An Open Book
The precise nature of poetic form was a key issue in the so-called ‘poetry wars’ of the 1960s. Was it to be imposed on the subject-matter through time-honoured procedures (fixed metres, rhyme, metaphor, and so on)? Or did it have to grow from whatever gave rise to the impulse to write in the first place, and respond with a certain wildness to a unique act of creativity? In these debates, there was a sense too that form – especially in a place like Australia with a deep sense of cultural inferiority – could eventually become ossified and alienating, and just another means of imposing conformity on individuals hoping for some degree of liberation from an oppressive status quo.
When David Malouf published ‘Interiors’ in Four Poets back in 1962, he made it clear that he was a disciple of discipline, embracing formal poetic structure and impressing with his commitment to craftsmanship. When he returned to poetry with Typewriter Music in 2007, his attitude remained more or less unchanged, exemplified by the elevated diction, intelligent use of line-breaks, sensitivity to ambiguity, powerful wit, and a deep familiarity with European civilisation. With this book, the third in his comeback, he remains true to this fundamental artistic direction. However, as I read and re-read this latest collection, those warnings about form posed fifty years ago kept surfacing in my mind: was there a danger of technique becoming an end in its own right, and of making poetry an embellishment of reality rather than helping us more fully appreciate what it means to be human?
Human experience, as it happens, is mirrored in the structure of An Open Book, which starts with fourteen poems on childhood, and closes with a suite entitled ‘A Knee Bent to Longevity’, made up of ten poems on the topic of mortality. The rest of the poetry falls naturally between these points, and takes us through a diverse range of subjects and moods. References to breathing occur throughout, and this fact hints at an important characteristic of the poetry collected here: breath is a kind of living and dying in miniature that we generally remain unconscious of, and attention to it helps to bring us back to those other things in the world that we take too much for granted.
‘Hardly a day passes I don’t think of him / in the asylum’ writes Mary Oliver in her poem on the German pianist and composer Robert Schumann, and it is Schumann’s Kinderszenen (meaning ‘scenes from childhood’) that provide Malouf with the inspiration for these reminiscences about his early life. Unlike Schumann’s music, which to me conveys the innocence and physical energy of the child, Malouf is more attracted by the psychological aspects of his growing up. The atmosphere at times is Freudian, especially in lines such as ‘Privacies. Tongue-and-groove / whispers at a knothole, / bare bathroom / plumbing, bare bodies, / shock-white minus their clothes’ (‘Binomial’). Other pieces in the suite, however, attempt to fill in something of the social background. One of these is ‘The Brisbane Line’, an evocation of the threat of Japanese invasion in the 1940s:
Thunder Mitsubishi bombers on the move An apocalyptic four-o-clock Brisbane sky redistributed an hour south over the border in unnumbered raindrops pendant sun-traps at the tip of hoop-pine needles
Indirectness is typical of Malouf’s style: he likes to approach his themes metaphorically. Here, the metaphor is created through juxtaposition: thunder is the sound of Japanese bombs exploding over the north of Australia, while at the end of the poem, the drops of rain poised on the tips of pine needles allude again – this time in terms of their appearance – to bombs about to be released from their hatches. Another feature evident here is the careful attention to word-choice. The ‘tic’ in ‘apocalyptic’ leads on to ‘four-o-clock’, while ‘redistributed’ and ‘unnumbered’ puzzle with their calculated unexpectedness – I can only guess that ‘redistributed’ suggests the redrawing of the map of Australia that led to the proposed creation of the Brisbane Line, while ‘unnumbered’ implies ‘unlike the bombs, which all carried a serial number’. The threat to domestic security which looms at the edges of this poem is further heightened by the words ‘trap’ and ‘needle’, both of which have affirmative meanings as well as negative connotations.
After the fraught family scenes of Kinderszenen, Malouf modulates into a more everyday, life-embracing key. There are domestic poems, dealing with topics such as the return of Spring, windows and how they frame our view of the world, the minor gods of the hearth, and the delight of freshly baked bread. Italy also gets a look in in three poems, including ‘Cockcrow at Campagnatico’, possibly one of the few poems in English about the hard, aspirated ‘c’ of the Tuscan dialects. In addition, translation continues to play a part in Malouf’s return to poetry: just as Earth Hour included versions of work by Horace, Baudelaire and Heine, An Open Book translates Horace, Dante and Ronsard, displaying a deft use of slant rhyme in his renditions of the latter two poets. Here we also find three of the more challenging poems in the book, ‘The Double Gift’, the very elusive ‘Understood’, and the following deceptively simple text entitled ‘Asleep at the Wheel’:
Asleep at the wheel the tumble of cumulus and pasture one as they go streaming but in all that speed of passage a slowing almost to a standstill as we take in the leaf long-dead mid-fall suspended in a web the fox’s eye as it glances up from the kill In one sense asleep but in the others alert to each occurrence each breath as it detaches from the time-flow the unspooling self holding fast and faster to a highway without name or number or destination
Once again, indirectness is crucial. At first, we might read the poem as a description of a car travelling at high speed through landscape. The countryside streams past in a seamless flow, but there are also moments in which the world stands still and small details make their presence felt with a kind of emblematic quality (the web and the eye are also small ‘wheels’ of a kind). But to make sense of the poem’s title, we gradually come to see that ‘asleep at the wheel’ is a metaphor for a state of mind in which the self goes through life on busy automatic pilot. Locked in our hectic trajectories, we are generally oblivious of what awaits us in the end – it is only occasionally that we acknowledge the presence of death in the scheme of things. Malouf provides a magical jolt in the poem by means of a telling ambiguity, taking the innocuous set phrase ‘in one sense’ and brilliantly recasting its meaning with what he adds to it: ‘but in the others’. Alertness to the physical act of breathing allows the mind to acknowledge its predicament: it is caught in time and will eventually ‘unspool’ (another echo of the wheel image).
This poem hints at the web of life and the idea of natural cycles, but Malouf’s attitude to wilderness is ambiguous and only intermittently ecological. A key poem in this regard is ‘At Pennyroyal II’. In certain lines, he is willing to entertain the idea of an order beyond the human, writing ‘There are no laws / for this, or if there are we do not know them, / though we live, as the land does, / in their gentle governance’ (38). Yet, this statement is echoed in a very different poem about household gods – they too are ‘[m]ute reminders of what it is that we are part of’ (32) – so this order Malouf grapples with may be a supernatural one. At the end of ‘At Pennyroyal II’, he returns to the idea of ‘[an] order we cannot see / the grounds of’, yet declares that this order is one that human beings ‘acknowledge and keep’, an assertion impossible to reconcile with any accurate appraisal of our contemporary ecological predicament.
Things come full circle in the final section of the book, and the seriousness of the theme of ageing and mortality brings out the best in Malouf. ‘The young man may be beautiful,’ wrote Victor Hugo, ‘but the old man is grand’, and it is grandeur rather than beauty that count at this point. The depiction of an elderly fellow as ‘a walking / coffin draped in black / in which / younger livelier selves / are buried’ (78) suggests a fairly bleak outlook with regard to this ultimate mystery, as does the description of life as ‘Mixed messages / mixed blessings / A world of happen / -stance (some call it Providence) / that hands us / a mare’s nest to be picked / over or pieced together’ (‘As Living Is’). And yet Malouf also sees this phase of existence as a time when we might live more in accord with the world (‘A Word to the Wise’), show a greater appreciation for the occasional workaday miracle (‘Small Wonders’) and become able to shift our focus ‘to a day, long in the making, / that the calendar at last / finds time for’ (‘A Knee Bent to Longevity’). Nevertheless, the fact that almost all these poems are written from the perspective of an impersonal ‘we’ renders Malouf’s response to old age persistently general and remote.
True to Malouf’s disciplined orientation, the diction in An Open Book is consistently literary, derived primarily from the decorum of the page rather than the rawer quasi-spontaneities of spoken language. You rarely see a contraction in these poems – no don’t, or won’t, or can’t, or isn’t – because this would lower the tone too much. (It is paradoxical that Malouf links poetic inspiration closely to breath when his work is so meticulously scripted.) This is borne out by the sprinkling of hyper-formal words, mainly derived from Latin, such as ‘insinuant’ (15), ‘exhilarant’ (23) and ‘executant’ (69), as well as the repeated flights of magniloquence – ‘The spirit that makes the letter of this day red / has not yet descended, but the birds / have, and are setting to with their doo-del-do, their chuck / and chortle, as if the hour, like the planet, / was theirs to decorate, as they have the yard with their sky-blue droppings’ (23). This bookishness enables him to make wonderfully effective use of clichés and stock phrases from colloquial language, because the contrast with his default mode is so striking. This results in memorable moments such as the revitalising of the phrase ‘in one sense’ in ‘Asleep at the Wheel’. Other equally impressive examples include a presentation of sunset – ‘the refulgence / of a lava-spill long past that makes / our day that makes / our time’ (55) and the delineation of time as a polite old gentleman, ‘dancing / attendance on us only / to distract us from the fact he has already / made himself scarce’ (75), elegantly expressing the notion that, with every passing moment, our allotted span has been permanently reduced.The linking of pairs of words on the basis of alliteration is an unusual element in Malouf’s diction:
- ‘Smoothly / concealed in foam and frolic’ (10)
- ‘the mesh and mash of things’ (28)
- ‘the mess and muddle we mischief into’ (32)
- ‘however rich and ripe or rare’ (37)
- ‘the seethe and scuffle / of lapsed encyclicals’ (45)
- ‘A honeyeater, up / -side-down at tilt and tumble’ (71)
In this device, a purely typographic consideration overrides precision. In actual fact, the force of each of the paired words is weakened in combination, so that it tends to mean less rather than more.
The American painter Andrew Wyeth once said that his aim was not ‘to exhibit craft but rather to submerge it’, so that it served his efforts to express ‘beauty, power, and emotional content’. An Open Book demonstrates the difficulties an unsubmerged devotion to poetic technique can run into. There are signs of this in the frequent instances of disproportion, including the use of portentous titles such as ‘Brisbane Line’ to write about a storm or ‘A la Recherche’ for a short poem on remembering. More serious is the glaring disproportion sometimes revealed in his metaphors: to describe a garden spider web as ‘a launching-pad / for space walks, sky-hung / deathcamps, sticky ends’ (42) is both insensitive to historical realities and plainly inaccurate. It would seem that the noble pursuit of formal perfection can lead a writer to relegate experience to a secondary position and, in some cases, actively set out to minimize it so that it doesn’t get in the way of the linguistic flourishes, the dazzling flashes of wit, the erudite cultural gestures. On many occasions, both experience and poetry are treated by Malouf like the poor snails in the poem ‘Sagra’, hanging above ground ‘like armoured angels’, climbing ‘on rainbow bridges’ to ‘their Götterdämmerung’, only to be snuffed out in a puff of steam, leaving ‘their bleached-white ministry of silence a long Te Deum to voicelessness’ (36).
David Malouf, An Open Book. St. Lucia, Qld: UQP, 2018. ISBN: 9780702260308