Essay: Ivor Indykon David Malouf

David Malouf: A Life in Letters

The most striking aspect of David Malouf’s life in letters is the multiplicity of forms it has taken, as if one should talk of his lives in letters rather than think of it as a single life. There are poets who are also librettists, which is not so surprising; but one can’t think of many poets who also have an equivalent celebrated status as novelists, in Australian literature at least. (Interestingly, two poet-novelists who do come to mind, Tom Shapcott and Rodney Hall, both come, like Malouf, from Brisbane.) If you look at the phenomenon from the other direction, in terms of novelists who have returned in a memorable way to poetry, as Malouf has in Earth Hour, you find hardly any. There are poets and novelists who write interesting, creative, formal essays, though not so many in this country as in the United States, for example. If you add to this constellation – poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, librettist – the roles of dramatist, literary critic, public orator (for so I think of the writing about Australia and Australians that Malouf offers on such occasions as the Boyer Lectures, reprinted in A First Place, and more formally in the set-piece speeches about kingship and responsibility in Ransom), as well as adaptor and imitator of classical forms, then you do have something remarkable and unique, and not just in this country.

You could see this as an expression of the author’s exceptional versatility – this ability to turn one’s hand to different forms, which Malouf himself celebrates as an Australian quality – but it would be to ignore the underlying continuity of concerns, and more deeply I think, the characteristic features of voice and language, stance and perspective, which make his writing distinctive, whatever form it takes. As I was reading the poems in his latest collection of poetry, Earth Hour, alongside his most recent work of fiction, Ransom (2009), and the first volume of his collected essays, A First Place, I felt, as I imagine many readers did, a shock of recognition – though ‘shock’ is too strong a word – a sense of familiarity, which brought to mind similar poems from earlier collections, but also scenes from the novels, and descriptions and arguments from his essays. The vehicle for this multi-faceted recollection has to be Malouf’s language, for it is at this fundamental level that his writing appeals, even when its aim is to build an image, a description or an argument. I think of his use of language as attentive, accretive, curious in its pursuit of implication, measured. There is much more one can say about its detail, its pace and its precision, for example, but the features I have mentioned will do for the moment to define what I see as the ‘Maloufian pulse’.

Of course, Malouf himself is unlikely to agree to this characterisation of his writing in terms of something as basic, as primitive, as its possession of a distinctive beat or pulse. This author remarkable for his multiplicity has, unsurprisingly, a great dislike for labels and determinacies. I think particularly of the title essay of 12 Edmondstone Street (1985), which describes the family house room by room in illustration of the assertion ‘first houses are the grounds of our first experience … and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there’, only to settle on the liminal or transitional places – the verandah, the under-the-house area, the storeroom-passageway – as the truly formative sites, because of the way they open to possibility or strangeness or the processes of the natural world; places where forms ‘expand, contract, float, lapse into dreaming’.

There is a similar kind of slipperiness in the lecture ‘A First Place’, in which Malouf insists that houses and landscapes – Brisbane houses and Brisbane landscapes – determine the shape of the psyche of those who dwell within them, only to turn the argument on its head by suggesting that, since Australia exhibits so much variety in its landscapes and social settings, ‘it is time to forget likeness and look closely at the many varieties of difference we now exhibit’. An argument about the determinism of place turns into an assertion about the differences generated by places. In fact, the determinacy offered by Brisbane as a place is, for Malouf, precisely its sense of indeterminacy: ‘Brisbane is hilly … wherever the eye turns here it learns restlessness, and variety and possibility’.

Malouf’s commitment to possibility and multiplicity is well known. It is part of a larger belief in transformation, in metamorphosis, as the founding power of the imagination, its ability to create or divine worlds within or beyond the one we live in, and through language, to populate those worlds and make them familiar. The ability to move between forms of writing is, in a sense, an expression of this commitment to a multiple view of things, though that is not the only explanation.

The work which is most completely committed to the idea of metamorphosis is, of course, An Imaginary Life (1978). In reading it, one is struck by how easily Malouf moves between narrative, poetry and essay, in a remarkably assured prose which, for all that it has a story to tell and ideas to expound, never departs far from its essentially poetic register. The part I have in mind is at the end of the first section of the book, where Ovid meditates on the difficult concept of the spirit of place, and how it got into the landscapes we draw it from. ‘If the gods are there,’ Malouf has the author of the Metamorphoses argue, ‘it is because you have discovered them there, drawn them up out of your soul’s need for them and dreamed them into the landscape to make it shine.’ You can see how supple the prose is, how it manages both the projection into, and the retrieval from, the landscape, as if these were simply different aspects of the same movement, without contradiction.

But the spirits have to be recognised to become real. They are not outside us, nor even entirely within, but flow back and forth between us and the objects we have made, the landscape we have shaped and move in. We have dreamed all these things in our deepest lives and they are ourselves. It is our self we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall have become the gods who are intended to fill it.

One readily assents to the conflation of entities which are normally held distinct – self and other, subject and object, inside and outside, human and divine – not because of the logic of the argument itself, which remains paradoxical, but because the rhythm of the conjoined and parallel clauses and the lyricism of the evocation demand it. You could think of the development of the idea here as essayistic, even though it occurs in a novel – as a mini-essay in phenomenological idealism, whose validity depends, not on philosophy, but on the language of poetry and the settings of fiction. ‘It is as if each creature had the power to dream itself out of one existence into a new one, a step higher on the ladder of things.’ The power of imaginative projection and transformation is presented as an evolutionary principle: fire dreaming itself to stone, stone to toad, toad to bird, bird to human, human to god,

so that slowly, through long centuries of aching for such a condition, for softness, for a pulse, it feels one day that the transformation has begun to occur; the veins loosen and flow, the clay relaxes, the stone, through long ages of imagining some further life, discovers eyes, a mouth, legs to leap with, and is toad. And the toad in turn conceives the possibility, now that it can move over the earth, of taking to the air, and slowly, without ever ceasing to be toad, dreams itself aloft on wings.

My use of the term ‘pulse’ is similar to Malouf’s in this passage. It is the beat underlying the transformations of nature – what John Shaw Nielson calls, in one of his poems, ‘the pulse in the greenery’. But where you really feel the pulse is in the rhythm of Malouf’s language, which acts as the medium of the imagination’s transformations, and the guarantee of their possibility.

There has always been a strong sense of animism in Malouf’s writing, of the forces dwelling not only in plants and animals and humans, but in objects as well. There is an excellent example of this in Earth Hour, in the poem ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’, where the resident cat, whose name is Miss Mischa, shows the tendency of cats everywhere to find a warm spot that suits them, though there may be nothing to identify it as special to human eyes:

The sort of animal
warmth that a cat
is drawn to in a cold house; as if
the sun, centuries back,
in a burst of candescence,
had danced there, and the glow of
its presence can still be felt,

or a young god happening by had stopped
a moment to shake
a pebble from his shoe, and found
his soul struck by a mortal
dweller of the place, and the bewilderment
of instant attraction, eternal
loss still draws him back.

Miss M. has found it out. Basks
in the sun’s warmth even
at midnight; dreams of a cat
that sleeps inside the sleep
of one who, without waking,
from his tall cloud leans godlike
down and lovingly strokes her.

The attribution of the spiritual force both to natural and divine agencies is typical of Malouf. It is an indication not only of his range, but of his habit of doubling and folding. The natural is divine in its emanations, divinity moves in the natural world – and both exist by virtue of being perceived or imagined, which makes them inseparable from human agency. The final folding – or rather unfolding – has the cat dreaming inside the dream of ‘one who … / from his tall cloud leans godlike / down’ – a human being, not a god, but godlike – and presumably rendered godlike by the power of dream.

The reference to ‘the young god happening by’ and stopping to remove a pebble from his shoe, reminds us of how much Malouf’s animistic view of the world is bound up in what he acknowledges to be a pagan sensibility. The close relationship he perceives between the natural and the human worlds, the ease with which the one may intrude into or revert to the other, is attributed in part to growing up in the sub-tropical fertility of Brisbane. But it also has more complex social influences, particularly that of migration, where a close identification with nature, as an abiding presence, may compensate for the loss of cultural sources of identification, especially in those cases where the migration was from a culture (Lebanese in Malouf’s case) which was close to the land to begin with.

Malouf’s poems and essays about his grandfather carry this sense of an intimate communion with the natural world, all the more so because they did not share a language, but in Malouf’s telling, a more primal form of communication based on the breath, and the cultivation of the earth. The classical Greek and Roman bearings of his imagination also seem to me to have an atavistic character, drawing in both the Arabic and the Jewish elements in his background in a generalised ‘Mediterranean’ way, that is also to be found in the classical Arcadian vision of Queensland he attributes approvingly to Governor Bowen in Remembering Babylon (1993), and develops elsewhere in essay form.

It’s interesting, looking back over the essays collected in A First Place, to see how much emphasis Malouf places on migration, how strong it is in his thinking about animation and transformation and multiplicity, not only at the level of the family, but in terms of Australia itself. For, as he argues, it is the fate of the migrant, and the children of migrants too, to live in a state of doubleness, to have the old world, the world left behind, ghosting the one they now live in ‘as an alternative life unlived, a promise broken’. In ‘A Spirit of Play’, his Boyer lectures, he presents ‘this form of complexity, the paradoxical condition of having our lives simultaneously in two places, two hemispheres’ as ‘the thing that is most original and interesting in us’. ‘It is our complex fate,’ he goes on, ‘to be children of two worlds, to have two sources of being, two sides to our head.’

This also gives life a provisional quality: since one could have an alternative life elsewhere, so one’s existence here, and one’s present identity, can also seem accidental. In the essay ‘As Happy as This’, this mutability is exemplified in Malouf’s mother, who is transformed several times in her life, in the passage from the grand house in New Cross in London to the goldfields of Mount Morgan, from an English Jewish milieu to a Lebanese Catholic one in Brisbane. Then, when her husband is injured at work during the war and has to give up his livelihood, she transforms herself again, into a successful businesswoman, buying and selling goods that are then in short supply. ‘She had launched herself,’ Malouf observes, ‘on one of those late changes of character, those apprehensions of the openness and infinite possibility of things, by which characters in fiction break free of the mechanics of mere plot to find happy endings.’ It is the same openness to what one might have been, to what one could still be, that underlies Australia’s success as a nation: the ability to create a new world out of the rejects of the old one, the capacity, which Malouf sees as Indigenous too, ‘to reimagine things, to take in and adapt’.

The idea of multiplicity therefore has many ramifications in Malouf’s thinking: personal, psychological, social, historical, philosophical. In a bold move, in ‘A Spirit of Play’, he presents Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras parade, with participants drawn from every strand of society, as the great emblem of his theme – ‘play’ here including the spirit of make-believe, reinvention, transformation, subversion:

In being multiple itself, such a parade offers the crowd a reflected image of its own multiplicity, and all within a spirit of carnival, a form of play that includes mockery and self-mockery, glamour and the mockery of glamour, social comment, tragedy and a selfless dedication to the needs of others; as if all these things were aspects of the same complex phenomenon.

But to return to ‘the pulse’ underlying and informing the multiplicity of things. One of Malouf’s earliest and best known poems, ‘The Year of the Foxes’, is a celebration of the moment his mother remade herself as a buyer and seller of fashionable items, in this case fox-furs, which are arrayed in the family sitting room for prospective buyers. Significantly, just as the mother in the poem launches herself into the future in her new role, the poet as a young boy returns, in dreams, to the old world which haunts the one he is in – not the lost world of the migrant, but much further back, the lost world of animal presence:

I slept across the hall, at night hearing
their thin cold cry. I dreamed the dangerous spark
of their eyes, brushes aflame
in our fur-hung, nomadic
tent in the suburbs, the dark fox-stink of them
cornered in their holes
and turning.

It is a testament to the consistency of Malouf’s writing, across all its forms, that one of his most recent poems, placed last in Earth Music, should return to this night-time world, with its ‘throb … that runs deeper than speech’ as if it were completely familiar to him – ‘after long / journeying’, as the poem puts it – not as in ‘The Year of the Foxes’ at the setting out. This is ‘At Lerici’, for Carlo Olivieri, who was also the dedicatee of his first novel Johnno (1975). As in ‘The Year of the Foxes’, the point of departure is the world of commerce and trade, the container-ships ‘riding darkly at anchor’ and silent in the harbour, which is also, coincidentally, where the poet Shelley drowned:

History is made up
of nights such as this when little happens.

Lovers in their beds
whisper and touch, a new player
tumbles onto the scene.
Crickets strike up
a riff on the razzle-dazzle
of starlight, then stop.

The blissful friction and pointillist
throb of night music
is older, runs deeper
than speech. An electric
flicker the planet’s first

incidence of traffic.
Then heartbeat. Then thought.

I used to think that Malouf’s juxtaposition of the social world and the world of nature was intended ironically, as a satire of the first in favour of the second. That is the way it often appears, as in the line up of ‘mother’s show pieces’ in ‘The Year of Foxes’:

Noritake teacups, tall hock glasses
with stems like barley-sugar,
goldleaf demitasses –
the foxes, row upon row, thin-nosed, prick-eared,

Yet, as Malouf insists in the essays in ‘A Spirit of Play’ about the building of the new world in the Australian colonies, it is precisely the ordinary things which carry the most charge. In a passage which echoes the lines in ‘At Lerici’, to the effect that history is made when little seems to be happening, he declares history ‘consists of happenings so small, so everyday, so ordinary, so endlessly repeatable that they draw no attention to themselves, and so momentary as to defy dating’.

Indeed, that is what Priam finds in Ransom (2009), when he is remade for the third time – first as an orphan of war, then as a king, now as a simple human being – and finds himself amazed by the teeming life about him, both human and natural, ‘the confused and confusing realm of the incidental and the ordinary’. His release from the hierarchies and subordinations embodied in his role as king is presented as an awakening to the diverse life of the material world, its busyness, its colour, its sounds:

Out here if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.

This particularity in the life of things is to be valued for itself, not because it suggests some symbolic association or resonance. Priam’s renunciation of the kingship is a rejection of the symbolic order, of the idea that things should have a representative function, should mean rather than be. And, since they don’t refer elsewhere for their significance, the form that is most appropriate to the appreciation of ordinary things, to the registering of their presence, is the descriptive list or catalogue.

He would remember all this. The rosebay bushes with their long pointed leaves, that grew so strongly out of the sand and gravel between the streams. The cooling water that lapped his feet. The fishes. The high thin whining of the midges.

The spell of enumeration is so strong in Ransom, it is as if the teeming world Malouf has created and populated from a few scattered lines in Homer was shimmering there in front of you: the life in the markets of Troy, the little golden griddle-cakes, the refectory hut where Achilles’ men are fed, all carefully detailed, the two channels of the Scamander – one bubbling and milky-green, the other a smooth-flowing blue – the ‘low-growing maple scrub and sycamore figs and holm oak’ which populate its banks – how could Malouf know about maple scrub and sycamore figs and holm oak? There is wonder in it, and not just for Priam, but for the reader too.

The catalogue is a persistent and important element in Malouf’s writing, and it is there from the beginning. I remember commenting, in a paper at a conference which Malouf attended in Lugano almost forty years ago now, on the repeated catalogues of objects in Johnno, and the author telling me afterwards that they were an aspect of his work he was uneasy about. I thought they expressed in a very effective way the anxiety about the weight and significance of life in Brisbane, which was the subject of Johnno after all, the feeling that one could be crushed by the materiality of its details – if one did not blow the place up first, which is the desperate aim of the main character. It would be interesting to compare those catalogues now, with the lyrical enumerations of Ransom or, still more persuasive as a rhetorical device, the catalogues of detail that evoke the richness of the Australian achievement in A First Place.

Here is a mighty sentence from ‘A Spirit of Play’ in celebration of the botanist Joseph Banks. What it exemplifies in its rhythm is not only the pulse of detail, a pulse enacted in the evocation itself, but the capaciousness of Malouf’s syntax, which is forever opening new rooms in the sentence, as if it were a large house, or still better, a world.

We can imagine Banks, the ‘amoroso of the Tahitian Islands’ as Manning Clark called him, fifteen years after he had last been there, stepping back in imagination to the far side of the globe to play a godlike little game with himself, and with a whole continent, by doing what no man in history had ever done before: telescoping into a few hours and a single occasion what might have taken centuries – millennia even – in the natural course of things: the equipping of an arkload of plants suitable for a place, as he recalled it, with ‘a climate similar to that of southern France’ – apples, cherries, apricots, nectarines, red and white beets, early cauliflower, celery, sainfoin, nasturtium, broccoli, York cabbage – the makings of a very practical little garden of Eden, with due care taken for the good health of those it was to feed and with nice problems to be solved on the ground, since only trial and error, and flair for inventiveness and guesswork, would determine which of the several varieties he had chosen would actually ‘take’ in a place where the soil and the seasons were as yet unknown.

All of that, in a single sentence. Of course prose, whether fiction or the essay, is better suited to the catalogue than poetry, the strengths of which are compression and implication. There is a remarkable sentence in ‘Nightsong, Nightlong’ in Earth Hour, short where the sentence about Banks is long, but equally accommodating, which describes a bird singing in the dark, no more than a scrap of dark itself:

… But no more dark,
because it is unseen and the night
so wide that surrounds it,
than the heart, which is just its size
in the body’s dark, and hidden.

I like the way the heart, in a manner similar to the bird, is hidden away in the sentence, not making its appearance until after three clauses, though its implications are even more expansive than the bird’s.

There is a catalogue poem in Earth Hour, ‘Toccata’ –

Cut-glass atomisers, An Evening in Paris
stain, circa ’53, on taffeta.
Four napkin-rings initialled. Playing cards, one pack
with views of Venice, the other Greek key pattern

– which evokes the power of these objects all the more fully for its brevity.

In the ghost of a fingerprint all
that touched us, all that we touched, still glowing actual.

And even a poem like ‘Radiance’, which is about spiritual illumination, makes use of the catalogue form, not only in the unfolding of its subject – ‘for some it is stillness … for some the fall across their path … for some their own shadow … for some a wound, some / a gift’ – but in the description of its presence, ‘a commotion, a companionable / cloud … an angel.’

So it is not as if lyric poetry and the catalogue are inimical. But Malouf’s poems typically work another way to expand the possibilities, dwelling in the ordinary, not by gathering instances, but by focusing closely on a single example, and drawing a world out of it. There is this possibility of expansion in his fiction too, as readers of Ransom who have seen how Malouf expands on the little griddle-cakes prepared by the carter’s daughter-in-law will know – their golden yellow colour, the buckwheat flour, the creamy buttermilk, the batter bubbling and setting, the cooking stones prepared by the carter’s son, the dexterity of the young woman’s fingers, the lightness of her wrist, the robe drawn up between her knees …

But the elaboration in Ransom occurs over many pages, and through repeated iterations. In Earth Hour, there is a poem called ‘Ladybird’, which focuses on the tiny amber-coloured insect whose alighting on us in childhood, we remember as, in the words of the poem,

a reward for
some good deed we did not

know we’d done, or earnest
of a good world’s good will
towards us.

Either way, it is remembered as a moment of grace, and also of vulnerability, since the ladybird, like the child, is small in the scheme of things. ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home’ – but why, the poem suddenly asks, ‘was her house on fire?’ The poem, in answer, acts like one of Malouf’s essays or short stories, though in much smaller compass, drawing out the implications of the ladybird’s visitation, as the golden flare of the ladybird’s wings recalls the lighting of matches at birthday parties, and more to the point, the lighting of matches in the dark underside of the family’s Brisbane house, a memory recalled in 12 Edmondstone Street and now again in A First Place. What if the lighting of matches had got out of control and burnt the whole house down?


mother, quick, fly
home! The house, our hair, everything close
and dear, even the air,

is burning! In our hands
(we had no warning
of this) the world is alive and dangerous.

‘The world is alive and dangerous’ – it is wonderful how this large observation radiates outwards from the recollection of the tiny ladybird. The recognition has always been there, in the different forms of Malouf’s writing. This awareness of the pulse of the world, and how it might flare out – the power and danger of it  – which demands an attitude that is attentive, alert, curious, reverential – but not so much that it can’t be cheeky and playful too.

This is an edited version of a keynote address given at the event ‘David Malouf: Celebrating a Life in Letters’, in honour of the author’s eightieth birthday, at the State Library of Queensland, 6-7 June 2014.