Killing the Black Dog – reviewed by Martin Duwell

Les Murray: Killing the Black Dog (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2009), 84pp.

This small book is a reprint of Les Murray’s 1997 essay on his struggle with depression. It includes an Afterword that brings readers up to date with the current status of the war, and a twenty-five poem mini-anthology selected from his collections called “The Black Dog Poems”. All in all it is a harrowing document. The idea that writers (and artists generally) are a group tormented by various inner demons is a cultural cliché that has been in common currency since the Romantic period (think Beethoven, Hðlderlin, Schumann et al) but has origins far earlier than that. In fact it has origins in the truth since there is no doubt that many highly creative minds are far from stable. But Les Murray’s little monograph records an extended visit to a Hell that few of us would want to romanticize.

The story Murray tells begins with his return to the country of his upbringing at the end of 1985 and how, at a poetry reading in Taree, an event which was probably designed to highlight, pay homage to and also lay renewed claim to, the area’s great poet (rather like an Olympic gold medallist revisiting their old country school) a former school contemporary “cheerfully recalled to me one of the nicknames she had bestowed on me thirty-odd years previously” and “within a day or two I began to come apart”. The initial symptoms were bouts of unprovoked weeping, painful tingling in the figures, indigestion and, interestingly, an aversion to nicotine – as though to prove that some good can exist in hell. The full diagnosis doesn’t occur until he is hospitalised with chest pains and medical staff realise that what he suffered was not a heart attack but a panic attack. Murray summarises for us the results of a visit to a local psychiatrist where he finds out about how too much adrenalin results from a fight-or-flight reflex that isn’t working properly and how this breaks down into damaging chemicals. Murray himself asks the same question that we, as readers, would: is the disfunction caused by trauma in one’s upbringing or is it inherited and then goes on to be a cause of the miseries? Murray’s personal history, well-known from both his poems and essays, but also from Peter Alexander’s biography, is so stormy, tormented and tormenting, that it becomes a crucial issue. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with nature vs nurture issues, what to outsiders is a simple and obvious binary is much more complicated from the perspective of experts.

At any rate the essay goes on to detail Murray’s struggles with depression and to highlight, at least to me, the sheer wastefulness that is entailed. So much of the patient’s life is spent living around it that it must be almost impossible to do anything. Murray excepts poetry from this because, as he says:

Poetry does not only require discipline, it is a discipline, and resists imbalance and turgidity by evaporating when they clamour to get in. I wrote some good prose in those years, but I had to be on guard against sideslips into the black kelp, and when I was utterly depleted I concentrated my resources around my essential art form, poetry, because it was what I’d bet my life on.

That final phrase, by the way, is intriguing and ought, in future thinkings about Murray, his personality and his poetry, get some attention. I don’t think I have ever heard an artist’s commitment and submission to his art quite put like that.

As I said earlier, this little book appends an anthology of “Black Dog” poems to the essay and its Afterword. It is possible to read the book two ways. We can read the essay as an introduction to the poems (on the principle that poems always trump mere prose) or we can read the poems as a kind of documentary afterthought to the poems. I strongly recommend the latter. These are far from good Murray poems and thus raise the issue of the experience of writing poems while living under the black cloud of possible depressive attacks. The anthology does begin, though, with the early poem, “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, written long before the visit to Taree. It is fascinating that Murray sees the weeping of the anonymous man who “evades believers” as connected to depression. Is this a retrospective reading on the part of the poem’s author? Decades of students have interpreted the weeping of this poem not as the desperate reaction to a chemical imbalance but as a dignified, individual reaction to the world and to the lacrimae that are in rerum. I had always seen it in the light of “The Burning Truck”, focussing on the danger of the passionate and dangerous beliefs of those who want to follow a cause. It will take me long time to see it in the light of Murray’s description of the horrors of depression with any kind of comfortableness.

Another intriguing comment (to put the sheer human drama and horror of the story to one side for the moment) refers to early attempts on Murray’s part, to write himself out of his troubles. This, he says, “produced some knotted unclear poems in the latter part of Dog Fox Field“. Does this mean unclear to us or to the poet? Does it include the book’s title poem? In a way I hope it does because it is one of my favourite Murray poems, a potent allegorical piece that always camps just outside my understanding and Murray’s comment raises at least the possibility that it might lie just outside its creator’s understanding as well. It is a long bow to draw though.

In fact much of this memoir confirms the essential outline of its author’s creativity. Just as the poems communicate complex understandings of issues, so does the narrative of the fight with the black dog. In the Murray world, you feel, analysis precedes both narrative and lyric. He is not one of those writers who, not understanding what the muse has presented him with but having some internal mechanism that tells him that it works, that it is a finished poem, puts it out there in the hope that his readers, or the future, may help make sense of it. The Murray poetic and prose world is a fantastically strongly constructed (and internally braced) machine for analysing “life and its issues”. Hence the tendency towards not so much gnomic compression but rather a convenient, often brilliant, short-hand technical language. Even the narrative of the depression is prefaced by a paragraph that has already placed it in an interpretive framework that it would take a very brave and well-informed reader (who would also need to be a psychiatrist) to break out from:

But if home conceals Old Bad Stuff you had not mastered the first time around, going back there, perhaps especially as you approach your fifties, is an invitation to crisis.

Murray’s analytical power is so strong that his readers can have a feeling of being imprisoned. We aren’t being invited to make a contribution here, as we aren’t as readers of his poems. In the case of the horrors of the experience, this seems perfectly reasonable as those who haven’t had the experience can hardly have the meaning. But I can’t help feeling that long in the future (assuming the study of literature as a branch of human creativity survives) scholars will separate Murray’s analysis of the experience from the terrible experience itself and look at other ways in which it might be approached and understood.

                                              — Martin Duwell

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