Lines that strike an authentic note
Bernard Lane Typewriter Music By David Malouf UQP, 87pp, $ 29.95
ANGELS, an attic room in a northern winter, subtropical salt on the flesh and breath that’s poured, across continents and time, into a lover’s mouth; these are signatures of David Malouf’s poetry, instantly recognisable proofs of him at work although it has been 26 years since he last published a slim volume.
I’ve always thought his poetry a secret pleasure. I immersed myself in volumes such as Neighbours in a Thicket before I knew anything of Malouf’s novels and perhaps this is why I’ve never got around to reading them. As one novel after another accumulated prizes for him, as they made him something of a literary celebrity, I’d vaguely resolve to attempt that book or attend this lecture. Inertia prevailed but there has always been an opening for the poetry; that I kept revisiting.
Much in Typewriter Music is familiar territory and the first poem, Revolving Days , takes you straight there: That year I had nowhere to go, I fell in love — a mistake of course, but it lasted and has lasted. The old tug at the heart, the grace unasked for, urgencies that boom under the pocket of a shirt. But the characteristic sense of movement in Malouf’s poetry is not direct. Days revolve, a season returns and its warmth brings back a different self. And breath, ‘‘ that ghost wafer’’ tasted first and last by the tongue, speaks for all living things caught up in a magical present.
In First Night , Malouf returns to ‘‘ a high dry attic room under warped pine- shingles’’: Our breath went out, dense with our bodies’ warmth, and found no less a welcome in that place than in others. 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. And they always, with the humility of those who are just themselves, make room for us. As when we first lay down among them and slept the sleep of the innocent on unsettled ground, the first night out of Eden. Two departures in Typewriter Music : some rollicking verse after Rimbaud ( The waitress arrives, what a love, / with her big tits and her bright eyes, one / of those who wouldn’t be fazed if you up and squeezed / her arse. She pours him ‘‘ a man- sized Stella Artois’’) and a mostly prose meditation on some undodgeable dualities, not just between word and music, put into the mouth of Mozart: Words act, they get things going, they are sociable. They form unions, found cities, make contracts in which responsibilities are established and dues paid, or they break them and start wars. Music is the language of that state of grace we fell from and from which we never entirely fall. When it is so clearly at home, why should it want, as words do, to be elsewhere or yearn painfully, as words do, for before or after? Yet celestial music does wish to be poured into the earthen vessel of words just as clouds might peer down with curiosity at the tragicomic games of children. Malouf has the clouds ask the terms of exchange: But what will you give, child, sitting alone on a doorstep and solemnly weeping, to have us walk in out of the rainy afternoon and join you? Will you give us breath? Will you call us by our real names? Will you tell us in a whisper, your own? The diction of most poems is simple; the phrasing doesn’t run away with your breath. A few poems come more tightly packed. Making , for example, appears to be a poem about poemmaking, the craft of conjuring up that: which Nature had not thought to add but once
Elsewhere, a field mouse taken by an owl is ‘‘ thin bones under the impact of the sky’s falling crack’’. A post- war light plane has ‘‘ its beaten thin quicksilver skin beaded with cloud- lick, its hollow spaces a brimful hum’’.
In a sequence of Rain Poems the veranda sleepout of Malouf’s childhood reappears: beyond its lattice, leaf - tap, a drip toccata on the elephant ears and staghorns of a pocket rainforest. Later comes ‘‘ the slop of English skies’’ in Putney, but: We lie down in the one dark, in sleep unbounded. Discontinuous music, of days that move on, nights that do not; the authentic note, once struck, endlessly sounded. The same holds for Malouf’s poetry. there cannot do without; and whether of breath made, or stone, egg- white, earth, old sticks, odd clippings, to be, as the child lost in his own story seeks it, a home, another home. There are striking images in Typewriter Music . Moment: Dutch Interior takes us into a room where a girl stands waiting: In its slight imbalance her body registers the tilt of her heart towards loss, some common sorrow not yet hers but in the world she has stepped into.
Breath of inspiration: David Malouf