Lucy Van reviews “Earth Hour” by David Malouf
By David Malouf
Reviewed by LUCY VAN
David Malouf lives in Sydney. This banal-sounding fact actually tropes a major concern across Malouf’s works. What does it mean to live in a place? How do spaces inform the duration of a life, and how does time fill the houses, suburbs and stretches of bays that our bodies occupy; that, having lived in those spaces, our memories occupy? A virtuoso of memory, Malouf creates cosmologies around what we normally take to be ordinary spaces, most famously suburban Brisbane in works such as Johnno and 12 Edmondstone Street. One does not simply live in Sydney or Brisbane, or for that matter London or Rome. Translocal, cosmopolitan subjects live in the interstitial zones imagined by global topographies. And through memory one simultaneously occupies the places in which we have lived before, and to which we have travelled and passed through in other times. A certain simultaneity of space and time is prefigured by the title of Malouf’s tenth poetry publication. Perhaps borrowing from contemporary ecological idiom, the title Earth Hour suggests a kind of suturing of global space to global era, and the collection of poetry continues Malouf’s career-long exploration of the flesh of experience that weds space to time.
In her analysis of Malouf’s ‘Bay poems’ the novelist and literary critic Emily Bitto writes of Malouf’s poetic process as ‘a vital act of imaginative creation’ (92). Alluding to the parallels Malouf has drawn between the places referenced in his works and other fully-imagined places such as Dickens’ London and Dostoevsky’s Petersberg, Bitto considers Malouf’s ‘invention’ of the Bay through her notion of ‘spatial memory.’ More than simply recalling the spaces and places significant to the author, spatial memory implies a re-visioning where spaces are ‘repeatedly re-inscribed with new meaning and value until they become mythologised spaces’ (92). For Malouf places become real as sites of imagining and invention, not as ‘embodiments of fact’ (‘A Writing Life,’ 702). Through the spatial memory process a place is doubled. If created with sufficient imminence the imaginary place will replace the original site. For Bitto, Malouf’s Bay poems document the very process of spatial memory. Over the course of Malouf’s career as a poet, the bay transforms beyond ‘simply a “space-time” of the past which the poet can revisit from time to time, [to] a mythical space-time in which some part of the poet always resides’ (101, emphasis added).
Earth Hour opens with ‘Aquarius,’ a work rich with temporal and geographical signifiers that recall Malouf’s previous Bay poems. Breath, light, enigmatic night, expansive time and gilded space converge at a point where excess transmutes into enchantment:
One of those sovereign days that might seem never
intended for the dark: the sea’s breath deepens
from oyster-shell to inky, blue upon blue,
heaped water, crowded sky. This is the day,
we tell ourselves, that will not end, and stroll
enchanted through its moods as if we shared
its gift and were immortal, till something in us
snaps, a spring, a nerve. There is more to darkness
than nightfall. (1)
Bitto’s argument for spatial memory as a process the oeuvre of the Bay poems themselves document finds support in this most recent work. ‘Aquarius’ depicts the speaker dwelling in an ‘enchanted’ temporal zone, a colour-saturated day the inhabitants of the poem tell themselves ‘will not end.’ The speaker’s relation to space as an (anti-) Edenic realm ‘from which we’ve never been expelled’ suggests that this charged memory-space is not one to which the speaker simply returns from time-to-time, as Bitto suggests of Malouf’s earlier Bay poems (97-98), but rather one that functions in a radically continuous sense of mythological, non-linear time. Part of the speaker does not leave this imagined site. This, at the very least, is the fantasy proposed by Malouf’s vital ‘counterworld.’
The mythological resonances – in the title connoting both astrological discourse and ancient Babylonian/Greek knowledge systems, and in the allusion to the Old Testament expulsion from Eden – mark the notion that time once began and from thence could be measured as history. Yet their intertwining, by way of transition from title to final line, suggests also that languages of the past are multiple, hybrid and synchronous in the space of the present. The title rejects specificity of location in favour of an impression of what the act of remembering a sea-space engenders. Aquarius as a ‘water bearer’ hints that the poem itself bears an imaginary site of dreamy potentiality, in which present, past and future mingle in suspended langour. This opening poem successfully establishes Malouf’s sense of time throughout Earth Hour. Time is a play of expansion and contraction: the hour of dusk is opened-out, ‘embellished with all its needs,’ (‘An Aside on the Sublime,’ 22); and conversely, epochs pass unremarkably: ‘waiting is no sweat. Centuries pass/unnoticed here’ (‘At Laterina,’ 48).
In other poems Malouf suggests a specific sense of time and place by deploying titles such as ‘Writer’s Retreat: Maclaren Vale, 2010,’ ‘A Recollection of Starlings: Rome ’84,’ and ‘Australia Day at Pennyroyal.’ Against the collection’s more abstract titles, including ‘Radiance,’ ‘Entreaty,’ and yes, ‘Abstract,’ the significance of this specificity is emphasised, but one might venture that rather than contrast, an unexpected consistency emerges. Across the collection’s poetic imaginings, particular times and places become, if not quite abstractions, then somewhat abstracted, mythologised memory places. In ‘A Recollection of Starlings: Rome ’84,’ one single dusk, cast off from a day that ended thirty years ago, is brought into a lively present as words dart across the page:
of starlings at dusk
of a typewriter
of letters as a poem
gathers and takes shape (38)
The speaker brings two times into simultaneity – the time of the original sighting of the starlings as a cloud of ‘hip-sways in tornado twists above the Eternal/City,’ and the time of memory-assemblage as the poet types. Through the metonymic shift from the spontaneous gathering of birds to a spirited collection of words, distance and time collapse beyond their conventional boundaries. The page represents a coterminous moment, where Sydney and Rome, 2014 and 1984 occupy the same stroke of a key as it scatters across the page. Malouf’s sense of dwelling in a mythological space-time is prefigured through the poem’s reference to Rome as the ‘Eternal City.’ Part of the speaker continues to reside in this imagined Rome of ’84, a presence that presides over poetic staging as the ‘new draft/ of sky,’ merges with ‘A clean sheet/ of daylight’ (39).
Collective Memory Places
Bitto points out that ‘the relation between individual and collective memory is a fraught one’ (101) but suggests notwithstanding that it is both possible and productive to consider memory in Malouf’s poetry beyond the realm of individual experience. Contending that Malouf memorialises the experiences of a wider community, Bitto invites future critics to consider Malouf’s poetry in relation to various collective identities with which he may be associated: people of a particular generation, people of migrant heritage, expatriates, travelers, post-settler-colonial subjects, and ‘the amorphous group of people designated as “Australians,” “Queenslanders,” or “Brisbanites”’ (102). ‘Inner City’ registers a shift in the dominant imagined space of Australia, where symbols of the iconic quarter-acre and Hills Hoist have been replaced by,
A picture-book street with pop-up gardens, asphalt
bleached to take us down a degree or two
when summer strips and swelters. All things green,
wood sorrel, dandelion, in this urban village (20)
The speaker uses conspicuous signs of gentrification in ‘pop-up,’ ‘all things green,’ and ‘urban village’ to describe Chippendale in an era of chai lattes and food miles. But the ‘picture-book’ cheesiness of this contemporary scene is not set up for lampooning, despite the gentle teasing of ‘the soy of human kindness.’ Malouf depicts local space in a mode of planetary awareness, elevating collective belonging in this moment of transition: ‘Good citizens all// of Chippendale and a planet sore of body/and soul.’ Contemporary Chippendale functions as a chronotope, memorialising an age where civic duty seemingly rests with the earnest and playful – the poem records a time and place where the colossal task of planet saving demands colossal optimism. Although this poem inhabits a contemporary scene, it makes strong allusions to the social practice of memory building. The memory place, the imagined Chippendale of the poem, is the culmination of the labours of the collective, the poem tellingly eyeing ants ‘in their gulag conurbations’.
Earth Hour is animated precisely this pursuit – asking what lies beneath the surface of the contemporary. In ‘Blenheim Park,’ the sediment of history fills the earth, where what appears as a green idyll ‘of shade-trees, level grass, cattle grazing’ reveals an entry into a temporal loop:
In fact a battle plan
is laid out here. Thousands
of dead under the topsoil
in High Germany
stand upright still in lines as in the rising
groundfog of dawn (55)
The poem enters ‘the slow mouths/ of centuries,’ layering the time of the untroubled present against the ‘green pause’ of a battalion awaiting their Commander’s order to charge. Anchored by the same green location, this potent moment tumbles into the present as the same pause of an ‘untroubled forenoon.’ Time is presented as a palimpsest, where the present is inscribed with the violence of the past, and the past’s victims are ‘dismissed from history,’ transmuted into the natural world ‘striding tall over the lawn.’
Across this collection not only does history inscribe cartography, it breathes life into the words and attitudes of yesterday’s heroes. But beyond poems after Charles Baudelaire and Heinrich Heine, there’s also particular delight taken in the figure of the aging poet. Who is yesterday’s hero today? In ‘Footloose, a Senior Moment,’ dedicated to Chris Wallace-Crabbe approaching eighty, the text appears unmoored, adrift across the page. The broad spacing of the lines evokes on one hand the tidal glimmer of Malouf’s Bay, and on the other the layered thought-lines that are casually cast when a poet considers time’s touch:
An after-dinner sleep
a bad place to arrive at
The big enticements may be
a matter of memory but isn’t
memory the dearest
and cheapest of luxuries
and of its kind one of our rarest
The footloose present
Not to be going
anywhere soon (8)
Contrary to the singular implied by the title, the poem actually presents two footloose moments. After reifying a certain notion of the present, the speaker examines the body as time’s subject. Suggesting perhaps an impulse to render collective, rather than individual memory, the speaker takes the body, the ‘being still from toe to fingertip’ into a plural realm ‘at home in our own/skin’ (emphasis added). The subject slides into fluidity – ‘unmoored afloat the Bay’ – into a new mode of being ‘[n]either/earthbound nor even maybe/sky-bound.’ The second footloose moment occurs as the delirious consequence of this unmoored subjectivity, exploiting the potential of liminality as the subject travels as an unnamed star, far out in ‘the foggy galaxies.’
By way of conclusion, I draw attention to the fact that Earth Hour is full of musical references. There is the ‘touch of diminuendo’ in ‘Footloose, a Senior Moment,’ ‘Eine Kleine Background Music,’ in ‘An Aside on the Sublime,’ and many others throughout the collection. While never truly residing in the background, classical music is brought especially to the foreground in ‘Toccata,’ ‘Rondeau’ and ‘Toccata II.’ These titles borrow from the taxonomy of musical pieces, with ‘toccata’ quite aptly the name for a virtuoso piece usually for keyboard. Malouf exhibits his technical mastery over the internal rhythms of language, with each line of ‘Toccata’ mimicking the inverted stresses of a Bach exposition:
Out of such and such and so much bric-a-brac.
The thrill of this stylistic declaration matches the aesthetic anachronisms that fill the poem – napkin rings, taffeta, cut-glass atomisers, attic doors. These raw materials of memory are charged as ‘charms, magnetic debris’ by the rhythm of the poem, whose very physicality reminds us that the original meaning of ‘toccata,’ from the Italian ‘toccare,’ is ‘to touch.’
To touch lies at the heart of Malouf’s endeavour, where even in the more abstract poems, the flesh of experience inscribes the words that seduce us on the page. Like music, the enigmatic touch of Malouf’s poetics lodges its listener in a perpetual present, even in obscure or nostalgic moods. Throughout the collection the poet’s technical flair is beyond doubt and nearly beyond delight – the work carries both the whimsy and gravity of mortality with the radiance of a master poet. The endeavour to restore the place of memory to a mythological cast of present would not seem so urgent and compelling without Malouf’s touch recording a multitude of quiet lived experiences: a particular quality of light, the warmth of the dark, the silence after talk. Many writers of prose also write poetry, but rare are the novelists who are also major poets in their own right. It is sometimes forgotten that Malouf’s writing career began in the genre, but this collection reminds us he is a heavyweight of Australian poetry. In its ecstatic totality and stunning execution, Earth Hour is sure to be one of the finest poetry publications of 2014.
Bitto, Emily. ‘ “Our Own Way Back”: Spatial Memory in the Poetry of David Malouf.’ JASAL 8 (2008): 92-106.
Malouf, David. ‘A Writing Life: The 2000 Neustadt Lecture.’ World Literature Today 74.4 (2002): 701-705.
Malouf’s ‘Bay poems’ are the works which over decades continue to focus on the region that encompasses Moreton Bay and especially Deception Bay.
DR LUCY VAN teaches at the University of Melbourne. She is a freelance reviewer.