Almanac Poetry: Les Murray – ‘Nocturne’

Les Murray died yesterday (April 29, 2019).


This poem is so magnificently Brisbane. I am a big Les Murray fan. Poetry, of course. But his prose is also sparkling. I have a collection called A Working Forest – which I recommend.




Nocturne (by Les Murray)

Brisbane, night-gathered, far away
estuarine, imaginary city
of houses towering down one side
of slatted lights seen under leaves

confluence of ranginess with lush,
Brisbane, of rotogravure memory
approached by weblines of coke and grit
by sleepers racked in corridor trains

weatherboard incantatory city
of the timber duchess, the strapped port
in Auchenflower and Fortitude Valley
and bottletops spat in Vulture Street

greatest of the floodtime towns
that choked the dictionary with silt
and hung a navy in the tropical gardens.
Brisbane, on the steep green slope to war

brothel-humid headquarters city
where commandos and their allies fought
down café stairs, belt buckle and boot
and once with rattletrap green gun.

in midnight nets, in mango bombings
Brisbane, stories and cable-fixed,
above your rum river, farewell and adieu
in marble on the hill of Toowong

by golfing pockets, by deep squared pockets
night heals the  bubbled tar of day
and the crab moon, rising, reddens above
Brisbane, rotating far away.



I love this book. We bought it when we went to hear him in Brisbane.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. hmmm — mo responses. Is that because Les Murray is a poet whose faux priestly, overbearing and self-consciously stylised writing actually alienates the ‘simple folk’ he purports to write for.

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Yeah, but shouldn’t the ‘People’s Poet’ have a slightly better vocabulary than the people so they can be encouraged to look up the dictionary and expand their vocab?

  3. “Brothel humid” is a wonderful and apt image.
    Once it hits 32 degrees the humidity sucks the life out of you.

  4. Damo Balassone says

    At first glimpse the poem is mystifying, but after further inspection it is mesmerising. Quite a few of the lines stay in your head like “crab moon”, “mango bombings”, “rum river” and “bubbled tar of day”.

    Reading Murray, while difficult at first, is an immensely rewarding experience.

  5. Agree Damo: it is poetic. If you have evr lived in Bribane it is a classic representation of the city, its climate, its history.

    Bottle-tops spat in Vulture Street – this is a street which has men’s boarding houses and you can just imagine the down-and-outs on the verandahs biting the tops off XXXX tallies and spitting them in to the street below.

    Also lovely reference to Toowong cemetry.

    Full of layered meaning, it’s one of my favourite poems from one of my favourite poets, who (I thin k) does know life in Australia – country, suburban, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, bohemian, academic etc

    His book of prose A Working Forest is a must-read for those interested in the life of the mind and the meanings associated with human and natural existence on this continent.

  6. “night heals the bubbled tar of day” is an interesting image, for so often the night is anything but soothing.

  7. John. His observations and phrases are often first rate. What I object to is Murray’s bigger picture in which the bush becomes the good antidote to the evil city. I also stick with the idea of him being a faux-priest. His cadences give him away. This poem though is full of original cliche’s, new phrases that become instantly stale as you look at them. E.g, “choked the dictionary with silt” is a poor way of saying the library got flooded. The poem relies on a cliched history as well. Of all of Brisbane’s possible histories, Les picks out the predictable and safe bits.

    Though I enjoyed the allusion to “Brisbane Ladies” in the cemetery

    Les Murray tends to write from observation and not from experience. This is fine but the problem for me is that so often his poems come with the signature of experience, which is therefore fraudulent. ‘Travelling through Sawmill Towns’ is typical — a poem in which the act of tourism morphs into local knowledge into embedded personal feeling in the blink of an eye.

    Mulcaster, spot on. When it is hot enough to bubble tar in Brisbane (not all that often btw) the nights are often terrible. He’s transporting the cool of some other place’s night to Brisbane.

    Sorry to go on but this bloke’s reputation is one of my hobby-horses.

  8. Ian, Interesting differences. I love the line ‘choked the dictionary with silt’ because it works on so many different levels – a visual image, the onomatapoeia of ‘choked’, the fact that it meant the flood dominated conversation for a long time afterwards, and is central to Brisbane’s sensibility (that it is a flood town), the perjorative nature of the term choked,and if you’re being really harsh it may be saying something about the perceived life of the mind in Brisbane.

    I don’t find Murray overly pompous. He comes from a deity-centred world, (I agree his book dedications are extravagant and grandiose), but if he is priestly he is priestly in the better sense of the word. I think he is interested in meaning, as it is experienced (uncovered, revealed; rather than constructed and projected), and he brings the twin insights of scholarship and experience to his work.

    I’m not sure what else he can do.

  9. I saw the extra layers of silt but still wasn’t excited by them.

    If Murray wasn’t so judgemental about one and only one side of politics I’d like him more. As Howard’s poet he kept too quiet about Tampa, Siev X etc, GST et al. He hitched his wagon to the right and saw that it was ugly but had alienated himself from the left so much that he had no place to speak of morals and politics and thus retreated. The last thing I saw by him in the Oz was on New Years’ day 2000.

    Poets aren’t required to speak of such things directly but when they lay claim to honest observation they can’t be wearing blinkers. Remember the poem about the women who had been badly treated (Lindy and the two Helens) and how we tend to abuse forthright women in this country. All true. But there was another woman at the time who had recently been crucified and he had no space in his heart for her. Carmen Lawrence.

    Ultimately Les is an angry and depressed victim (of his own self-confessed beastly visage, of bullying, of his family tragedies) and a brilliant wordsmith, the problem is that these two facts can twist into something fairly unsavoury.

    He will not be a reliable narrator of this country’s cultural history until he gets the blinkers off. Without trying to blow smoke up your arse John, you are much fairer to those on the other side of your political fence than Murray could ever be to those on the other side of his.

    A poet like John Forbes (who Murray admired) took much better reading of this country’s cultural climate because he was in no-one’s thrall and was happy to take a pot shot at anyone — except those editors who would pay him for his poems!

    The following is a great Forbes poem that Murray could not write because he could not find the grace to be positive about unions

    Anzac Day

    A certain cast to their features marked
    the English going into battle, & then, that

    glint in the Frenchman’s eye meant ‘Folks,
    clear the room!’ The Turks knew death

    would take them to a paradise of sex
    Islam reserves for its warrior dead

    & the Scots had their music. The Germans
    worshipped the State & Death, so for them

    the Maximschlacht was almost a sacrament.
    Recruiting posters made the Irish soldier

    look like a saint on a holy card, soppy & pious,
    the way the Yanks go on about their dead.

    Not so the Australians, unamused, unimpressed
    they went over the top like men clocking on,

    in this first full-scale industrial war.
    Which is why Anzac Day continues to move us,

    & grow, despite attempts to make it
    a media event (left to them we’d attend

    ‘The Foxtel Dawn Service’). But The March is
    proof we got at least one thing right, informal,

    straggling & more cheerful than not, it’s
    like a huge works or 8 Hour Day picnic-

    if we still had works, or unions, that is.

  10. Damo Balassone says

    That’s one of Forbes’ more readable poems, and is indeniably a great poem, but to me most of his stuff is far more inaccessible than Murray’s – unless of course you are on the same drug trip. I’m sick to death of poets/artists glorifying their drug period – are we meant to be impressed by this? It’s like listening to Jimmy Barnes going on about how much he used to drink before a Chisel gig.

    I don’t care what Murray’s political/religious leanings are, and for me it’s the last thing I think about when I read ‘Burning Want’ or the ‘The Cows on Killing Day’.

  11. Damo,

    Forbes’ drug poems represent about 4 per cent of his list. But I agree with you about a poet’s political leanings. Eliot’s don’t stop me enjoying The Wasteland etc.

    My problem is with the notion of Murray as some kind of special observer. He has enormous holes in his vision. It’s not the politics but the illicitness of his slippage between subjective and objective perspectives that gets me.

    I teach his poems and enjoy many of them but I don’t trust their ‘truth’.

  12. Damo Balassone says

    Fair enough re Forbes. I was probably thinking of the more publicised ones, like that one “Speed” that appears in every anthology in the poetry universe. By the by, another Forbes one I’ve always liked is “T.V.” which surprisingly you cannot google.

    Ian, while we’re at it, how would you rather Kinsella against these 2 poets and other contemporaries? His name seems to be everywhere when it comes to Aussie poetry.

  13. ‘Europe: A guide for Ken Searle’ is another goodie. I have a lecture on Forbes that I can send to you if you like. How do I do that?

    I know John K. And I think his anti-pastoral is a good project — if only to counteract the Murray-ite perspective. He’s lively, prodigious and consciously on the left. I don’t teach his work because I don’t think it has as much bite as that of the other two. Also I don’t quite relate to the Perth hinterland vibe he has going.

    One of my favourite poets (despite the fact that we have fallen out) is a guy I published, Geoff Goodfellow (aka ‘the shouting poet’), a consciously working class voice who has written some ball-tearers (‘Semaphore’ might be his best). I love PiO’s stuff but I think that’s an inner-city migrant thing. He and Murray are at opposite ends of the spectrum and have had the odd slanging match. Lauren Williams is also a good urban poet who uses rap well in her material.


  14. Ian, if you and Geoff Goodfellow have fallen out, does that mean he no longer lives up to his surname in your mind?

  15. They say you can learn something every day..
    Well today I learnt that a song I have known [in my head] for over 30 years as “We rant and we roar like true Queensland Drovers” and was written by the lagerphone player(?) from The Bushwackers was actually a song called “Brisbane Ladies” and dates back to before the first Brisbane Flood.
    And if I ever meet a guy in a bar called Les Murray Im outa there. They both seem too wild and crazy for my taste…

  16. Ian
    The level of understanding that you have of poetry far surpasses mine, and I don’t want to get into an arguement with you because my idea of fine poetry is John O’Brien. However, ‘Nocturne’ works for me poem works on so many levels. I do not know enough of Les Murray to know if he is a turd or not, so for present purposes I am with you, but despite the personal failings of the man this is a very good piece of writing and describes a Brisbane (probably not the present one) very well. I have read it a number of times and each time I see something else. Take for example “the timber duchess and the strapped port”, in Queensland a suitcase, brief case or school bag were often reffered to as a ‘port’, the term is a little old fashioned but I can remeber as a kid being told to put my bag in the “port rack”. Invariably when travelling my mother would put a long belt around the port so that its overstuffed contents would not explode at the worst possible time. I was struck by the neat Queensland image of the ‘strapped port’. I am sure mothers everywhere take the precaution of strapping their suitcase, but calling it a port is a piece of a very old Brisbane. I like “ANZAC Day”, particularly, ‘straggling more cheerful than not”. That is a very accurate description of any ANZAC day march of my childhood, but not of now. When I went took my kids to the parade last year I was struck by the number of young people dressed like they were going to a wedding with two or three medals on the left side. Clearly, they had done tours of duty in of Timor Leste, the Solomons, Iraq or Afganistan. Like it or not there is a generation of Howard veterans who probably take a very different view of ANZAC day and its significance. For those of us of an age where ANZAC day meant watching old men with their medals we need to consider that now there are young men with theirs and how that in itself may change our country.

  17. I loved that last Friday I was in the Clyde Hotel with a few footy yobs – Weldon, Gigacz, Dimitriadis – talking poetry! And then we headed to the Daffy household where conversation turned to poetry!

    It is a brilliant genre, and when I do read a bit of it I always think, “I should do this more often.”

    I agree that you shouldn’t have to have a book of Coles notes to understand poetry, but I also think the poetic effect is different. Thoughtful response. Emotional response. Spiritual response. And so on.

    So I would say that it makes no sense to criticise a poet for what he is not. Using particular lenses to analyse the work of a poet is fine (Ian’s political lens in the case of Les Murray), and to ignore the politics of a poem and a poet is to be naive. But my first response to most poetry is not through the lenses of gender, race, politics, etc, it is a more holistic response.

    I love that John Forbes poem. The understanding of the war as industrial and the coalescing of the war/indutsry idea works for me, as do many of the other elemnets of the poem.

    Ian, did I see a doco about Forbes on TV? Did he ride an old bicycle around the streets of Carlton and Fitzroy?

  18. Phil Dimitriadis says


    Isn’t it interesting that the lenses you speak of are intricately linked to our own cultural and historical baggage.

    I try to understand poetry through the lens of my own subjective conditioning. If I don’t see the political,spiritual,linguistic significance it says more about my blind spots than those of the author.

    Agendas aside, poetry allows the space for us to question,reflect and appreciate what is there and what is missing probably more than any other form of writing.

  19. Phil

    When I am reading a poem inspired by profound grief I am seeing it from what I would call a ‘human perspective’. I am not thinking about how the author has conctructed the notion of ‘grief’. I am thinking about grief, and responding to the words.

    I am not good at reading poetry. So I do like commnetaries which help me find the depth of meaning contained therein. It’s a little bit like going to the footy with someone who really understands the game of footy.

  20. Phil Dimitriadis says

    True JTH,

    if you’re embroiled in your own grief and the words resonate it tends to touch a depth the mere mind cannot fathom.

    The words reflect a truth that is real in the moment. Good commentary can complement this truth, poor commentary can distort it.

    Murray’s poem expresses aspects of Brisbane that compel me to find out more about the city and its people. I like the way he blends the literary with the gritty.

    Ian’s critique arouses my political curiosity about Murray.

    Layers of knowledge and understanding are shared rather than contested.

    Sometimes you can find out more about footy by going to a game with someone who knows little about it. Going to the footy with Syson helped me become more aware of my own cultural limitations as an AFL fan.

    A holistic and humanist perspective allows us to open our hearts and minds to nuances we wouldn’t otherwise have.

    As a side note, I’m half way through reading ‘The Pearl’. Again your interest in people, their passions and histories brings meaning and insight to a game(League)that I would otherwise be completely ignorant about.

  21. John, Forbes used to ride a bike everywhere. He rode once from Sydney to Melbourne.

    In the video they represent him as a bit of a dandy on a bike but the reality was very different. He was like a massive slug flopped on the bike going as slowly as possible. He claimed that it took less energy to ride than it did to walk and that’s why he did it!!

    BTW he was a Cronulla supporter and he and I used to watch the RL on the TV together, feeling very much like we were the only ones in Carlton doing so.

    Re Murray: I agree about the political lens stuff. But my point is about implicit truth claims in the poetry. I guess I don’t trust Murray to be truthful and this spoils my enjoyment.

  22. Phil Dimitriadis says


    can we ever trust ourselves to be completely truthful?

  23. err no (see what I did there?)

  24. Damo Balassone says

    Tranter wrote a poem about Forbes called “God on a Bicycle” which gives a feel for the Carlton of his day. Ian, you might be able to confirm, but didn’t Forbes work as a removalist from time to time just to get by? Imagine spending a day moving furniture with John Forbes! Ah well, if T.S.Eliot worked in a bank, anything is possible.

    Re truth in poetry, I always think of that line by Chesteron …the painted mask of art.

    Just re-reading some of Murray over the past week, I suspect his conclusion to “The Last Helloes” p…ed off a lot of people, although I found it quite moving – how much is father meant to him, particularly with his mother passing away when he was so young.

  25. Damo,

    He did work as a removalist. He was also a very poor telephone sales guy. He was a big man — though he was also physically wrecked. He couldn’t stand straight and in terms of emotional health he was even more crippled.

    I rec’d your email btw and will send the lecture asap.

  26. I am very poor at reading poetry. Its something I’d like to rectify in my old age.

    What I have read of Les Murray I have really enjoyed. I like observations for the sake of them. If they are flawed then they are flawed. But all observation is probably flawed isn’t it?

    The above thread was great to re-read – 8 years has flown!

    “…of slatted lights seen under leaves” – reminds me of my uncles house in St Lucia.

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