St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2014, 86pp.
There is much in David Malouf’s new book, Earth Hour, which is continuous with Typewriter Music published seven years ago. The ambit of the poems, compared with large, middle period pieces like “Ode”, “Ode One”, “An Die Musik”, “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave” or of a complex sequence like “A Little Panopticon”, is small and the mode is best described as lyrical rather than expansively meditative. Reading them we enter again that distinctively Maloufian world of hypersensitivity to the presence of alternative worlds within (and on the borders of) our own world and of readiness to celebrate the movement from one world to another in a universe where all the usual defining boundaries seem suddenly porous. Malouf always gives us the weird experience of feeling that the firmly-established boundaries which we use to navigate our way through life (social vs personal, logical vs irrational, human vs animal, day-world vs dream-world, etc etc) are actually not as stable as we would like to think they are. At the same time, the poetry doesn’t exploit this as a predictable position: one of the wonders of Malouf’s poetry is the way in which, no matter how well-acquainted we make ourselves with the vision it encapsulates and expresses, the individual poems are always little surprises, catching us out by revealling unexpected corners and consequences of that vision or with unexpected strategies for expressing it.
Take, for example, “Dog Park”, one of a sequence of eleven poems called “A Green Miscellany”. The “situation” is the homely one of taking one’s pet (and highly domesticated) dog for a walk in the park. Almost immediately we are made aware that Malouf’s interest is in the evolutionary development of the dog and of the growing relationship between ex-wolf and humans. Typically of Malouf the past is imagined as a ghost world interpenetrating the present so that the dogs, when they “heel and prance”, are “ghost-dancers on the feet of sleeping wolves”, sleeping because, in the Malouf world, these wolves of the past are dreaming their futures just as much as inhabitants of the present can dream or see their own pasts. The poem continues:
We have all come a long way to get here, the memory of meadow-shine a green reminder of what we were, what they were, how we have lived and learned from each other, and who it was that emerged as the namers and keepers. Long-sighted stargazers, herders of space into viable chunks, moody diviners of closeness and the degrees of melancholy distance, with all that ensued as entailment: dog-tag, poop-scoop, dog-whistle; the angel gate of exile. Beginning with our own.
This is very much in keeping with the interests of recent Malouf and also with the tone which is full of jokey little enjambments (designed not so much to kick the movement of the verse along as to change the syntax and thus momentarily disorient and surprise the reader) and puns: it’s no accident that a poem about dogs speaks of what ensued as “entailment”. But there is also the habitual use of an inclusive “we”, here marking not only all of the human cultures since the Mesolithic but also all animal life. A poem which begins with entering a park concludes with a reference to leaving a park – the expulsion from Eden. We are in exile because we are, in Freud’s model of what civilisation costs us, immersed in a world of rules “dog-tag, poop-scoop / dog-whistle” that means that a past of immediate experience of the world is cut-off from us.
The first poem of this sequence is also about the past within the present. “Good Friday, Flying West” has, as its point of departure, the experience of travelling west from Australia by plane, usually over an extended night and through an extended, slow-motion dawn, towards Europe (one wonders how often this has made the list of distinctive Australian experiences, joining that iconic group that begins with lonely shepherding, moves on to mateship and thence to experiences of surf and improbably empty spaces):
. . . the pluck and flow of the planet takes us back, half a day or centuries; driftways descend from Mt Ararat. Unrisen ahead the dazzling dinning bee-hive cities. Museums not yet open . . .
While it’s possible that the first line I have quoted is a nod to Auden’s “pluck and knock of the tide”, the whole poem is built on a very elegant and aesthetically satisfying sleight of hand whereby the journey west is also the journey back in time. The cities of Europe will gradually appear over the horizon, too early in their morning for the museums to be open. But seen as a journey back five thousand years or so, the first cities of Mesopotamia and, later, Europe, are still waiting to be built. It will take a long time and a long development of self-consciousness about their own existence through time for them to open their first museums. Eventually the poem (I think) concludes by moving back beyond what we now call the Anthropocene to a time when there were no humans to dream the future changes to clay that will make the very artefacts that might survive in a museum:
. . . the pitcher swelling in shadow on a shelf, the bowl of wheatgrains on its altar still unbroken Eocene clay, undreamed of in the earth.
Earth Hour is, as we would expect, full of visitors from other worlds such as the wolves and cities of the past. And many of the poems think a lot about the nature of visitation. In Malouf’s world there is a good deal of emphasis on the reciprocity of visitation: if you want to widen your perspectives by entering doors into other worlds, you must expect those worlds to send visitors to you through the same door. You won’t be unchanged. The book’s first poem, “Aquarius”, describes the moment when a “sovereign” day – through which we stroll as if we were immortal – suddenly induces a change in us so that we see that, alongside this world, is a “counterworld” of mortality and physicality which is just as wonderful:
. . . loved animal forms, shy otherlings our bodies turn to when we turn towards sleep; like us the backward children of a green original anti -Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.
The book’s next poem takes up the idea of visitation, focussing on some people’s sense of another world within this one – “Not all come to it / but some do, and serenely” – but goes on to focus on the spirits of such people after they have joined “the Grateful Dead”, and how their silence becomes a companionable presence which might be called an angel. The idea of a reverse world in “Aquarius”, as well as the spirits of the dead in “Radiance”, is taken up in Earth Hour’s third poem, “Retrospect”, where a memory of walking into SÃ¨vres many, many years ago, lagging behind a friend (one who has “the look of one already gone, already gone / too far into the forest”) is juxtaposed with a dream of seeing the same friend in a movie queue. But here the roles are reversed – or a mirror-image – and the poet is ahead of his friend. A later poem, “The Deluge”, is fascinated by the way in which urban floodwaters reflect the sky to produce a “universe / turned upside down and backwards, below / above, above, and far-off under / foot”. People ferrying goods and the trapped across the water seem like angels who have taken on “a second job as porters”.
“Seven Faces of the Die” introduces the notion of chance in what I think, is a departure in Malouf’s thinking. It appears as a theme in his most recent novel, Ransom, and is, perhaps, a response to his own feeling that the continuous processes of evolution and interpenetration of worlds might be a little too mechanistic and positivist. At any rate, it forms a significant part of the idea of visitation since visitations should have an element of numinous surprise. The third poem puts it best:
At hazard, whether or not we know it and wherever we go. Without it no surprise, no enchantment. There is law enough all about us . . . as giddy happenstance leads us this way into a lost one’s arms, or that way deeper into the maze.
Often in the poems of Earth Hour it is not so much a matter of sudden visitations which prove that the boundaries between worlds are porous – although there are plenty of those – so much as a distinctive and unusual perspective. In the poem, “A Green Miscellany”, food is seen as part of a continuous pattern whereby fruits and grains, developed over centuries of “mute Georgics”, spread to all corners of the world and even in Australia – about as far away from the original Mesopotamian Eden as it is possible to get – “orchard blossom out of Asia / melts on the tongue as flakes of cherry strudel; the New World crams / our mouths with kartoffelsalat.” It is, as the poem says, the opposite of diaspora because it makes the whole world a homeland, “Our Earthly Paradise”. It’s a Maloufian perspective: unusual but intellectually and emotionally irresistible. Significantly, the poem doesn’t stop there, happy with its repositioning of food, Nature, evolution and migration. The second part of the poem moves from the grand view to the intimate, prefaced by “Even New South Wales “, and considers practices in the suburbs of Sydney (named as re-creations if not of Eden then certainly of parts of London) where smart newly-weds remove the old gardens to replace them by “native” plantings and in doing so “unlock” another garden.
And perspective often involves angle of view as well as dimension. “The Worm’s-eye View” imagines the perspective of a bookworm (a literal, not metaphorical bookworm, though we might be being asked to explore the possibilities of the latter) chewing its way through a magisterial scholarly work making its own “thwart commentary on the sacred text”. “An Aside on the Sublime” and “Australia Day at Pennyroyal” both show the macro fitting comfortably with the micro. In the former the poet stands aside to allow a thrush to have centre stage, singing its song which is a kind of accompaniment to the bigger business going on as the sun makes its “descent into the dark / to bring back / tomorrow” and in the latter a chorus of tiny noises in the grass prepares for the arrival of night bringing in its wake:
. . . the satiny milk-white bridal train of infinity. Or this dazzling hand-fling and scruple of it, the slow shower of the galaxies.
Angle of view and the juxtaposition of dimensions is a complex issue in Malouf but I’m content here to point out that both are examples of crossing of borders: the partitions that separate the perspective of the human from other angles and other sizes.
In retrospect, I think it is the complexity and shape of the poems rather than the consistency of the vision of reality which makes Malouf one of our greatest poets. There have been poets for whom, once one works out how they see the world, there isn’t really much else to do. Visionaries – and visionary poets – are often like this. Malouf, a poet at the deepest level, wants all the poems to be self-sustaining rather than expressions of a corner of a vision. Thus the previously mentioned “Radiance”, for example, which begins as a list of the different ways in which vision comes to people, moves on to deal with the way these people come to us after death; “Ladybird” begins by seeming to be a poem about visitations in the form of benevolent insects but the poem takes off from the nursery rhyme and finishes up being about playing with matches and nearly burning down one’s home. “Entreaty” which looks as though it will be a poem where the past (in the form of a small corner shop visited by the poet as a boy) will appear as a ghost in the present turns out, via the question that the old lady behind the counter asks of her young customers – “what’s your poison?”, to be a poem about how the poet has lived the next three quarters of a century blessedly free of the horrors that can be visited on humans young and old:
. . . only now, a lifetime later, [I] find my tongue: If luck is with me today, on my long walk home, may no black cat cross my path, no sweet-talking stranger, no thief, no mischief-maker, no trafficker in last words waylay me.
Thinking about the sinuous and surprising shapes of the Malouf poems makes one want to unite content with form here and say that just as Malouf dissolves the usually firm boundaries to different levels of reality, encouraging porosity and visitation, so he also wants to dissolve the conventional shape of a poem whereby it should stick to its subject and get it out as clearly as it can, displaying a good, honest sense of unity. Malouf’s poetry always introduces “the situation” in subtle and oblique ways, making, in passing, most other Australian poems look very wordy, if not prosy. And the unexpected directions that individual poems take – which become, after several readings, perfectly expected, of course – parallel Malouf’s vision whereby things are never exactly as they seem on the surface. There is much more going on if you look and listen or, in our case, read carefully. Nothing, as the first poem of “Seven Faces of the Die” says “is mere or only”.