Sunday, October 17, 2010

`One of the Truly Poignant Smells of Australia'

Among other distinctions, Les Murray is the supreme poet of smells, cataloguer of fragrance and stink. In “The Smell of Coal Smoke” (which also gives us “the Pears-Soap-smelling fire”) he writes:

“Coal smoke as much as gum trees now had a tight scent
to summon deep brown evenings of the Japanese war...”

And in “The Cows on Killing Day,” narrated by the title creature, Murray renders “The heifer human smells of needing the bull human / and is angry.” The seven-page long “The Nostril Songs” (The Biplane Houses, 2006), starts with an invocation to “P. Ovidius Naso” (Ovid), and turns into a veritable encyclopedia of scent:

“Fragrance stays measured,
stench bloats out of proportion:
even a rat-sized death,
not in contact with soil, is soon
a house-evacuating metal gas
in our sinuses; it boggles our gorge—
no saving that sofa:
give it a Viking funeral!”

The Australian poet, a serious Roman Catholic who dedicates his books “to the glory of God,” is a great Falstaffian lover of the senses and the creation that fills them. Today we celebrate his seventy-second birthday, which earns him a place in our ongoing observance of Poetry Month. Murray taught me an olfactory word for a phenomenon I knew immediately: “petrichlor.” This comes from his essay “The Import of Seasons” (written in 1985, collected in A Working Forest, 1997):

“In the mid-1960s, Drs. Joy Bear and Richard Thomas of the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization] discovered that the characteristic smell of rain on dry earth, one of the truly poignant smells of Australia, was called by a yellow oil which they could distil from rocks and soil. They termed this oil petrichlor, `essence of stone…’

“Heavy rains release some of it from the earth’s surface to wash down into swamps and streams, where it triggers the reproductive activity of fish and other aquatic animals and thus starts the cycle of life after a drought. A fraction of this oil rising from the earth provides the smell we notice, an odour to which many animals are probably keyed.”

This most spiritual of poets is among the earthiest and most creaturely. He’s cranky and Old Testament-wrathful but his sympathies suffuse all creation. More, indeed, is Les.

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