An Open Book
An Open Book is the fifth book of poems published by David Malouf in the past decade or so, and it is perhaps not surprising that Malouf, now in his 80s, has returned to poetry rather than continuing to labour on novels. In one poem in this collection, “Sunday Afternoon”, he presents himself as a man whose life is in “Sunday mode. The mind / idling on automatic with no need / to be occupied or coloured, having come at last / to the end”. As this suggests, An Open Book is marked by an elegiac tone. Words such as “silence” and “breath” are common, and “blessèd” (diacritic intact) appears twice.
Many poems are interested in the ephemeral moment – indeed, often in the fleeting time between night and day – and in the natural world. The poetry can thus recall haiku, particularly its deceptive simplicity. “Deception Bay” begins: “The sun as heron. Solitary, / stilled at low water.” “Garden Poems” portrays snails “travelling slower / than stars, in their own way taking / measure of space”.
Other poems evoke aestheticised domestic interiors, a feature of Malouf’s poetry in general. These works typically elide urgency or social engagement, and yet there are exceptions that allow the outside world to enter in startling – often menacing – ways. “Eavesdropping” begins by observing “all that a household / offers of the world / in small”, before concluding with “the whine, beyond human ears, / of a long-distance missile. History”. “Pot-hook”, describing an “anchor against the sky’s / unthreading / blue”, is another poem that nudges the domestic uncanny into something more sinister in a way resembling Charles Simic’s “thing poems”.
“The Wolf at the Door” is another Simic-like poem, which begins with an image of “The chilblain and cold water / years, in the shadow of the meatsafe”, and ends with an image of the Holocaust, “mothers and children” disappearing “into thin air”. It also mobilises the uncanny tradition of fairytales, and Malouf’s poems contain diverse – usually high-culture – European references. However, Australia is also present, remembered in “Fifth Column” as a different place, before time “sent his agents / out ... to change the coins / in our pockets, the oaths we sealed / with spit or blood, the weights, / the measures”.
Malouf’s poetry sometimes comes across as old-fashioned, but his skill with language and line, and the work’s subtle gravitas, cannot be denied. KN
UQP, 104pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "David Malouf, An Open Book". Subscribe here.