Lines that strike an au­then­tic note

Bernard Lane Type­writer Mu­sic By David Malouf UQP, 87pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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