David Musgrave: Numb & Number

Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 81pp.

On its back cover, Numb & Number describes itself as “a kind of clearing” containing poems which “open up, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyfully, what it is to be in the world”. The poems will, in other words, clear away many of the obstacles to a more open, expressive poetry. But there is also a sense that this book is, perhaps, itself a “clearing house”, a collection of disparate pieces which need to be published to clear the decks for other projects. And Musgrave seems attracted to projects which are more complicated than a simple collection of individual poems. His 2016 book, Anatomy of Voice, is a remarkably ornate, almost baroque, construction “dealing with” the death of a beloved mentor but using among its structural props, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and the emblem books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (As well as this, there is the fascinating experience of “auditory hallucinations” in which the mentor’s voice revisits from the past.) I mention this to make the point that there is a strong drive in Musgrave’s poetic imagination towards more complex structures than are implied in a conventional collection such as Numb & Number. It’s a book, which, for whatever reason, has a slightly rawer quality – in construction as well as in the individual poems – than both the highly structured ones and also previous works such as Phantom Limb and Concrete Tuesday.

Phantom Limb contained “Young Montaigne Goes Riding” a brilliant poem focussing on the processes and structures of thought. Numb & Number begins with “Coastline”, built around a walk along the endless curvatures of a coast. It’s a “walking poem”, not a riding poem, but it encourages the same kind of discursive processes of the mind. But there is a major difference between the poems which might be emblematic of the difference between a book such as Phantom Limb and Numb & Number in that here, an overwhelming experience – a broken-up relationship – presses on the consciousness and prevents it meditating freely or, at least, ensures that all meditation will ultimately gravitate towards an absence. And so what begins as an observation about the pattern of the pathway slides into a brief passage about jigsaws and on to the inevitable:

. . . . . 
fitting patiently on wet Sundays piece to piece,
sifting through the pile for the opposite

of a promontory of cloud: portable swastikas,
running men, whimsies, wheat sacks,
Swedens, Sulawesis, bits
of continent or a cauliflowered florescence, Mandelbrots
ferning into shapes running through my bloodstream.

And then the bigger pieces: the absent shape of you
to which no piece will fit, like emptied rooms
in a house no longer habitable.
Loss ineluctable: there is no cure, no magic zebra
crossing to a lossless world. . . .

It’s not just that the loved-one’s leaving is presented as a kind of super-massive black hole whose gravitational effect will ultimately ensure that all thought circles it more frantically before plunging in. The extended description of the jigsaw pieces – a metaphor that has a lot of pregnant possibilities in a poem set on a coastline since it is the “coasts” of the pieces that make them fit and produce a meaningful whole (or at least a meaningful representation of something) – could also be a way of avoiding the pain of the central topic by a desperate free expansion of an image. It could also be an example of the idea that a nothingness (a doorway, for example) is surrounded by complex decorative features which do nothing but heighten its emptiness.

Once love and loss force themselves into the poem, they pretty much dominate it although in a way that is in keeping with Musgrave’s imagination. The continents themselves, seen from the perspective of someone perched on the eastern coast of one, are seen as the earliest divorcees – “next to them we’ve barely tiffed”. The poem attempts a positive conclusion, reminding the poet that the pronoun “you” can have other referents and finally recalling the fact that a coastline is technically infinite – as the units of measurement decrease to approach zero so the outline of the coast, now considered to have followed the edge of the molecules that make up each individual rock, approaches infinity.

Interestingly, “Coastline” begins by exploring the optical illusion whereby to the viewer, the horizon line of the sea appears to be higher than the observer himself. Although this leads quickly, in the poem, to whimsical thoughts about being a dwarf standing on the shoulders of other dwarfs – a reverse Newton – its real significance is, I think, to establish a vertical axis to intersect with the very horizontal axis of a walk or a ride. I won’t follow this out in any length because I commented on it in my review of Phantom Limb on this site, but there is something fitting in the way in which this first poem, while registering the distorting power of grief, still wants to set up this opposition.

And there is, in the poems of Numb & Number, plenty of interest in the vertical component. It expresses itself, as before, in Musgrave’s fascination with his ancestors, especially those deep in the mid-nineteenth century. Much closer to the surface, to continue the metaphor, is Musgrave’s mother whose narcolepsy and cataplexy he describes in “The Narcolept”. This is a complex poem but its subject seems to me to be not so much sleep disorders as an interest in a genetic fault that can be traced back to the dinosaurs. The dreaming patterns of narcolepts are distinctive in being more lucid – that is, they can be recognised by the dreamer and even re-entered and modified – but there are also plenty of hallucinations. Musgrave imagines his mother entering the dream of tracing origins back to the Mesozoic:

The dinosaurs live on in chickens
and the dreams of an old woman
beached by an ocean of palsied sleep.

She’s following their footprints back
to a time before sleep
. . . . . 
those prehistoric footprints arrowing back
toward the start of the dream. Beyond extinction.

In the poem Musgrave says of himself “For as long as I can remember, I lacked / confidence in consciousness” and while the context suggests that this refers to a lack of confidence in his mother’s state of mind, it can also be read as applying to the author himself since narcolepsy is a genetic disorder that can be passed on.

In fact many of the poems of Numb & Number are concerned with how the figures of the past speak to us. In the way things are constructed in Musgrave’s work, this could be restated as asking how the ghosts of the past rise up to the surface of the present. One way is in dreams and another is in hallucinations (auditory and otherwise). But “The Transportations of George Bruce”, an extended piece, is interesting in this regard. It is a narrative based on the memoirs of a convict who escaped in the early nineteenth century, survived thanks to the help of some very altruistic settlers, and was eventually pardoned by the newly-arrived Governor King. As always with good poems there is a lot going on at the level of authorial connection that a reader can guess at. Firstly “The Transportations of George Bruce” is written in hexameters and reads like a pastiche of the Odyssey. Bruce himself seems on the surface to be a religion-crazed figure, likely to be in contact with angels. I think the interest for Musgrave is that Bruce can be seen as operating in a sordid version of the Homeric world, one in which the membrane between gods and men is quite thin. We are given a hint towards this by the earlier poem, “Waratah”, which quotes, as an epigraph, the moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus, on his way to deal with Circe, is met by a handsome youth – Hermes in disguise – who gives him the plant which will prevent the goddess enchanting him. The wanderer, Bruce/Odysseus, may not be communicating with his ancestors but he is communicating with representatives of another world. As such, he can be said to be “transported” in its metaphorical sense of being carried away by an experience, as well as in the conventional sense. He is also given to intense dreaming states:

. . . . . 
and the Goddess told me it was the canopy of heaven
and I must eat my belly full. And as I was eating
a beautiful man passed by the table, and the Goddess said
it was the Grand Arch Angel that brought the canopy
for me to eat. I watched him ascend through the window
at the top of the house and the Angels and Goddesses followed . . .

The sordid reality that Bruce struggles through is only one of a series of such realities. Poems like “Chyort” and, perhaps, “From a Train in Connecticut”, which follow “The Transportations of George Bruce”, though they are entirely different, reflect a bleak external world and it leads one to think that perhaps one of the aims of the poems of this book is to create a kind of anatomy of sordidness. “Chyort”, for example, whose title comes from the Russian for “devil”, recounts what must be a dream or hallucination of a moonlight trudge through what seems like a rubbish site:

. . . . . 
                    stepped through a rust harvest

of doorless cars and a ripple of tattered barns,
through fields of scattered cardboard, bound
newspapers, slashed and slithery vinyl
chairs and a chipped glossy dog, tailless . . .

Though the narrator climbs, there is no suggestion at the end of the poem that he gets out of this morass. “From a Train in Connecticut” is, on the surface, exactly the opposite, calmly detailing the life of a secondhand auto-parts dealer. But the presence of cars “wrecked, rusting, with tyreless wheels / and cataracted windscreens” establishes that we are not so far from “Chyort” and the proprietor, Joe, though he is preoccupied by the prospects of his baseball team, is someone who has had a dream that he has killed his oldest friend “and had been getting away with it all this time”. Another case of another world announcing itself through dreams, though this dreamworld, unlike George Bruce’s, is a much bleaker one.

There’s a lot more in this book that has this bleak outlook and, as I said at the beginning, both the poems and the book as a whole feel rawer than earlier ones. But bleakness is balanced with hope and the end of “Coastline” suggests that hope may triumph. The most overtly “hopeful” poem in the book is “Waratah”, an extended piece that has a rhapsodic tone created by repetition – “I’m clearing a space in Waratah” – and the use of present participles. In fact the poem feels as though it is a pastiche though what the original is I can’t quite place. Importantly the making of a new start by clearing the ground is accompanied by an acknowledgement of ancestors:

George Thomas Ferris, I’m back here in Waratah.
John Blake Quealy, I’m here in my clearing.
. . . . . 
Dorothy Downs Pawsey, I’m back here in Newcastle.
Eliza Augusta Prentice, I’m just down the road.

The land itself is not entirely salubrious, being dominated by the Moly-Cop factory but, by a nice coincidence, Moly is the name of the plant that Hermes gives to Odysseus. It is proof against bewitchment.

The issue of the overall tone – its balance between bitterness and the hope of renewal – and the motif of horizontal and vertical axes, comes together in the final, prose section of the last poem, “The Lake”. This lake’s shallowness means that the pasts which it symbolically holds will always be not far from the surface and so, in a search for forgetfulness (which also has a Homeric ring to it) the past will not entirely disappear. But happiness is still possible for the traveller in the boat, “the entire world had become nothing more than the membrane upon which you drifted for what seemed like forever”.