A review is more like a conversation than an overview from an Academy, and conversations often start with a salient point leading on to judgement. I suggest readers of David Malouf’s new collection should turn straight to page twenty-five and encounter a spray of short poems, titled ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’. This is prefaced by the Silver Age Emperor’s own verse, the legendary address to his soul, which begins with the playfully sonorous words ‘animula vagula blandula’ and, in a most un-Latinate way, adds a half-refrain, ‘pallidula rigida nudula’. If all of us, including Byron, who have attempted to put Hadrian’s words into our own languages were to be brought together, we’d stretch out to Macbeth’s crack of doom. No one has done it, to my knowledge, as brilliantly as Malouf does in his not-over-extended fantasy.
Each of the seven poems is a version of a direct translation of Hadrian’s one Latin verse, but each, like one of Brahms’s variations in his set based on Paganini’s twenty-fourth caprice, finds a new tone without resorting to egregious anachronisms or perverse salients. Consider the third:
mate, bedfellow, where are you off
to now? Cat got
your tongue? Lost your shirt, caught
your death? Well, the last laugh
is on you. Is on us.
This captures Hadrian’s patrician light-heartedness while preserving that lyrical darkness peculiar to the classical writers, so much more intense than any Christian dark night of the soul. Malouf hints at this with the ‘Seven Last Words’ of his title. What can any mortal do in the face of death but joke about it. But the joke must be of featherweight seriousness. None of Malouf’s interventions on the sparse Latin is vulgar or merely modern. ‘Cat got your tongue’ belongs to the Roman elegists as well as it does to ours. And what sort of laugh is the Emperor’s – the most powerful man on earth, but getting ready to die? Each of the elaborations is a witty development, but each stays well within the Emperor’s orbit. Malouf knows the Italian peninsula better than most, but his versions of Hadrian are not in any way proprietary – this is the human condition, and you won’t get any closer by visiting Castel St Angelo. There could be no better key signature to the whole book than these Hadrianic sound bites.
Malouf has always been a wary celebrator of human love. He has the poet’s fondness for finding the shows and remains of passion better worth writing about than its raptures. Such a note is struck right at the start of this collection. ‘Revolving Days’ is so regretful, so charmed to be looking back, not just at a love affair but at the clothes and pleasures of the past. Knotting his tie in the mirror, the poet can assure the lover that he won’t do anything so uncomfortable as to contact him directly. He is, he emphasises, ‘writing this for you’, but not to you.
There are a number of gently reflective pieces of a similar sort, but there is also one, entitled ‘Like Yesterday’, which brings to mind a previous savage Malouf, erotic and unaccommodating of euphemism – the Malouf of that unflinching celebration of carnality and its semi-comical symbolism, ‘The Crab Feast’. This time the poet’s companion, ‘stickying his mouth with mute hosannas’, watches with him as a fish is ‘wrangled ashore’. The consequences of this are not spelled out, but for the writer it is a case of
my heart midair, still
thumping, a fish unsheathing
its lightning flash, suspended
on a breath. Alive. Speechless. Hooked. Ecstatic.
The prevailing mood here and elsewhere is Latinate again, the sharpness of love returning on scents and breaths, but always on something or somebody palpable:
at ease after the roads
you’ve travelled and with just
a trace on your skin,
in the scent you give off, of what
you bring me, the light
you’ll pour into my mouth.
Malouf’s technical facility is assured, yet difficult to account for. He seldom rhymes, follows no stanza-shape out of the pattern books, and, at its least attractive, his verse is short-strawed and jagged. There is much reaching for lyrical afflatus too soon after having established a scene. However, the variety of subject matter is wide: retold myths, histories of styles and temperaments, and acute evocations of those unexpected glimpses of strangeness you receive along Australia’s straggling urban cantonments. Another interesting section is a prose rumination, with intense short chorales for relief, purporting to be a letter from Mozart to his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. As a perpetrator myself of this sort of presumptuous Audenesque monologue, I feel entitled to pronounce the effort not worthwhile. The prose parts lack anything sufficiently singular to escape the sensation of listening to an exemplary Schools Broadcasting feature (no audacity such as Caliban’s soliloquy in ‘The Sea and the Mirror’), and the lyrical interpolations seem no more than marking time. There is one good notion, when Mozart apologises to the librettist of ‘Don Giovanni’ for having darkened the Italian meridional warmth and lightness of his verses with his own implacable Germanic seriousness.
The translations from Rimbaud and Horace are skilful and never overdone. In total, Typewriter Music is as fastidious as any of Malouf’s admired prose works, but can afford to be more sprightly and irresponsible. There is no worrying about the destiny of the nation and no peroration on its historical emblems. The muses of poetry insist on their right to be scatological and irreverent, and Malouf has been happy to compose under their aegis.