One Kneeling, One Looking Down

Part of my meditation on this Good Friday has been focused around a poem by Australian poet Les Murray. The poem, One Kneeling, One Looking Down, was inspired by an aboriginal legend in which a man was killed, and then raised from the dead by his two wives. In order for this ‘resurrection’ to happen, both wives had to agree on it. Murray’s poem depicts a moment of engagement between the two wives: the older wife wanting to have her husband back and the younger one resisting. Apart from the obvious echoes of the Easter narrative (not least the two women, the many impossibilities, freedom through death, etc), Murray’s piece also invites the reader to experience something of the fear and hope, sense of betrayal and renewed possibilities, that the Easter narrative explores. Of course, one does not want to push the echoes too far. Part of my meditation today was on ‘seeing’, even re-writing, the poem’s episodes as a Trinitarian event in the life of God. In this, we not only have one kneeling (in faithful obedience) and one looking down (in pained delight), but also one holding him up in that kneeling posture. But again, one does not want to push the echoes too far …

Anyway, here’s the poem:

ONE KNEELING. ONE LOOKING DOWN

Half-buried timbers chained in corduroy
lead out into the sand
which bare feet wincing Crutch and Crotch
spurn for the summer surf’s embroidery
and insects stay up on the land.

A storm engrossing half the sky
in broccoli and seething drab
and standing on one foot over the country
burrs like a lit torch. Lightning
turns air to elixir at every grab

but the ocean sky is troubled blue
everywhere. Its storm rolls below:
sand clouds raining on sacred country
drowned a hundred lifetimes under sea.
In the ruins of a hill, channels flow,

and people, like a scant palisade
driven in the surf, jump or sway
or drag its white netting to the tide line
where a big man lies with his limbs splayed,
fingers and toes and a forehead-shine

as if he’d fallen off the flag.
Only two women seem aware of him.
One says But this frees us. I’d be a fool –
Say it with me
, says the other. For him to revive
we must both say it. Say Be alive. –

But it was our own friends who got
him with a brave shot, a clever shot. –

Those are our equals: we scorn them

for being no more than ourselves.

Say it with me. Say Be alive. –

Elder sister, it is impossible. –
Life was once impossible. And flight. And speech.

It was impossible to visit the moon.

The impossible’s our summoning dimension.

Say it with me. Say Be alive again. –

The young wavers. She won’t leave
nor stop being furious. The sea’s vast
catchment of light sends ashore a roughcast
that melts off every swimmer who can stand.
Glaring through slits, the storm moves inland.

The younger sister, wavering, shouts Stay dead!
She knows how impossibility
is the only door that opens.
She pities his fall, leg under one knee
but her power is his death, and can’t be dignified.

From Les Murray, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003), 450-1.

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