David Malouf: An Open Book

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
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,

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

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.

David Malouf: Earth Hour

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 Sevres 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”.