David Musgrave: Phantom Limb

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2010, 68pp.

Phantom Limb catches its reader’s attention by containing two poems that are terrific even on a first, casual reading. The first of these is the book’s opening poem, “Open Water”, a long, ambitious set-piece that keeps itself afloat wonderfully and introduces many of the themes that circulate around the book’s poems. The second is “Young Montaigne Goes Riding”, known – to me at least – from its appearance in Judith Beveridge’s Best Australian Poetry 2006. Both are poems about moving over surfaces and both are poems about processes of knowing.

“Open Water” begins with the experience – always slightly disorienting, even to off-shore fishermen – of leaving coastal waters behind and rocking on the heavier swells of the ocean, “the massive rocking / stillness of the deep and its sparking / serrations”. The first shock is that the poem modulates to an extended meditation on the colonisation of Australia, post-colonially correct but beautifully phrased nonetheless:

Out of this same illimited plain
the British had come, wind-stung and flawed
and laden with cargoes of concepts
and shadows, things which couldn’t be seen
but assembled themselves, a ruling machine
intricated into the vast and difficult continent-factory,

. . . . .

                              These were the blood-lessons:
that something which does not yet exist

is not the same as nothing: folded deep
within ourselves are nuggets of future
and the shock of their dredging . . .

There’s a kind of limited determinism expressed here which seems very Sydney if only because that city is always in the presence of the open sea which stands as a Solaris-like symbol of an open field capable of producing superficial structures from deep generative movements. The poem finishes by locating the poet on a vertical and horizontal axis: you can go down or you can go across. In the case of the latter you will be travelling either back or on – ie forward in time.

Complicating the weave of this poem is a set of references to the processes of writing: time is “open like a sentence” (which may also be a double pun designed to allude to the convict period), the movement of the waves is iambic and, in the poem’s conclusion, the fishing lines are like a “scrawl on open water”. I read this – a bit tentatively – as a desire to implicate the observer/poet in the poem, saying something like: just as the deep field of cultural assumptions generates surprising results, poetry is generated in a related way.

“Young Montaigne Goes Riding” is written in the same, stately six-line stanzas as “Open Water” and like that poem it deals with how we move over the surface – this time, of the land. Montaigne, the great documenter of the mind’s meditative processes (and of its indissoluble bond with the body) prefers “the oblique // paths which wander and meander to the one / which goes straight to the truth”. He thinks of his ideas as being like horses: “Sometimes they follow each other at a distance; / at others they glance sidelong at each other.” It’s this absolutely honest subjectivity which makes Montaigne, of course, always seem so modern to us. But I think this poem is really concerned with how poems work: they begin in subjectivity and are structured out of weird accretive allusiveness – and the poem is an example of its own subject. To return to the language of “Open Water”, it’s more a case of watching the shapes that the line makes as it drifts across the surface than concerning one’s self with hunting the fish swimming directly below. It rather reminds me of Graves’s fine little poem “Flying Crooked” which celebrates the poet’s (in the poem, the butterfly’s) “just sense of how not to fly”. In Graves’s work the distinction is between poetic thought and prose thought, whereas in Montaigne’s it is probably between human and honest mental activity on the one hand and, on the other, theological or scientific thought.

These two fine poems set up something of a guide for Phantom Limb as a whole. There is, as the first line of “Death By Water 2” confesses, an awful lot of water in these poems. “Bodies of Water” is a fine poem, for example, which opens out the pun of the title so that while it lists the various ways in which we experience and move through water – as ocean, rain, steam, vapour trails – its conclusion reminds us that water moves through us: “we move from state to state, / water flowing through us, / we through water, / a consciousness, a breath”. “Odyssey” is a little poem which cleverly establishes the hero’s love as neither Calypso nor Penelope but the “sun-deceiving, / faithful, all-embracing sea”, and “Puddles” is a nice celebration of love in terms of the way in which previously isolating pools of water can join, “pooling our lives”. There is a lot of water as rain in the book and, perhaps significantly, near the end of the book there is a sequence of sixteen brief poems about water’s antithesis: drought.

And then there is “The Swimmer: A Cento”. Made up of lines from writers ranging from the Beowulf poet to Rupert Brooke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, Byron and even Ovid (my ability to list these has nothing to do with a prodigious literary memory and intelligence but everything to do with the Google search engine), it is a kind of ultimate celebration of the act of swimming, of “disappearing into the black depths” and of “the continuous dream of a world underwater”. The title, assuming that the collage effect begins immediately, must come from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem although that poem has a dark, suicidal theme whereas Musgrave’s poem concludes with the idea of swimming towards the light. Finally – though I could go on at length about the appearances of water in this book – there is a rather lovely early poem, “A Glass of Water”, which begins with Cocteau’s statement that a single glass of water lights up the world and then goes on to describe (straining every available double meaning) a complex composition in which, as in “Bodies of Water”, water lies both outside and within:

Behind the wedding couple, a mirror harbours
their reception.
Outside, from the verandah, the harbour mirrors
the exception
of city from sky, hills snug with houses

and a glass of water standing on the railing,
half empty or half full. In the failing

afternoon light
brightening buildings counterpoint the darkness,
glinting upside-
down inside the glass, and the newly-weds,
seen from outside

joining hand to hand for the wedding reel,
glide under its meniscus, head over heels.

As well as celebrating and recording the multiple significances of water, many of the poems set out to locate their author by exploring the past, those “nuggets of future” that “Open Water” spoke of. “Lagoon” – another water reference – is about the author’s actual origins in Bathurst (a dryish city). “This is where I come from . . .” the poem begins and continues by examining the convict past, “impatient and impenitent / forebears transported for a brace / of crimes” before making the crucial statement: “I have inherited their future”. Perhaps the central symbol is that the lagoon has been “drowned / under Chifley Dam’s / green skin” which suggests that the past is not forgotten because of changes in modes of living so much as changes in size and significance: here, one water drowns another. The next poem in the book, “Death By Water 2”, takes up a similar theme, tracing forebears back through a great-grandmother who is the great-granddaughter of a couple, Mary and Thomas, the woman of which was the illegitimate daughter of a drowned American naval captain and the man of which drowned while trying to cross the flooded Cudgegong River. As the poem says in its opening line, “It’s little wonder I write about water” and it’s significant that the structure of the poem moves forwards from the antecedents rather than backwards from the poet: it reminds us that the past was once a present which sets up resonant patterns in the future rather than being a mass of fact brought into focus by an enquiring ego. In fact one wonders whether this might not be an attempt to see things from a Montaigne-perspective, avoiding the clinical, question-focussed methods of theology (or science). As with all such enquiries, the issue of the extent to which the past determines us has to be faced. I suspect that in Musgrave’s case there is a continuous experience of surprise discoveries: as in “I find myself writing a lot of poems about water and then I discover two drownings in my family tree”. I’d describe it as a “mild determinism” – perhaps it’s no accident that these poems make me think of FitzGerald’s “The Wind at Your Door”.

Another poem, “Freeman’s Reach, Hawkesbury River”, makes a lot more sense in this double perspective of finding the past in oneself and using water as a dominant setting. It is a poem which focuses almost entirely on framing:

Out of the silence, a team of ducks
lands on the river with a whoosh
of compression braking, drowning
out the sound of cattle chewing
on the other bank. From around
the bend a speedboat lamely chugs
upstream, then turns away, its wake
a tightening knot on the river’s stillness.

Poplars quiver like yellow whips.
Bee-racked, rising out of thick grass,
castor-oil plants brandish their pods,
tiny red grenades armed with green pins.
Behind us, a hill mined by rabbits bares
its guts behind a retaining wall
of chicken wire.
                        Half a rampart,
the ironbark jetty warps over water
and, standing at its end, a poet
completely surrounded.

I have the suspicion that if one met this poem on its own one might have problems. They wouldn’t relate to its meaning but rather to the issue of whether it is worth its weight in words. It might well seem like nothing more than an egotistical portrait, at best asserting some kind of identification of the poet with the landscape. But it certainly gains a lot in the context of the whole book. For a start, like “Death By Water 2” it works “backwards”, or, at least, in an unexpected direction. Instead of being a portrait of a stretch of water introduced overtly or otherwise by the poet’s presence and voice, it is the portrait of a poet in terms of a stretch of water, “completely surrounded”. And the water is not just any water, but all the waters that have percolated through Phantom Limb. So that one has the impression that the poet is almost induced into existence (again Solaris-like) by the river. “Grieving” moves in the same direction when it describes grieving as being like “cramming words back into your mouth” and then moves backwards to speak of grief as a place “where words begin”.

Finally there is the book’s title poem which, initially puzzling, may make more sense in the context of an interest in these “nuggets of the future”. The body of the poem is about an unexpected identification between an enemy and the poet’s long dead father. It concludes:

I dreamt of him the other night
- wood is ash’s dream of being whole -

and when I woke, the only clue
to what I’d lost, like a tingling nose before the lie

was an itch where nothing itched before,
a phantom absence: the limb I never knew I had, excised.

Although we probably should read this as a poem about the intimate relationship between love and hate, the context of the book as a whole encourages us to read it as being about people and experiences from the past which the growth of the shape of our lives makes bewilderingly important. When this happens and the figure is absent, you get something like the experience of having a phantom limb.

At least that’s my reading and I’m sticking to it. It does help to explain the book’s title and allow that title to point to this otherwise unremarkable poem. As a whole, Phantom Limb has a tremendous internal coherence, driven by its twin obsessions of water and the shadow that the past casts. The fact that it never foregrounds these in any way that appears poetically predictable means that within the consistency is a lot of variety. As a result, it is a really impressive book coming to the truth of things – like Montaigne on his horse – on its own, distinctive pathways.