Contributors’ Marginalia: Brandon Krieg reads Les Murray’s “The Black Beaches”

June 11, 2012

Though the “The Black Beaches” is a creation myth, its title puts us in mind of the shores of the Styx. But, on the shores of the poem, we encounter no gods, strange dogs, or ferrymen; there is hardly evidence of humans at all. Only in the speaker’s metaphors, many of which compare natural occurrences to human objects or processes, and in the uncanny adjective “knee-sprung” (for pasture that has already, it seems, been walked through or stood up from) do we get a trace of the human.

It is an elegiac trace—Murray’s metaphors are cannily arcane—towers; dragon-holes; velvet calls to mind a lost medieval nobility; a sugar-lick seems to come from a fading pastoral landscape where horses taste from your hand; even comparing coals to stars can appear obsolescent in a world of light pollution where humans rarely look up. Yet, in a sense, in the span of time Murray’s speaker contemplates (hundreds of millions of years) all human imagination and activity is already obsolescent, already here and gone. In that span, towers and skyscrapers are essentially coincident, equally relevant tropes for forests that burn.

Time is the only god in the “The Black Beaches,” and its powers of creation are limited by physical laws. Yet its creations are magnificent—it turns mountains into shorelines, forests into peat. What I admire most in this poem is its insistence that the forces of the physical world are adequate sustenance for the imagination, if attended to and contemplated both with and against the grain of prior human knowledge. Murray gracefully combines particular observation, geology, natural history, and myth to bring the strangeness of our condition back to us forcefully. The coal forming all day, the final creation of the poem, is always forming; on a scale of time we can hardly begin to imagine, we, too, are becoming coal, and the black beaches we are going to are far more literal, far less anthropomorphic than we might have imagined, a reversal both terrifying and beautiful.

Brandon Krieg

Brandon Krieg is a founding editor of The Winter Anthology. Both his poem “Sundress” and Les Murray’s “The Black Beaches” appear in 32 Poems 10.1.

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