John Tranter reviews
«Neighbors in a Thicket» by David Malouf
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, $4.40 and $2.15 (paper).Permalink: http://johntranter.net/reviews/neighbors-in-a-t…avid-malouf-1974/
First published in «The Australian Weekend», Saturday December 14, 1974, p.20, titled “Modern Parables”
Provenance: this text was scanned by John Tranter in 2008.
In one sense it is literature, a minor poetry of some distinction; in another, it is a remedy for the toothache of daily life.
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In David Malouf’s new book of poetry there is a brief reference to Ezra Pound, but it is typical of Malouf’s priorities that American poetry is mentioned once only, in passing, and as part of a travelogue poem about Italy — as he says, “I come to visit, as Dante did…”
It is noticeable that, among Australian poets under 50, Malouf is practically alone in his avoidance of things American. This is a rare, difficult and rather dubious achievement in a century when the United States has given the English language the bulk of its most powerful literature.
The key to American greatness is, of course, her willingness to gamble on the big gesture, in her writers’ driving need to “make it new”. It is both a strength and a weakness in Malouf that his approach to writing is the opposite to rash, that his needs are to conserve and polish, that his skills are close to those of the lepidopterist.
In Neighbors In A Thicket Malouf the man is Malouf the book — of Mediterranean extraction, a child in Brisbane and an adult in Sydney; travelled in England, Germany and Italy; well-versed in European literature, history, art and architecture.
There is little more to be said about the area covered by the book’s contents than that, except to remark on the skill with which Malouf’s observations are presented and the general method and purpose of his poetry.
The language is careful and precise. At times it sparkles with arresting images off a type that has become almost a trademark with-this writer — “A perch, spoon-colored, climbs where the moon sank, trailing bubbles of white…” “a dark wind stipples the moon . . .”, “the static of distant, meteors . . .”, “the nails go brittle, blacken, snap.”
Ocasionally it stumbles into pedestrian generalisations — “We stub our toes on history”, “We are all of us exiles of one place or another…” “We all die under alien skies…”, “We are all exhibits here…” — but overall the book is a collection of well-made poems.
The functional intent of the writing is fairly consistent through the volume. Malouf constructs modern parables, humanist moral lessons drawn from life or history. In one type of poem the scene is sketched, the action introduced, the climax effected, and the point made. In another, landscape and/or history is used as a metaphor for a condition of life which gives rise to reflections and generalisations.
Occasionally the poet seems to be trying to break out of this predictable formula — in, say, ‘Pieces For a Northern Winter’, where the language glitters and the atmosphere grows strange; or in ‘A Charm Against the Dumps’, a light-hearted throw-away piece.
The measure of Malouf’s best verse is its commitment to the values beneath the surface of life. The undercurrent of darkness in his work is genuine, and it is placed in the world of the ordinary man.
If his poetry lacks the originality and excitement of much modem American work, at least it offers craft and humanity in pleasing harmony.
In avoiding the big gesture, he is making his work available to us all — poets, clerks, housewives. Behind his desire to forge certainties in art there is an effort to find a personal faith in humanity that will be accessible to many.
His attempts to make poetic sense of the disorder that underlies both European history and his own life re-enact the common anxiety of modern man.
Given these aims, it is natural that his poems should reflect a concern with control and form. The poet who sees that ‘In the greater dissolution / that spreads beyond these walls, the wrecker’s ball like a pendulum / swings through our days…’ has two choices.
He can echo such chaos in violent verse forms, or he can exorcise it by strict control. Malouf. “Having seen thirty and the years beyond”, envies “the stolid ones.”
It is no accident that his profession is that of an academic lecturer. Neighbors in a Thicket is a type of textbook for contemporary man. The arguments are convincing, the illustrations aptly chosen.
It is not written for Ashbery’s academy of the future, however, but for the classroom of the suburbs where anxiety is a way of life and (to quote from an epigraph used in the book) “a poet, after all, is just a human being like any other.”
David Malouf is a popular writer, as poets go, and it is not difficult to see why. He has accepted the lessons of the English “Movement” poets of the 1950s, and technical experiment is not necessary for his purposes.
His verse offers a key to unlock the thin nightmares of suburban childhoods, the muddled slide-projector memories of travellers returned from Europe, the confusions of the history student. In one sense it is literature, a minor poetry of some distinction; in another, it is a remedy for the toothache of daily life.
This photo by John Tranter accompanied the review, uncredited, with the accompanying caption: «David Malouf: Making poetic sense of disorder.»