Death Imaginedcover

Poetry review by Jonathan Hadwen

Earth Hour

by David Malouf


UQP, 2014
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5013 2

David Malouf’s new poetry collection Earth Hour has been reviewed, and the author interviewed, many times in the last few weeks. In the photographs accompanying these articles, the man often considered to be Australia’s greatest living writer looks remarkably calm as he approaches his 81st year on this Earth, but on reading his new collection it is apparent that he is still very much aware of the child inside himself, and of that child’s connection to this planet. As “Aquarius”, the opening poem in Earth Hour, tells us, we are all the “children of a green original anti-/Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.” And so in Earth Hour we find a poet, much like Ovid at the end of his imaginary life [1], reaching again for the Garden, a place beyond or before language, a place towards which some primal part of ourselves has been grasping since we were born.

Death appears again and again in this collection, in the bodies of the poems themselves, and in the “in memoriam” dedications [2]. In “Towards Midnight”, dedicated to Joan Tesei, death is the “draught / of absolute dark that shadow/-like we carry in us”, a cup, the poet confesses, that is carried “Sometimes / lightly. Sometimes not.” The title of this poem alludes to the end of life, the end of the day, the zero hour, the “Earth Hour” when the lights all go out. As we read this collection, we start to get a sense of the poet’s spiritual beliefs, of where we have come from and where we will return, to our primitive selves, to nature, perhaps most clearly described in the last lines of “Blenheim Park” – “The dead, dismissed / from history, go over / to nature, striding tall over the lawn”.

On revisiting the first, very personal poems of Malouf’s previous collection, Typewriter Music, it is notable how the “we” in those poems has changed to the “we” found in Earth Hour. In his earlier collection, the “we” was the poet and his partner, the poems seemingly meant for an audience of one, but the poems in Earth Hour, however personal, are aimed straight at us all. Malouf talks to the collective “we”, as he addresses the inevitabilities we all face, particularly death. These are the poems of a man who is growing old alone, and fearing and confronting death alone; a man disentangling himself from the world; Ovid fleeing into the marshes with the wolf-child; a man waiting for death and the meeting of the “imaginary beasts” of his soul and primitive self, and their final “wordless out-of-body singing. On the same / note. From the same sheet.” (“Dot Poem, the Connections”).

In Earth Hour we find a poet at the end of his life not only grappling with what is beyond, but with what he will leave behind. In an interview published in The Sydney Morning Herald, David spoke of wanting his work to speak for itself, “as it will have to … soon” [3]. The poem “Radiance” tells about the possibility of leaving behind a presence – “the silence …/ in a bowl, in a book, / that speaks”. This “silence that speaks” occurs throughout the collection.  In “Whistling in the Dark” the poet is caught stargazing, thinking of death and eternity, and of “hauling infinity / in so that its silence … / hums”. The poet dreams of becoming stardust, but wonders, will “the bitter sweet-stuff of our story” be “remembered, and fondly, when we are gone”.  

Malouf also manages to confront mortality and ageing with humour. The stages of life in the poem “Entreaty” are described as the “Age of Innocence”, followed by the “Age of Reason”, which transitions into the “Age of Seven Pills daily”. But if capable of humour, Malouf is also capable of cynicism. “Inner City”, which looks at the Sydney suburb of Chippendale where the poet lives, describes tradies as “hunters”, and hipsters as “gatherers” with their “hugs and mugs of steaming chai”. “A Green Miscellany” takes another stab at suburbia where we find “Smart newly-weds who grub out all / the old-world garden shrubs … / … to make a wilderness hard won from trim suburban / perches”. In the title poem of the collection, “Earth Hour”, Malouf has us sitting “behind moonlit / glass in our McMansions” as we are “Called back / to nights when we were wildlife”. The dwellers of suburbia are the objects of derision because we have ignored or tried to control nature, and ignored or supressed our animal selves, just as we have tamed the dogs we take to the dog park, dogs that are really “sleeping wolves” (“Dog Park”). However, Malouf acknowledges that he is one of these “good citizens”, using again the collective and inclusive “we”.

Malouf is also capable of looking more kindly on the domestic: the settling of a cat into its favourite spot on the mat (“Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna”), and “Shy Gifts” where the poet goes “home lighter / of step” after catching “the eye of a wordless one-year-old” in a supermarket who “looks right through” him. Malouf finds another “small miracle” in the form of a singing bird outside his window one night in the poem “Nightsong, Nightlong”. There are many moments of contemplation over the beauty of nature in Earth Hour, especially birds.

One of the most startling poems in the collection, in both content and layout, is “A Recollection of Starlings: Rome ‘84”. The poet observes a flock of starlings at dusk, “the wing-clatter / of a typewriter / scatter / of letters as a poem / gathers and takes shape”. Eventually the flock “like smoke rolls off and / clears” and we are left with “A new draft / of sky / A clean sheet / of daylight”. Perhaps this poems asks what will be left after the flock has cleared and the night has come, what will the poet leave after he has gone. David Malouf is a writer who will leave a great legacy, of which this new collection will form a foundational part.

 

1. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf, 1978

2. The one poem that has previously appeared in a full-length collection, “At Laterina”, was originally dedicated to Malouf's friend Jeffrey Smart as a birthday poem, but now stands in his memory.

3. Poet’s Corner, The Sydney Morning Herald – Good Weekend, 1-2 March 2014 (p26-31)