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”.

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.