canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Hunter
by George Murray
McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 2003

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Reviewed by Stephen Brockwell

I sometimes wonder whether poets should write what they do not know. I say this only somewhat facetiously. There is something humbling about trying to grasp ideas and intuitions that wander away from us as we walk toward them. And we live in a time when a sense of history and a sense of humility should bring with them a certain disposition of wonder. George Murray’s The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) is an ambitious attempt to embrace the poetry of ideas in our time from the perspective of history. It is an angry, sensitive, sometimes overwhelmingly direct book that must have taken substantial courage to write. It is grave, dark and overshadowed, I think, by recent global events and the experience of New York. The Hunter relentlessly confronts the reader with a complex and articulate but, for me, sometimes hortatory vision.

The Hunter takes the shape of a guided tour through a museum or collection: each poem is titled with a single noun: "Albatross", "Dyke", "Harp", "Stage", "War". Each is part meditation, part exhortation. It is impossible to read these poems passively. The reader is prodded and provoked to think about the "murky dark between rooms" and the "disguises of flesh". The pieces take one of only two forms: unrhymed three line stanzas that in their shape recall The Divine Comedy and unrhymed couplet stanzas. These deliberate structures do not always suit Murray’s imperative, engaging language. Somehow they act to drag the reader along with the thought a little too aggressively. I tip my hat to Murray for the boldness of this approach. I found the attempt at mastery of form and commitment to ideas to be impressive. But I was also put-off by his single-mindedness and his not infrequent lack of subtlety.

The poem "Bull" is a good example of the disturbing and brilliant fusion of past and present that is crushed by self-conscious poetry. It begins

You don’t have to be Minoan to know the desire
to leap this bull. Knossos, O Knossos!

Have your lithe soldiers sharpen their axes
and meet us on the field of tomorrow.

The strippers shed layer after layer yet can’t seem
to get naked enough. Soon it will be only

the skeleton we find erotic.

I found this delightfully over-the-top, particularly the gutsy mix of the straight forward language in the first line with the Pindaric "O Knossos!." And the insight into our contemporary inability to feel – or to feel that we feel – starkly contrasts the nakedness of the Minoan bull leapers with the shabbier nudity of the contemporary exotic dancer. The poem ends with a pair of questions:

What chance could there be that this one question,
this very consistent action, might make it through to you,

so far in the distances of time? Can you hear me?

Of course, the reader understands that both he/she and the faded image of the bull in the Minoan wall painting are being reached out to.

There are times when the vehemence of the ideas certainly gets the better of the writing. In "Stage", for example, we read

Are we ready to call our killers artists? They are very good
at what they do, after all. We live in a society

that uses fresh water to catch and transport feces,
a society that shits in
perfectly serviceable water. Is it any wonder

that the rest of the planet despises us?

Forget for a moment the health concerns of having sewage brought into your home, presumably the antidote to the waste of fresh water in our toilets. It is the excessive conviction to these ideas and the impact of that conviction on the poetry that concerns me. At the end of this book, this reader felt as though he had been hectored. This is an ambitious, challenging work that sometimes asks to be taken too seriously. It is difficult not to have empathy for George Murray’s strength of personality and respect for the grandeur of the architecture of his vision. In many ways, The Hunter is a masterful verbal realization of his vision. That mastery may be the book’s only flaw.

Stephen Brockwell is the author of Cometology (ECW Press, Toronto, 2001). His poetry has recently appeared in Arc, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, and Queen St Quarterly. He is one of the editors of He lives in Ottawa.







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