Ro­man­tic Malouf goes

Justin Cle­mens

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN his pref­ace to the sec­ond edi­tion of Lyri­cal Bal­lads ( 1800), William Wordsworth, the pro­gen­i­tor of English ro­man­ti­cism, an­nounces that a poet is a ‘‘ man speak­ing to men’’ and that po­etry is ‘‘ emo­tion rec­ol­lected in tran­quil­lity’’. David Malouf’s po­etry is un­ques­tion­ably in this great tra­di­tion.

In­deed, Re­volv­ing Days, his new vol­ume of se­lected po­etry, be­gins with a la­conic au­thor’s note in which he speaks of the tem­po­ral lag be­tween writ­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence, and how this has af­fected his re­order­ing of po­ems, writ­ten through 45 years or so: ‘‘ For the most part, the po­ems . . . ap­pear at the point where they were touched off by some­thing seen or felt rather than the time, some­times years later, when I found words for the ex­pe­ri­ence.’’ Ro­man­tic in this plac­ing of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, time and me­mory at the cen­tre of po­etry, Malouf is ro­man­tic, too, in his con­vic­tion that nat­u­ral en­coun­ters de­mand to be seized in all their dense imag­is­tic speci­ficity: A frog gulps on the path, earth- bub­ble green, deep wa­ter speaks in its throat. And revenant at dawn a pale fog ghosts among wrought- iron furniture.

Along with the fun­da­men­tal po­etic el­e­ments of earth, sun, moon, wind and sea, images of an­gels, swarms, stars and as­sorted ce­les­tial phe­nom­ena re­turn through­out the book, bind­ing the writ­ing of the life to the va­garies of time. In th­ese re­turns, one has glimpses of pe­cu­liar Maloufian epipha­nies: ‘‘ the am­pli­fied os­ti­nato/ mea­sures of earthed sky- mu­sic’’.

Tee­ter­ing for­ever on the verge of dis­abused reve­la­tion, the of­ten sur­pris­ing read­abil­ity of many of th­ese lyrics de­rives from their pre­dom­i­nantly iambic rhythms, which are then un­pre­dictably de­railed by in­ver­sions of beat, by sud­den en­jamb­ments or changes in pace: ‘‘ Late ham­mer­ing from the forge. The sparks go out/ on a sigh,

psalms and proverbs.’’ Th­ese lit­tle shocks of ar­rhyth­mia are tes­ti­mony to Malouf’s tech­ni­cal mas­tery, in­ject­ing in­ter­rup­tions into the ker­nel of ex­pe­ri­ence. And be­cause lan­guage is not sim­ply a record of ex­pe­ri­ence but it­self an ex­pe­ri­ence, Malouf con­stantly in­ter­weaves mem­o­ries of child­hood, trav­el­ling and love with the fruits of his read­ing: ul­ti­mately, there can be no prin­ci­pled dis­tinc­tion be­tween writ­ing and the world. Al­lu­sions to the masters are ev­ery­where, from covert echoes of favourite po­ems to the in­vo­ca­tion of canon­i­cal ti­tles, cul­mi­nat­ing in the sep­tu­agint of trans­la­tions of the em­peror Hadrian’s self- penned epi­taph An­im­ula vag­ula blan­dula that con­cludes this vol­ume: Dear soul mate, lit­tle guest and com­pan­ion, what shift will you make now, out there in the cold? If this is a joke, it is old, old.

Yet a few of th­ese po­ems are too deriva­tive to be suc­cess­fully al­lu­sive, be­tray­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of be­ing an Aus­tralian poet who some­times feels him­self far from the metropole at the same mo­ment that he dis­avows feel­ing so. Sheer Edge is a kind of af­ter- echo of W. H. Au­den’s bril­liant Look, Stranger, but it never quite achieves the sibylline con­vul­sive­ness of its pre­de­ces­sor. Other po­ems curb and bet­ter mas­ter Malouf’s in­flu­ences: one finds strange fu­sions of Ezra Pound, W. C. Wil­liams and Wal­lace Stevens, a menagerie of 20th- cen­tury po­ets pressed into ser­vice un­der strange new stars. Oc­ca­sion­ally, one senses Malouf strain­ing for ef­fort­less­ness; more of­ten, lines race past, then come back with the dis­jointed power of un­happy dreams: ‘‘ I wake to­wards morn­ing and look out/ on the snow­bound square, the Graben, grave or ditch. The great Pest­saule,/ a col­umn of white worms, writhes out of its pit’’.

Ro­man­ti­cism be­gan as revo­lu­tion but sur­vives to­day as a kind of po­etic and po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism. Malouf is con­ser­va­tive in the full sense of the word, es­say­ing to con­serve, to pre­serve what has passed in the ir­re­vo­ca­bil­ity of its loss. It’s not so much the dy­namism of what hap­pens as the re­flec­tion on what has gone that moves Malouf. Take Type­writer Mu­sic, the ti­tle poem of a 2007 col­lec­tion, which cel­e­brates an out­moded writ­ing tech­nol­ogy: ‘‘ each ri­fleshot ham­mer­stroke an­other notch/ in the si­lence’’. Such force­ful ele­giacs are at the heart of Malouf’s work, as if po­etry was it­self a phe­nom­e­non that has out­lasted its use- by date, yet some­how rat­tles on like a host of spec­tral ci­cadas. This, too, is ex­em­plar­ily ro­man­tic. A born melan­cholic, Malouf re­fuses to give up mourn­ing the loss of some­thing that never re­ally ex­isted and was never re­ally that de­sir­able in the first place. Yet such con­ser­va­tion is si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­cre­ation; hence Malouf’s cen­tral theme of the dis­sim­u­lat­ing di­vi­sive­ness of time. Know­ingly split be­tween ex­pe­ri­ence, the me­mory of the ex­pe­ri­ence, the writ­ing and re­order­ing of the me­mory of the ex­pe­ri­ence, time, place and per­son are to be re­con­structed in all their den­sity and their dis­lo­ca­tion. Malouf cel­e­brates the sober car­ni­val of shat­tered time, with its gid­dily re­volv­ing days, its ever- gath­er­ing and dis­pers­ing swarms. David Malouf is a guest at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week.

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