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. Silence 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:
One, 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.