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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Biplane Houses

Les Murray

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To purchase The Biplane Houses

Title: The Biplane Houses
Author: Les Murray
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2006
Length: 100 pages
Availability: The Biplane Houses - US
The Biplane Houses - UK
The Biplane Houses - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a slightly uneven mix, but much that impresses

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 1/4/2006 David McCooey
Australian Book Review . 6-7/2006 Lisa Gorton
The Globe & Mail A- 4/8/2007 Fraser Sutherland
The Guardian . 21/10/2006 William Wootten
The New Yorker . 11/6/2007 Dan Chiasson
San Francisco Chronicle . 15/7/2007 Alexandra Yurkovsky
Sydney Morning Herald . 24/4/2006 Richard King
TLS . 11/8/2006 Oliver Dennis

  Review Consensus:

  Generally write about Murray more generally, but also impressed by this particular collection (though don't think it's him at the peak of his powers)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The weakest poems in this collection are the first and the last. In between, though, there are some tremendously powerful poems. For the most part, it takes more than one reading for their power (and sometimes even their sense) to become apparent. Murray is not often an "easy" poet. This difficulty is sometimes found in his belligerence, his intolerance of anything remotely like obligatory consensus. But it is also a matter of his style, his wrenched syntax, his multilingual puns, and his eccentricity. (…) Murray's word play is acutely poetic and a way of renewing the world. (…) The Biplane Houses doesn't always reach this pitch of strangeness or originality but it shows again that Murray is one of our most important poets because of his ineluctably strange way of saying." - David McCooey, The Age

  • "If there is a poet Murray has in sight in this collection, it could be W.H. Auden." - Lisa Gorton, Australian Book Review

  • "In asserting unashamed pride in his own traditions, Murray as a profound conservative doesn't harken back to some idyllic Golden Age, but instead honours history as a repository of tragic truth. (...) Even those who would call Murray reactionary could not deny that his often-synesthetic sense perceptions (one long poem bears the amusing title The Nostril Songs) are revolutionary." - Fraser Sutherland, The Globe & Mail

  • "The Biplane Houses treats things with ampleness and confidence. (…) Slipping from ancient to up to date, from high style to low puns, from the quietly contemplative to bravura flights of fancy, from satiric squibs to emotionally charged anecdotes, The Biplane Houses has styles, metres and topics aplenty. It's a range that is impressive but not forbidding, for Murray, with his dislike of flummery and pretension, is in most ways a very approachable poet." - William Wootten, The Guardian

  • "Murray’s new book, The Biplane Houses, like everything he has done since the coma, seems to be the work of a person poured back into sentience the way molten copper is poured into a mold. (…) The animals in The Biplane Houses share some Murray traits, to be sure (an octopus that lives, like a poet, in the “pencilling of dark soil”), but by and large these animals represent impediments and counterclaims that Murray morally cannot but acknowledge." - Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

  • "In Murray's case, the conversational and humorous voice is deceptive, leading to superficial reading -- and, to an extent, dismissal. The Biplane Houses is not his most polished or focused book, but it includes worthy, insightful work. Luckily, distinctive elements beckon the reader back." - Alexandra Yurkovsky, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Poets must write the poems they can and there is little point in lamenting the fact that Murray's poetry is sometimes difficult. The difficulty doesn't appear to be wilful and given the way in which Murray writes, I doubt very much if it could be avoided. Nevertheless, dear reader, beware: trying to swallow Murray whole is an endeavour not to be recommended. Tiny bites are the way to go. Just make sure you savour them." - Richard King, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Though it reads at times like the work of someone who has grown a little too comfortable with his own ways, this new volume is as inventive and wide-ranging as ever. (…) More than anything, these poems convey his great sense of a life and time beyond the present" - Oliver Dennis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Biplane Houses offers a real mix of poems. Murray's favoured themes and subjects -- among others: religion, history, Australia, language -- come up, but in addition to his usual humour there's more joking. Where it's distinctive it achieves an effect, as in the punning 'Black Belt in Marital Arts':

     Puns pique us with the glare
of worlds too coherent to bear
by any groan person.
       But in some of the efforts (and, arguably, here too) the wit can feel too forced.
       Murray offers a few narrative verses -- a historical scene or overview -- as well as some poems focussed on a single theme, most notably the extended variations-on-smells, 'The Nostril Songs'. 'A Dialect History of Australia' is a clever compression of the entire history of Australia into place-names, appealing also because of the sound of the sequence, and satisfying in that these are the obvious, appropriate terms (and order), arguably the ones that would have been chosen without poetic interference.
       Several poems consider religion, including 'The Blueprint' and 'Blueprint II'. The first focusses on and explores the idea that: "we require an afterlife" (and expect one in our religions), while the second succinctly suggests what such an afterlife might offer, reading in its entirety:
Life after death
with all the difficult people
away in a separate felicity.
       Which is about as nice a way as you could put that idea.
       Murray does tremendous things with language, often in precise, tightly compressed form, but it's some of the simpler but arresting imagery that is particularly captivating:
A llama stood in Hannover, with a man
collecting euros for its sustenance.
       There's a good mix of more ambitious idea-pieces along with more straightforward pieces that still impress in their presentation -- such as the beginning of 'As Night-Dwelling Winter Approaches':
Tree shadows, longer now, lie
across the roads all one way
but water goes fluently switchback,
swelling left, unbuttoning right
over successive cement fords.
       The main weakness to The Biplane Houses would seem to lie in its particular variety, an odd mix that doesn't entirely seem to go together; it seems almost like an awkwardly assembled Murray-sampler. Still, while the poems aren't all uniformly strong, they do show Murray's many strengths. Certainly worthwhile, and perhaps not a bad starting point for those new to his work, as it does show most of what he can do (and how well he can do it).

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The Biplane Houses: Reviews: Les Murray: Other works by Les Murray under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry at the complete review
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian poet Les Murray was born in 1938. He has written numerous poetry collections, as well as two novels in verse.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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