Malouf, David. An Open Book. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2018. RRP $29.95. 104pp. ISBN: 9780702260308.
‘Parting is where / we began. Where we begin.’ So ends the first poem of David Malouf’s most recent collection, An Open Book. The poem—an aubade of sorts—is not a goodbye, but lingers instead on a threshold, where he offers blessing to both ‘fresh beginnings’ and ‘the partings they lead out from’ (1-2).
Malouf’s attention will return to such poised moments; nascent, or brimming with possibility, as when a room ‘fills like a sail / on the rumour of horizons.’ (64) In ‘Waiting for the Moon’, both the moon and an owl are poised to rise, and
to pinpoint and hoist bodily to an unimagined
height a quick earth-creature
to where the moon
rises above cypress
-tops and summer paddocks and their odours (40)
There’s impatience in the enjambment, since what is described has still not, at the poem’s end, happened.
It’s expected, to find the liminal in the early autobiographical sequence Kinderszenen. Thirteen brief poems make up these Scenes of Childhood, which owe something—perhaps only title and number—to Schumann’s short and sweet piano pieces. These poems, decidedly not saccharine, look back to Malouf’s boyhood years in Brisbane, and often depict silent and empty rooms nonetheless dark with secrets, the humid air thick with the scent of something half-understood. There’s a world behind this world; words behind the words we hear. The title poem (almost, since it is ‘The Open Book’ and not An Open Book), is illustrative. ‘My mother,’ it begins, ‘could read me, or so she claimed / like a book.’ But books
like houses have their secrets. Under the words
even of plain speakers,
echo and pre-echo.
I learned to stay quiet, play apart,
and wait for the plot
to thicken. (6)
(How lovely to feel the lines thicken here too). This is the portrait of a boy in retreat, not necessarily unhappy to sit apart and watch what unfolds, but as in ‘Odd Man Out’, a boy ‘never lonely / enough’; who ‘deals / in singles’, ‘develops an ear / for echoes’ and holds off the parents who ‘try to locate him. / In time. / Out there.’ (16-17)
This agrees with the impression of Malouf as a private man, and even a private poet, unusually shy of the personal pronoun, who always gives, but rarely gives away too much.
At times, this tendency wanders into euphemism, as in the coy description of himself as ‘something more / than fourscore.’ (87) Because, it is unavoidable fact that Malouf is old. At 87 years, we might reasonably expect this to be his last collection. It’s difficult not to read these ‘late poems’ through this lens, and use it to make sense of his preference for wonders small and simple; the ‘the small comfort / of light,’ (31) ‘sweet nothings in our ear,’ (54) and ‘the dumb / eloquence of bread / -and- butter occasions // with the smaller / sacraments, hand / to mouth, cup to lip.’ (34) He sometimes over-sings his praises of the quotidian (another loaf of bread is delivered ‘new-risen like the sun,’ each crumb ‘a point of enlightenment’ (33)), but at any age, we find might find ourselves similarly struck. I keep returning to this description of still-life objects:
Like the as-yet-unborn,
or the old who have outlived
their gestures, they bear only
the messages of themselves. (58)
There’s no sense, though that Malouf is one who has outlived his gestures. If anything, there’s an urgency to them. Many of the poems begin in media res; suggestive, that it is at dusk ‘when proximate / stars are the most urgent / attendants on the scene.’ (81)
Sometimes we speak of poets as at the height (or the waxing or waning) of their powers, as if they were so many inconstant moons. Some years back, I wrote a slightly breathless blog post on Malouf’s novel Ransom, a book defiant in the face of the idea that power dies away when you age. Instead, I argued, ‘Sometimes it takes the very old, the dying even, to take the step that changes everything. We are not at the end of our power until we are dead … I don’t think this is what Homer wanted to say, but I think it’s what Malouf wanted to say.’ (Cooley) Perhaps I wasn’t wrong. Listen to the exhortation of ‘A Word to the Wise’ (from the final, aphoristic sequence, ‘A Knee Bent to Longevity’); not to ‘shuffle or totter’ but to be
as a wheatfield, all ears
for the breezes that come
stalking and sighing, full
of birds’ cries and the whisper
Or as a leaf that dances
in scarlet as it falls. (74)
Cooley, Shevaun. “Actually why don’t you read … Ransom, David Malouf.” it gives it thew and fires it and bloods it in, tumblr, 19 April 2010, itgivesitthew.tumblr.com/post/533430599/actually-why-dont-you-read
Shevaun Cooley is a Western Australian poet, essayist, and climber. Her poetry has been published in Cordite, Island, Poetry Wales, Meanjin, Southerly, The Best Australian Poems (2009, 2017), and she has been shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize.
Her debut collection of poems, Homing, was released in 2017 by Giramondo Publishing.