From Sydney Review of Books:
The wave, over the wave, a weird thing I saw,
through-wrought, and wonderfully ornate:
a wonder on the wave – water became bone.
This is a riddle from the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which the Bishop Leofric donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072: ‘I mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum thingum on leothwisan geworht’: a big English book about everything, worked into song.
Riddles are at the heart of Les Murray’s poetry: that language-gift of his, which shows words to be sounds that strangely hold for us those meanings that we attribute to the world. As he remarks in his poem ‘The Meaning of Existence’:
Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
In a riddle what the words mean does not displace how they sound until the riddle is solved. Until the riddle is solved, it could mean anything – everything. Only after it is solved does meaning settle into being in the words: a strange transformation, something like the one this riddle describes: water becoming bone.
Murray’s descriptions have a riddle ancestry: they effect an estrangement that is perceptual. That is why, for all the force of the poet’s personality and reputation, Murray’s best poems are distinguished by the fact that reading them feels solitary: an encounter not with a personality but with language itself: its work of discovering the world through its patterns of sound. In his introduction to his essay collection A Working Forest (1997), Murray characterises prose as ‘narrowspeak’ and poetry as ‘widespeak’. For all the self-assertive tenor of his ‘narrowspeak’, many of Murray’s most intimate poems address himself in the second person, as though one of the pleasures that poetry offers is an encounter with things – places, creatures, even memories – beyond the strictures of a social self.