It is a curious thing, and not a little moving, to see writers celebrated for their work in other genres turn in later life with renewed vigour to poetry. David Malouf, like Clive James, has avowed a desire for poetry now, as the main form of writing his expression wants to take. Certainly, its brevity has a part in this, for the best of poems can happen, if fortunate, in minutes, not months, as Malouf himself observes. Yet the cogency of poetry speaks also to an impulse to voice the essential in life and nothing but, and to do it in a way that calls on all the writer’s powers of sound and gesture and concision.
Malouf’s An Open Book is his third book of new poems in eleven years, following Typewriter Music (2007), Earth Hour (2014), and a Selected, Revolving Days (2008). Speaking about An Open Book recently in Melbourne, Malouf described how his inner impressions from external events find their way into a poem through a kind of close listening. Citing D.H. Lawrence, Malouf likened the process of writing to the speaking of a daimon. A daimon is a figure for the other in the self. In An Open Book, ‘A Word to the Wise’ uses the Lawrentian trope of the wind to describe the poet’s sense of being spoken through, not speaking:
… To be
as a wheatfield, all ears
for the breezes …
of birds’ cries and the whisper
In an early, striking poem, ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’, Lawrence wrote: ‘Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me! // If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed / By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world.’ An echo between the poets takes shape in these lines. Doubling and dividedness (both formal and semantic) are characteristic gestures in Malouf’s work. The gestural dimension of language in lyric poems is like the bones beneath the flesh: they shape the body we see. Malouf as a poet knows well the bones he works with. Many of these poems have multiple couplings, such as the ‘inner and outer weather, the discordancies of heart / and hand, the mess and muddle we mischief into’ in ‘House and Hearth’.
In ‘The Double Gift’ and ‘Understood’, among other poems, it is time that is dual. The divided time of the ‘present perfect’ is manifest in cut flowers, ‘touched already … with the poignancy // of absence’. The word ‘perfect’ shimmers between the grammatical sense of completion and the too-potent beauty of these flowers, whose clarity ‘tilts / the occasion to unreal’. The (almost) title poem, ‘The Open Book’, recalls another pairing, of reader and read: how the poet as a child (the ‘open book’ of the title) was at once legible, but in his secret inner life, hidden to his mother. He remains half-hidden: as Stephen Romei observes in an interview in The Weekend Australian (29 September 2018), Malouf keeps some details private, such as a lover’s name (a lovely poem is addressed to the unknown ‘R.S.’). Yet, as a lyric poet, Malouf gives to the reader most intimate glimpses of his inner world.
Light-footed in tone and sound, these poems are further studded with puns and double meanings, such as ‘all ears’ above. Elsewhere, dividedness is present in the urge to connect. In ‘A Tavola’, the poem recalls the touch of ‘hand to mouth’ and ‘cup to lip’ – such simple, sensual connections as are easy to overlook. But how the poet relishes the coming-into-being of a relationship (newly or again). Recorded in a poem, such moments – the ‘flutter’ of a horse’s lip, the ‘pressure / of your touch’ – ‘what we reach for and see // through to … and still hold dear’ – ‘will outlast us’.
One of the beauties of these poems is how they catch the inner feeling of lives beyond our own – a ‘jasmine slip / in its rage for Lebensraum’, a small ‘life gone fluttery // on panicked / wings seeking the air’ (‘Garden Poems’), or a young child’s dialogue with self in the wonderfully humorous ‘The Prospect of Little Anon on an Inner-city Greensward’. The poet’s feeling naturally extends into kinship with other living things. The word ‘kin’ itself recurs in ‘The New Loaf’ and ‘Cestrum Nocturnum’. The former is a paean to the art of making bread and the intertwined histories of grain and humankind: ‘Field and flesh were made one for the other / gratis. When we break it / all’s mended. Kind are kin.’
The etymological networks of Malouf’s thought are evident, for ‘kin’ and ‘kind’ are kin, descended from a single root in Old English, whose meanings include ‘the natural order’. The poet’s feeling for interrelationship extends to the ‘gentle governance’ of the unseen reasons that drive himself and other creatures, ‘[a]n order we cannot see / the grounds of’ but ‘acknowledge and keep’ (‘At Pennyroyal II’). Beyond the unseen, Malouf recalls his attention to the unsaid and undone, ‘[l]earning to catch in the slight disturbance // of an empty room the held / breath of an occasion / missed’ (‘Eavesdropping’).
Speaking in Melbourne, Malouf also recalled how he carries in his body a certain memory from having grown up in Brisbane: the way the streets, rising up, would suddenly, at their summit, present an unexpected view. That experience of a new world beyond this one’s horizon became an existential dimension, to be always sought anew: ‘How we long for the adventure / of a new page’ (‘Parting’); ‘Windows II’ records ‘the seasons’ // yearning or the mind’s / for distance and the colours / of change’ while in ‘A Tavola’, an angel brings ‘like a gunshot, / the ambush of news’. History appears in a thunderous passage of warplanes, but also in the passing of the thick white crockery that poverty ordained, of currencies, writing slates, and culinary fêtes, such as the Tuscan sagra, celebrated still in the ‘dying days of another empire’.
The ‘many delectations’ of sensual delight go hand in hand with the new. They animate several poems, whose spring and summer buoyancy carries the reader in headlong rhythms: ‘heady with the perfume / of dreams, or free-to-air, a low cloud caught / in passing’ (‘Garden Poems’). Three poems on erotic love revise verses from Dante, Horace and Ronsard, each pressing the perennial case that time being what it is, love is for today, without promise of tomorrow. Yet, as in the poem ‘Learning Curve’, desire springs eternal ‘[f]rom under / the bed / -covers’ as ‘in myth’. Even coming late in life, these poems in An Open Book give resonant voice to the hope ‘that nothing is ever / done with / or over’.
(A tick means you already do)