New Selected Poems
New Selected Poems
Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
336 pp., $16.00

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Alan Jacobs

The Consecrated Heretic, Down Under

On Les Murray.

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That phrase comes from what I believe to be Murray's finest poem, and one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, "The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever." (An abridgment of this long lyric serves as the text for the Australian tourism ad I mentioned earlier, which, by the way, should be sought on YouTube, because it's probably the most beautiful television commercial ever filmed.) The poem's titular dream is one of homecoming, nostos: it begins, "To go home and wear shorts forever … ."

But how do we understand shorts? Comically and brilliantly, Murray maps "the cardinal points of costume": Robes, Tat, Rig, and Scunge. Shorts "are never Robes"; can be Tat ("Land-Rovering bush-environmental tat" or "track-and-field shorts worn to parties"); often serve as Rig (whether "farmers' rig, leathery with salt and bonemeal" or a "crisp golfing style"); but for Murray they are best and most importantly seen as Scunge, "the entropy of costume." Scunge "is holiday, is freedom from ambition. / Scunge makes you invisible / to the world and yourself."

Auden writes, in a Horatian poem of his own, "the blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide"; the liberation of Scunge is this. So

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

In the tourism commercial we see Murray saying these lines with a big goofy grin on his face, and they are funny, but they are also deeply wise. To become invisible to yourself and others is indeed a form of spirituality, a smiling but resolute refusal to compete according to the world's standards; a refusal which also opens interior vistas. Thus shorts are "also ideal for going home, into space, / into time, to farm the mind's Sabine acres / for product and subsistence."

This is a message to all of us, but especially to Murray's Australians, whom he sees huddling in their coastal cities, their backs turned to the great continent, eyes upon the American and European cultures they would mimic. Enough of that, the heretic says; it is time "to go home and wear shorts forever"—forever, which is not just an image of renouncing national ambition but also a vision of the New Creation, a world permanently renewed by its Maker. This is a hope to be glimpsed while "walking meditatively / among green timber, through the grassy forest / towards a calm sea." What is required of us is to live in peace, firmly emplaced, but with an ever-searching mind, "looking across to more of that great island / and the further topics."

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University. His The Year of Our Lord 1943 will be published by Harvard University Press.

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