St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2018, 89pp.
An Open Book is the third of a series of “late” books of poetry whose first, Typewriter Music, published in 2007 had been Malouf’s first book of poetry for 27 years. Malouf’s poetry has been a complex, evolving and experimental thing since his contribution to Four Poets in 1962, but has always involved an examination of the self, its history and growth, its connections to the outer world through the complementary modes of exploration and receptivity, its connections to the body, and the nature of creativity itself. These themes are present in the variegated landscape of Malouf’s creativity (it includes prose fiction, lectures, essays and libretti) but within the work as a whole these three books have a special place. The poems are less “experimental” than the poems of the middle period, such as those of First Things Last, they are smaller and, on the surface, often less ambitious. But they are easily underestimated and are, at heart, immensely compressed and complex, inviting and coaxing the reader into a poetic world that looks encouragingly straightforward, even anecdotal, on the surface but which proves to be fascinatingly complex and challenging. And the invitations are part of the style, part of Malouf’s canny invocation of shared experience marked by his use of that potent pronoun, “we”.
To say that An Open Book is part of a continuing group of collections with Typewriter Music and Earth Hour isn’t, however, to say that these books are entirely of a kind. Typewriter Music has remnants of an earlier poetry in an experimental exploration like “Mozart to Da Ponte”, a meditation on the relationship between music and language cast in what seems to be the style of a baroque passion with poems between passages of prose. It looks, in retrospect, like a holdover from the earlier style (and subject matter) of First Things Last and there isn’t anything as formally distinctive as that in this new book. But the connections are apparent when poems such as “Aquarius I” and “Aquarius II” in Earth Hour are extended into a third poem in An Open Book whose “At Pennyroyal II” seems a continuation of the earlier “Australia Day at Pennyroyal”. And, in An Open Book, there are a small set of translations as there are in the other two books, though one should point out that Malouf’s versions of Horace go back to his earliest poetry.
Much of this interest in continuity and change in Malouf’s work derives from his own assertions that all of the multiple creative activities he has been involved in form part of a coherent whole. This is true to the extent that it is difficult to know where to begin describing any of Malouf’s works since all the threads seem interconnected. An Open Book begins with a poem which, in Malouf fashion, is a “double” because “Partings”, while looking back nostalgically at separation from loved things and people, also looks forward to new worlds of experience: they are the two faces of a single coin. But I’ll begin with the poems that follow whose subject is memory, significant because, in the words of one of the poems, “nothing is ever / done with / or over”. The opening sequence, “Kinderszenen”, takes its title from Schumann’s set of piano pieces – not exactly “five easy pieces” but decidedly light and whimsical in tone. And Malouf, as so often, wants to suggest that these poems are not to be considered major statements and explorations but smaller, lyrical addenda. And, as so often, this can lull readers into the illusion that they are going to be confronted with something slight, perhaps a little gestural in its poetics and, above all, easy to digest. They may seem that way initially but they are also challenging poems. Like most of the poems of this and the previous two books they deal with a lot in few words – they are small but never slight. Take the first: a memory of a childhood’s family of two parents (one of each sex) and two siblings (one of each sex) and with the title, “Binomial”:
Privacies. Tongue-and-groove whispers at a knothole, bare bathroom plumbing, bare bodies, shock-white minus their clothes. We put two and two together and make more or less a family. The house, half a dozen rooms in spin around finger-to-lip asides not to be sounded. Later we take its silences off into a silence space-deep beyond breath. Empty suits in a wardrobe. Under the warm subtropic rain empty faces turned upwards underground, forever dazed by the distance between terms: to a tittle, rule of thumb.
It’s a poem worth quoting in full because it has so many of the strengths of Malouf’s poetry, not the least that the decision to write a series of poems about memories of childhood doesn’t produce anything that is in any way conventional or predictable. These are not, for example, memories whose content is some sort of guarantee of significance – “My childhood was in a country unknown to Australians”, “I was traumatised by my parents’ behaviour” etc. Instead, the memories form the basis of components of the poet’s self and they have to form the basis of a working poem: something which, in Malouf’s poetics, usually holds together a number of disparate elements which open the material out and complexify it but in doing so, of course, run the risk of making it fly apart. The binding together is done by the movement of the verse itself and its metaphors and puns. In “Binomial”, as the title warns, there are a set of mathematical “terms”, a word with interesting punning possibilities – technical names, blocks of school attendance, conditions of agreement, etc – which remain potent even if they recall the title of a Hollywood film that is invoked in the title of a later poem in this book devoted to the private language of lovers. The title here, I think, plays with the fact that, within the household, things such as sex and age-group are conceived in pairs which, put together, take a binomial form. I won’t agonise about the difficult final stanza here (one of the things it does is warn readers early on that these poems require real engagement) but point out that the idea of pairing is part of a thread which includes the theme of a doubled personality (about which, more later) and leads, within “Kinderszenen”, to “Odd Man Out” where, now the poet has become a schoolboy, the issue of singles and doubles perplexes:
. . . . . This boy goes awkward, on one leg hopping, never lonely enough. He deals in singles, finds it odd, since even he has a shadow, two hands, two eyes, two sides to every question, and paper. He develops an ear for echoes from the further shore of a silence too wide to spit across. . .
Memories of a Brisbane childhood also include, in this sequence, the sense of History and (to quote Wodehouse) “its little brother”, Change. The former doesn’t appear in propria persona as the war and the fear of a Japanese invasion that were the reality of the time in which these memories were made but instead disguised as folk tale in “The Wolf at the Door” and as a weather metaphor in “The Brisbane Line”. The latter is the subject of “Fifth Column” which is interested in the fact that the major changes that this period heralded came from within – hence the title – rather than as a result of a Japanese threat. Two later poems in An Open Book are also memory pieces: “Old Pop” is a fairly straightforward portrait which is tied together in its final sentence – “My own story, if / I had one, still in the offing” – by punning on that wonderful final word, a nautical term which now has a more general application, and “Kite”, a memory of being coached by his father in how to fly a kite, an activity full of metaphorical richnesses.
Perhaps the last word on the significance of memory is to be found in another of the “Kinderszenen” poems, “Deception Bay”, a title Malouf has used before, apparently unable to resist the implications of this simple place-name which, like “offing”, begins in a harmless and practical nautical sense and then develops wider metaphorical possibilities. Here, the bay is the setting for a complex symbolic set piece which concludes by speaking of “the Ever / Now of recollection”. But this poem is, like “Binomial”, a poem of doubles: a boy, standing in the bay at noon (interestingly standing on one leg, like the boy of “Odd Man Out”) holds back from throwing a pebble which would break up the reflected image provided by the water and destroy the image of “a self, then another / lighter, more enlightened // self in reflection”.
It goes without saying that, in Malouf’s universe, the self, whose formation, development and interactions are explored in these poems, is a doubled phenomenon and that anything singular about it, as in “Odd Man Out”, is unusual. This doubling permeates many of the themes beginning with the most obvious paradox that, in order to write about a society, a writer has to cut him- or herself off from it for extended periods: he or she must, in other words, be simultaneously two people, an insider and an outsider, “a part” and “apart” – to use a pun exploited in the book’s title poem. Every writer, though rarely with Malouf’s depth of insight, has a “real” self which is counterbalanced by a dream self, or a “day” self and a “night” self. And all readers experience both a literary world and a real world, something explored in “Empty Page” where a Brisbane child’s experience of snow can only come through the reading of a literature dealing with another world. But instead of making a predictable point about the way a colonial culture imposes on the young an image of a world which is that of the imperial centre, Malouf’s poem rejoices in the disjunction between the white of snow and the green of a subtropical Brisbane and allows snow to be an introduction not only to the otherworld of literature but also to the world of writing with its existentially challenging white pages:
A world leaf-green in all seasons. Snow fell only in bedtime stories, without sound or scent or colour, and so lightly in every tense as to belong permanently to a sky, since it was never in view, that could only be imagined, with its own arrivals and successions of breath. After the inklings and enticements of now and here, I thought of snow and where it lay, the nil on nil of its eternal silence, as vacancy, its white the printless white of a page not yet arrived at. If not nowhere, then where? And if not never, when?
And doubling extends to the self’s perception of the world. “The Double Gift” is probably an important poem here, difficult as it is, in that it describes the doubling of our experience of “plain household objects” which make a gift of themselves but also the gift of the experience of understanding ourselves. “Asleep at the Wheel” describes how part of the mind takes in the vast rush of impressions but another part, simultaneously asleep and alert, takes in “the leaf long dead mid-fall / suspended // in a web the fox’s / eye as it glances up from / the kill”. And it is just such another part of the mind which, in Malouf’s poems, has to be trained to perceive the usually imperceptible, especially the visitations that are made into the world. This is a theme that stretches as far back as “Bicycle” the title poem of Malouf’s first full collection (and which is, in poetic mode, very different to these more recent poems), where a bicycle left in a flat becomes a messenger from another world. “House and Hearth” and “A Tavola” are poems about these homely visitors. In the former the gods are the ordinary domestic appliances (I think) which accompany us through life as guides:
. . . . . Mute reminders of what it is that we are part of they prefer, like kindred stars, to light our steps and keep their distance. The hearth is imaginary, they are not. Only too close to the hard facts of inner and outer weather, the discordancies of heart and hand, the mess and muddle we mischief into, to be more than the necessary agents of resort and replenishment. . .
In “A Tavola” the contrast between the two modes of perception is made when the relaxed appearance of an angel who “drifts in, idles a moment / then passes” during the meal is juxtaposed with the arrival of news from the outside world which disturbs like an ambush or a gunshot.
Perhaps the best place to look at this kind of doubling is “Understood” whose title punningly suggests both comprehension and invisibility. The central metaphor is the migratory bird which has a double existence, “their bodies / teasingly in two / minds as in two places”. These birds, then, mimic what the properly perceiving human (of “Asleep at the Wheel”, say,) does but they also act as messengers of the otherworld themselves;
. . . . . The trick, to tune our ear, beyond what passes for silence, to what is new -born or newly arrived out of the air, and sits polishing its colours, the angel-sheen of its wings, out of sight within. Welcome, we say, time for you to speak, dear pilgrim self and not quite stranger. You have news. . .
An Open Book is, of course, a “late” work and the coming twilight inevitably casts its shadows before in a few of these poems. Interestingly, these future prospects evoke literary references. “Windows II” begins by describing windows as things that place limits on the raw worldliness of the world which our “edgy / ungrounded second nature” has trouble dealing with, but finishes with a room at sunset in which, echoing Goethe’s “mehr licht”, there is the comfort of “light, light, more / light as night comes on”. In “Late Poem” the morning cup of coffee is also a taking into oneself of a dark liquid which symbolises the greater dark and so the act is “a practice / run for the big sleep”. And “A Knee Bent to Longevity” begins
A knee bent to longevity. Remnant days haunted by footsteps in a house of empty doorways. The rest is never silent, or never quite. Some tag-end of the stubbornly personal-unresolved, resistant to tense or closure, hangs on and quickens into a new generation . . .
and makes the very Maloufian point that the self isn’t an isolated phenomenon but one which is everywhere connected to both past and future and the inhabitants of those realms. Late in life the poet’s gaze moves away from “constellations, far-off / hilltop villages / folded in travel-maps” and focusses on the final day that “the calendar at last / finds time for”. But the self is joined by the unfinished and unresolved elements of existence which, I think, are here imagined to be a younger group, perhaps two or three generations down the track, “demanding / their jot of the blessèd dole”.
I’ve spoken about An Open Book in rather thematic terms, possibly because that is what first suggests itself when one re-enters the Maloufian universe. I should point out that these are poems with a very distinctive style. As I have said they are compressed without being gestural and small without being slight. They are highly responsive not so much to the tactility of words as to the multiple accidents that seem to accompany them and their use, and which always invite into the poem unexpected meanings. Hence the engagement with punning and the continuing pleasure in the way that an unexpected enjambment can alter meaning completely: in “Understood”, which I have already quoted, what we first read as an address to a pilgrim turns out to be, at the beginning of the next line, an address to the “pilgrim self”, a noun having been transformed into an adjective. In “Odd Man Out” the description of the solitary child as “never lonely” is radically altered in the next line by the word “enough”. (It’s such a common mechanism in these three books that one worries that it may become nothing more than an authorial habit.) And there is also the movement of the poems. In contrast to the remorseless discourse (of, admittedly, widely different origins) that makes up so much of Australian poetry, Malouf’s poems move by very carefully placed phrases and breaths. It’s tone of humility, inclusiveness, sensitivity and respect has led to its being called “European” but that can only ever be an imprecise term. Whatever its allegiances, it’s a wonderful poetry by a great poet at the height of his powers: one wants it to continue in this vein for as long as possible.