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”.

David Malouf: Typewriter Music

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007, 82pp.

Reviewers of this new book of poems by David Malouf have spoken of the gap of twenty-seven years between it and the earlier First Things Last, as though Malouf had been in a kind of poetic wilderness and had, now an old man, returned to his first love. In doing so they have, of course, neatly omitted the thirty-odd poems that come at the end of the 1992 Selected Poems (UQP). But that doesn’t stop a reader still going looking for continuities between Typewriter Music and First Things Last. And we should expect continuities given Malouf’s insistence on seeing the phenomena of existence (including, presumably, poems) more as parts of a continuum than in self-contained species (or genres).

Initially we want to say, of course, that all these poems inhabit the same universe: the universe of dream-realities, music, breath, transformation and mysterious and often homely angels who slide from one world to the next with equivocal annunciations: a universe that we need, increasingly, to call Maloufian. We meet different aspects of it in almost all of Malouf’s poems, of course, but from this new book a little poem,“Ombrone”, will serve as an example:

Of trees their lucent shadow
on water, each leaf

remade, tumultuous drops
of light coalescing.

To be at once
in two minds and the crossing

made without breaking
borders, this

the one true baptism, flames
by water

undoused, and sound by silence,
each rinsed leaf stirred

by a giant’s
breathing, deep underground.

Watching the reflection of leaves in the river provokes a meditation about living in two worlds and the crossing is made by immersion (baptism) rather than opening a door. It is an effortless crossing that celebrates the act rather than focusing on the existence of a threshold. A magical state is reached in which the water does not douse the flames of the autumnal leaves and the underwater silence does not quiet the rustling that the air version of the leaves has. The work of a great many poets is built around two-world binaries: life and art, experiment and tradition, free verse and formal verse, and so on, but Malouf is consistently concerned with the interpenetration of these binaries, the kind of effect we get when we look out of a window and see our own image interpenetrate the landscape. “Ombrone” isn’t, however, an entirely comfortable poem (at least in my reading) because it goes on to ask what, in the reflected world, causes the movement of the leaves. The final stanza provides a kind of answer perhaps by deduction or even by intuition. This introduction isn’t really the place to go hammering out whether the giant is simply a more sinister inhabitant of the other world or whether he represents a kind of geological underlay for the culture of the region, seen in what Malouf calls “the long view” of history, a perspective that drastically foreshortens evolutionary time. I simply want to make the point that we ourselves, reading Malouf’s poetry, re-enter a familiar though mysterious world.

This raises the first of a series of questions that, regrettably, I’m not really able to answer. Is the Maloufian universe present in the first poems of his first book? If we asked the author this, I suspect he would say that the seed of this view of the world is present in “Interiors” and Bicycle and that the later books should be seen not as a detailing and exploiting this world but rather discovering what is happening as it evolves. At any rate, one possibly minor but still intriguing continuity between First Things Last and Typewriter Music can be found in a sense of syntactic play. For all the splendour of those late odes in First Things Last, (“Ode One”, “An Die Musik”, “Ode”) there is just the slightest touch of flaccidity about them. They give the impression that they draw the energy that sustains them from an implicit and friendly nod of agreement from the reader – they deploy the word, “we”, in a way that suggests this. But the final poem, “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave”, is really rather different, not least in the way, when it speaks of “we”, it means two precise individuals: the poet and his companion. Above all, it is full of puns and sly jokes which rely on syntax and enjambment. Unlike the other odes, which seem to be aspiring to “the longer breath / of late works”, here the lines are short and choppy and hence play against the syntax in a quite dissonant way – recalling Stravinsky himself, I suppose, who is, musically, a long way from late Schubert. Take the poem’s middle section:

                    We stay among the dead,
observing how the twentieth century
favours the odd
conjunction and has made

strange bedfellows. (Not all of us
would rejoice at the last trump
to discover we’d been laid
by Diaghilev). The parting

bell tolls over us,
and those who can, and we
among them, re-embark.
The weather’s shifted

ground so many times
in minutes, it might be
magic or miracle and you the day’s
composer as you are

the century’s, though at home among
immortals. We go back
the long way via the dead
silence of the Arsenal, its boom

raised, its big guns open
-mouthed before the town
.       . . . . .

Of course there is nothing worse than explaining jokes but “laid” and “boom” are punned on and the line break after “dead” means we temporarily read the sentence wrongly but in a way that makes sense: we go back past the dead. Since a double meaning of sorts is created this too is a pun. You don’t meet much of this playfulness in the poems at the end of the two selected poems of 1991 (A&R) and 1992 (UQP), perhaps because they are very much poems about local places: Campagnatico and Brisbane, but you do meet some very odd syntax that would repay careful studying. How, for example, could a great poet like Malouf tolerate a piece of stuffy neo-classicism like “as a spyglass finds when sun with dry thatch meddles” – not apparently intended as comic pastiche? And what on earth do these lines from “A Place in Tuscany” mean:

                between deaths

the coffin-maker croons,
from the same plank fashions
beds; in time these few
unchanging things assume
a village street is peopled,
as year after year and down through
the same names called

as night comes on and planets
hang  . . . . .

Our knowledge of Malouf’s poetry enables us to see that the word “assume” is used not as a synonym for “presume” but in the meaning of “take on” so that the recurring bedrock experiences of Tuscan life are – when seen from that foreshortened perspective that Malouf loves – gradually covered in progressively more civilized forms. But it is not a sentence that I could parse with any confidence.

The first poem of Typewriter Music, “Revolving Days”, is playful but not especially unusual syntactically. Recalling a lover of his youth, Malouf hastens to assure him No, don’t worry, I won’t appear out of that old time to discomfort you. And no, at this distance, I’m not holding my breath for a reply. All readers of Malouf will know of his obsession with the contiguity between different worlds. In itself this is not an uncommon idea – it may well the basis of most modern science-fiction – but Malouf is distinctive in his attempts to reduce the significance of the threshold, to argue that a spectrum of worlds exists and the act of crossing is not in itself especially important. Generally he is not a “dramatic” writer in that he doesn’t exploit the uncanny effect of sudden appearances from another dimension – such as happens in the first book of the Iliad when Athene appears behind Achilles, unseen by everyone else, and grasps him by the hair (surely a reference to the spine-tingling effects either of the numinous or, in my reading, the existence of a creature from the different dimension). And yet there are great dramatic moments in An Imaginary Life, especially when the centaurs appear in a dream, demanding to be let into Ovid’s life. In “Revolving Days” Malouf is visited by an image of himself from the past and knows that his lover of that period must be in the next room. It is a wittier and much more sophisticated poem than it would be if the lover stepped through a door to the past and confronted him: instead Malouf assures the lover that he will not be making any sudden incursions into the lover’s current world “to discomfort you”, Malouf himself will not act the part of one of the homely angels that we meet so often in Malouf’s world. I think this is a quite brilliant and unexpected inversion.

Many of the poems in the first dozen pages of the book are about love. “Moonflowers” is a good example and could, conceivably be a gloss on “Revolving Doors”

Gone and not gone. Is this
garden the one
we walked in hand in hand
watching the moon
-flower at the gate

climb back into our lives
out of winter bones - decades
of round crimped candescent
origami satellite-dishes
all cocked towards Venus?

One garden opens
to let another through, the green
heart-shapes a new season holds
our hearts to like the old.
The moonflower lingers

in its fat scent. We move
in and in and out of
each other’s warmed spaces -
there is
no single narrative.

And we like it that way,
if we like it at all, this
tender conceptual
blue net that holds, and holds us
so lightly against fall.

It is a small, wonderful poem and very enjoyable to get to know. It is not at all portentous but says a lot. And one could speak at great length about the syntactical playfulness that is going on inside it. I don’t want to state the obvious here but at the end of the first stanza it is only the hyphen on the next line that prevents us reading that the moon (noun) flowered (verb) at the gate. Similarly the word “climb” at the opening of the second stanza shows us that “at the gate” is a prepositional phrase modifying the noun “moon-flower” rather than the verb “flower” ie is adjectival not adverbial. And then there is the third stanza which is, initially, quite disorienting because the syntactic shape is not immediately obvious: it is the new season which, like the old, holds our hearts to the green heart-shaped buds that come with the season’s new incarnation. And then there are the little games: in the first stanza the first “in” modifies “walked” and the second is part of the phrase “hand in hand” but, put together, it enables the writer to write “in hand” twice. You get the same effect in the fourth stanza were, although it is perfectly good English, Malouf can write a line made up of minuscule words: “in and in and out of”.

There are two issues here. The first is the question of whether this is new in Malouf’s work. I think it is, although it is possible that there are some less well-known poems from earlier books that do something similar. The second is the question of why it is being done. This is a bit harder but my own feeling is that this play is a way of generating energy for the poem. We are not in the mimetic free-verse tradition where the shape of the poem, in ways either sophisticated or banal, mimics something in the subject. I think we are in a world where the poem derives energy from this play – but it is a much more sophisticated energy than the kick-along given verse by regular enjambment. Conceivably there are more sophisticated answers: Perhaps the solution is a superior kind of mimesis in that in a universe where borders are less significant than a process of continuous transformation, the objects too should be slightly ambiguous, as though they were seen simultaneously from different perspectives or as though they could be verbs as well as nouns. Criticism of Malouf’s body of poetry will have to get a long way along before we can really be sure what is going on here.

In these first poems, “Typewriter Music” introduces us to the typewriter which, like the bicycle of Malouf’s first full book, is an angel in the form of a strange and spidery machine and “First Night” is a love poem about the morning after. It comes with a theatrical reference in the title and a strong focus on continuity:

. . . . .
                                                  It is always
                    a high room we climb to. The pears
might be garden tools, the laundry hay, the ironing board an angel
     disguised by birthday wrappings; the same
          breath goes out, not always visible,
to join them.

It also reminds us that the most commonly repeated significant word in this collection is “breath”, a concept that needs quite a bit of analysis. “First Night” is not unlike “Recalled” in that both deal with the moment of wakening with the lover in the morning – the middle ages devoted an entire genre, the aubade or morgenlied, to this. And there is an echo of Tristan here, and in an odd poem, “As It Comes”, in the sense that day is a rather brusque (oede) affair compared with the experiences (and perspectives) of the night. Again, there is a “joke” in the syntax of the last stanza of “Recalled”:

. . . . .
We move towards waking,
break clear of the spell
whose moonlit skin contained us
sleeping, love-making,
into stretch, into flow again,

reincarnate, as shy
by day, the rare night creatures
we turned to in each other’s
arms go padding
away in our blood.

That they turn “to in” is the inverse of what we want or expect to read – “into in”. One boundary has been broken – each turns into a night creature – but the poem is written so that the individuals experienced their new identity as they see it in the other. Not a funny joke but, like the inversion of “Revolving Days” an enriching and complexifying piece of play.

In my reading of Typewriter Days, this first section of the book concludes with two poems that are about flying. One, “Flights”, tells us as much in its title, and is made up of a poem about taking off, a poem about going for a joyflight and a poem about arriving. If one wanted to enter full, speculative hermeneutical mode, one might guess that the state of the joyflight, that of spinning but not necessarily getting anywhere spatially, is a symbol of the kind of playful elements in the poetry that I have been speaking of. Fittingly the poem is one sentence, full of syntactic swoops and swirls with a trick enjambment at the end of the second last stanza:

A light plane loop-the-looping
over sallow hills, all
its rivets snugged in

and singing; its beaten thin
quicksilver skin beaded
with cloud-lick, its hollow

spaces a brimful hum,
the pressure inside
and out in an equilibrium

true as the laws
of this world allow, a new
nature in the nerve-ends

reached or recovered, in
the shallows of the skull,
and the tilt, as they right themselves,

of road, fence, powerline,
horizon, a draft
of the way things are and were

to be, the long view still
breathtaking as earth
bumped in after the spin.

The second poem, “Millenium”, is about the planes launched into the twin towers and seeks to balance despair with “the ordinary comfort // of loaves / and a rising”. This public subject is coated in obliquity (including an allusion to Eliot’s “Little Gidding”) so dense that it takes the reader a while to orient himself, to realize that the “dusty text” is a copy of the Qur’an somewhere in a madrasseh in Pakistan and the shoe is that of the “shoe-bomber”:

The fire that starts in a dusty text in one part of the globe
is a shoe that flies to pieces in another

The angel’s song caught like a wish-bone in the throat

Unspooled and spilling
in the dark, quicksilver jump-cuts tilt and scurry

Hands folded in prayer

Wings of the metal dove that without preamble slides its thunder
into head after glassy head

Four of the next five poems, “Like Our First Paintbox”, “”˜Poetry Makes Nothing Happen’”, “Reading Late at Campagnatico” and “Making” are about creativity and the status of the created object, a thing “which Nature had not thought / to add but once / there cannot do without”. At the centre of this group is an odd poem, “At The Ferry”. The poet, accompanied by sinister voice comes to the end of the ramp to the ferry:

. . . . .
Close by, either
behind or close ahead,
damped in the dampened air,
music. “This is
the last thing you will hear,” the stranger
whispers. His last word.

I stand and listen.
approaches. A silence approaching music.

It is really hard to get a grip on the situation here. On the surface it reads like an invitation to suicide, a kind of rewriting of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The point would then be that the refusal to suicide is based not on the call of “promises to keep”, that is, of the social world which words deal with, but of the world of artistic creativity. I think an early line “I come with empty pockets” could be read as a warning that this is not the intended meaning – “I don’t come, like Virginia Woolf, with pockets filled with stones.” And the poem’s setting amongst this group of poems about creativity suggests that we should read it as one of those liminal experiences – land projects into water, silence meets music – from which poems arise. But I can’t help being struck by the last two lines – they use the kind of playfulness I find throughout this book to do something sophisticated. “A silence approaching music” means, first, that there is a silence which is almost musical in its intensity (an echo of the opening of “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave”), but since the silence also approaches the speaker, it can suggest that music (whose location the poem keeps deliberately vague) is present in the speaker. It is not unlike that clever ambiguity in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, where the “solemn imagery” of the mountains is received “into the bosom of the steady lake”. On the surface, “bosom” is metaphorical but there is an implied second meaning where “lake” is metaphorical: the landscape is taken in, simultaneously, by both boy and lake and thus, by implication, the location they share is each other.

The next six poems also make a little structured group. A translation from Latin is followed by a translation from Rimbaud and is followed by a poem with a medieval setting and then the trio is repeated. The first is a set of seven translations of Hadrian’s “Animula vagula blandula” called “Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian”. Of course it is seven versions of Hadrian’s last words (which is a nineteen word poem) rather than his seven last words. It is a small joke but it does make us look for the actual last word of Hadrian which turns out to be “iocus” – joke. The last of these poems, “Psalter”, is about the way in which a text has a complicated history – of invasion and then settlement – behind it. It represents a kind of door to an historical world but it also enables Malouf to do here what he does in the next poem – the eight part “The Long View” – which is to take a compressed view of history. Seen from an almost infinite distance, history gets squashed so that we can discern its outlines better. And these outlines can be patterns of repetition as well as evolution. The first of these is “Straw”:

To be spun out of gold
into gold. In summer fields
temples, pyramids,

in the swallow’s bill mud-makings
of empire. A flute
for the god’s mouth leading

bare feet down
from trampled light to chambers
centuries underground.

The process whereby seeds produce plants which produce more seeds as well as straw is, in the “long view” no more than straw producing straw, though the allusion to Rumpelstiltskin ensures that we find the connection between straw and gold to be not unexpected. And in these fields buildings blossom in fast motion as do religious beliefs.

This long view of history can produce evolutions which become so quick that they are not far from being doors in their own right. In “Moment: Dutch Interior” seven brief stanzas delineate that distinctive world of apparently solitary and absorbed subjects that marks out classic Dutch painting. It is full of “the specific / gravity of the moment” – that is both specificity and gravitas – and the

          radiance with which
she fills it.

The absence
of another. Of others.

But the final stanza, unusually dramatic for Malouf, reminds us that, in the long view, this quintessentially Western civilized interiority has evolved from a world of hunting:

Thin as
a sliver of glass
a shriek from an animal-trap sprung in the grass.

The long view may also be the perspective behind “Allemande” where civilization is represented as a dance but it is a dance in which the reflection of the dancers in the floor becomes an image of the “ghost legions / of the dead they will one day // augment”. So the present is seen as a version of the past from which it has evolved.

The last thirty or so pages of Typewriter Days is introduced by an imaginary eleven-page letter from Mozart to his librettist da Ponte. It is structured as a kind of cantata with three poems interspersed throughout the prose passages. The letter is a meditation on music and language cast as a defence of the music of Don Giovanni, Mozart and da Ponte’s “dramatic joke”, in which, at the climax, a semi-human angel of death appears to invite Giovanni to join him in his, the angel’s, world. Opera is a Maloufian obsession (he has been a librettist four times himself) and so the coat of an imaginary letter from Mozart to da Ponte is lightly worn: early on it speaks of the ordinary world as being made up of such distractions as “cats, clouds, cars, tears, opinions”. It begins by differentiating between music and words: the former an abstract, self-referential language but also an innocent one, the language of Eden before the fall; the latter the language of temporality and the world of things, events and narratives. But music, like the Gods, longs to enter the contingent world of humanity and out of this marriage of the two languages, opera is born. But Don Giovanni is not any old opera and Mozart’s letter goes on to speak of his desire to allow a third language to emerge, the language of a reality that pre-exists both music and words, the pitch “at which most of the universe exists, but I had to lower it a little, tease it out, translate it back into what is accessible to our human ears”. There is a wonderful description of Mozart’s pinching of the singer of Zerlina’s part (a moment in which this other “music” is heard) when the Don (a modern version of a roving-eyed Jupiter) is described as being shocked, as though a god “out of an older opera had cut in and stolen a march on him”. The work’s three poems are not easy but seem to represent, successively, the human desire to reach up to a transcendent world (our falling can be graceful); the desire of the natural world to become part of our “game”; and the way in which, in opera, the fictional and the real meet (or at least approach each other) on the stage leaving us with “news of transformation / – our own, and a tune to whistle / in the dark of the tomb.”

The other two poems of this last part of the book that call for some comment are the sequences “An Essay on Angels – the short version” and “Into the Blue”, the former made up of six poems and the latter, four. “An Essay on Angels” begins with first apprehensions and progresses chronologically from there. The first poem which begins:

Have never seen one but being
curious am always
on the lookout, as I was
in childhood for white horses. Those

I did see . . .

And logic tells us that the “those” can only refer to white horses while the poetic logic of the passage desperately wants us to equate it with angels. Even here we meet the playful syntax that is such a feature of this book when the third verse says:

Do I recall
the first, and having
before that none
to go by, how I knew it? Will I again?

This is a bit like Henry James with enjambments. But the crucial feature of this sequence is the way that these mystical annunciations of the ordinary extraordinary evoke sexuality. We begin to think, allowing our own thoughts to run along their rails, that you can’t really talk about other worlds, entering other universes, meeting angelic messengers and so on without talking about the erotic. The angel of the cryptic second poem could come from a renaissance painting but could also be a lover:

Restless. A haystack
of jubilant straws, muscle,
wingtip the fools

of flight. Restless. Eyelid
and nerve, all quick flame, curl,
ear-whorl, heel uplifted.

Stillness only
in the eye of this storm, as
subdued by gravity,

it weighs
the flesh and its surprises.
Attending on the world.

And the meeting with the angel in the fourth poem – no matter how uplifting the intention – is couched in the language of being picked-up:

half-kneeling to unlatch

his shoe, not even needing
to smile for you to get
the message, and no exchange
of names, just This

 is for you, I think . . .

Typewriter Music is disarmingly frank about love as experience (the fact that it opens with “Revolving Days” establishes this), but here eroticism is reduced to a kind of undercurrent as though it is yet another joke which po-faced readers may miss.

There is not much eroticism in “Into the Blue”, but it is about undercurrents, being one of those Malouf poems set in Deception Bay. In fact it recalls “Asphodel” from Neighbours in a Thicket in it’s desire to enter the water and experience the other which eventually became us. When it says of the bay, “Our limbs / emerged out of its salt”, there is an important meaning beyond the superficial one of finishing one’s swim:

. . . . .
When the moon blazed a track
     across it we were tempted. Only
our breath, only our need

for the next breath constrained us.
     It was our other selves
that tried it,

in sleep. And arrived
     safely. And never did
get back.

The second poem is a beautiful description of the perception of distance (between the local and the stars) simultaneously established and then dissolved when the speaker stamps on the wet sand and produces galaxies and the third poem, about rock pools, speaks the same language of the effortless and non-destructive crossing of a threshold that recalls “Ombrone” when it describes the surface as “glass you could put a fist through / unbloodied”.

Malouf is a great poet and Typewriter Music is a book worthy of his genius. Reading him is a potent and distinctive experience which can, oddly enough – and I doubt that I am the first to say this – mimic the very experiences that Malouf describes. For example we feel ourselves to be in a world which is familiar and distinctive but we are not confident that we know it exhaustively. There are always areas that we don’t feel entirely comfortable about – I could construct, for example, a nightmare in which I was faced with an examination question which said: “Describe the role played by, and evaluate the significance of, breath in Typewriter Music”. Sorry – the best I could do would be some incoherent notes delivered with a false show of confidence. There are also plenty of doors that lead to logical extensions of the ground plan of this world. At the same time we feel that the author is such a friendly and inclusive voice that his arm is always around our shoulders and he can’t really understand our problems: like someone trying to show you the face of Christ in a drawing of the clouds: since your incomprehension is incomprehensible all he can do is keep saying “Look, look.” But, whatever the difficulties and uncertainties, learning how to walk, no matter how unsteadily, in the Maloufian world, is a vital and essential experience for any reader.