st January
They sent Fred and me home on leave
five days, two days
travel time,
I went to visit mum and dad’s grave
before taking the rail motor to Finch Hatton,
looked so forward to catching up,
me in my dress uniform,
and the world beyond
cane paddocks and scrub,
never realized before,
how warm feeling,
kerosene lamp glow gives,
at night from a farm window,
far off,
seems out of touch now,
comfortable and beckoning,
but regretful,
when you know the true brightness.
After only a day
I was eager to get back,
Jess and Rachael talked into the night,
Steve doesn’t understand
or George
I think May was proud of me,
the night stayed at their place
on the Gargett farm,
poor Les itching to get into it,
said my final good-byes.....
                                                   J. O. White

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