Poetry Journal

Latest writing / Sep, 2014

Review: Earth Hour, David Malouf

Tony Page

David Malouf.
Earth Hour.
ISBN 978 0 7022 5013 2. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Civilisation as the fragile veneer of humanity’s essentially primitive nature is a theme running through Malouf’s work all the way back to An Imaginary Life (1978). Now, thirty-five years later in the title poem of his latest collection, we find ourselves sitting in one of civilisation’s most ironic manifestations – ‘moonlit/glass in our McMansions’ – where we wait, as we always have, ‘for our rendezvous each with his own/earth hour’ (51). ‘It is on our hands, it is in our mouths at every breath, how not/remember?’ we are asked, almost as if being shaken by the shoulders into remembering. The layers go deeper and further back in time: personal memory, historical memory, ultimately even species memory, ‘when we were wildlife’ – and the stubbornly confronting ‘We are feral/at heart, unhouseled creatures.’

If poetry is the most condensed use of the language, the last line here is surely a glittering example of such condensation: ‘Schatzkammer and midden, our green accommodating tomb’. The German term means a collection of treasures kept in a secure room, often in the basement of a palace or castle. On this reckoning then, life is rich and glorious, worth preserving. Even though we end up in a tomb (certainly a basement treasure), not only will it be full of gold, it is also welcoming, and capacious enough to store all our experience. As if that were not condensation enough, at the same time, our tomb is a ‘midden’ – a pre-historic refuse heap. Life equals rubbish, equals treasure. This is compression with a Zen-like sting in its tail.

‘A Green Miscellany’ (52-65) is the longest in the book, with eleven poems weaving together landscape, farming, Iron Age excavations, battle sites, even dogs as domesticated wolves. It concludes with the worms that devour vegetation to produce compost for the next cycle of life. Malouf delights in weighing and balancing opposing perspectives – the long view in ‘Good Friday, Flying West’ and the close up in ‘The Worm’s-eye View’ – as if they were telescope and microscope brought to bear on the same subject. If we have the patience to see the collective sweep of history, both pattern and optimism emerge. In the second poem of the ‘Miscellany’ sequence, ‘The Far View’ (53), he takes a planetary and epic perspective: ‘Clearly at this height the earth unravels/its secrets’. The following poems descend gradually to ground level, making out individual fields, roads, villages and, eventually, workers going about their daily tasks. Parallel with this magnification is something akin to the infrared vision of those satellites that pick out features under the soil and have been used to survey archaeological sites. It is not only this physical landscape that the poet beholds but the entire arc of history, layer upon layer, from the earliest settlements and experiments with agriculture to mapping, zoning legislation and inheritance customs:

go underground as hot tracks in the mind are criss-criss-crossed with glittering plough-furrows this morning, a doomsday map of one-street villages laid out under the crops

In another example of compression, Malouf seems to squeeze intoxication itself out of an image: ‘Cider bubbles climb/from blossom centuries off’ (53). There is always the prospect of fruition and harvest, even abundance. ‘Haystacks’ (54) is like an Impressionist canvas, where words are paint, laid on with glowing impasto verbal colours, a riot of sensation.

‘Aquarius’ (1) and ‘Aquarius II’ (82) are remarkable poems, respectively the first and third last of the collection, placed as supports for the overall structure of the volume. They are shimmering with love, not to say ecstatic visions in which the world glows as epiphany. Both are set on the same beach along Australia’s Pacific coast, with every inch of the skin and all the senses fully alive. Some readers may claim that memory and the confrontation with death are the signature tunes of ‘Earth Hour’, but for me, it is rather these celebrations of living and rejoicing in each moment that strike the defining chord. We are invited to savour everything life offers, not letting even one minute to go to waste. In the first ‘Aquarius’ poem, Malouf declares,

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…

If you feel this is wishful thinking, Malouf lets us know he is fully aware of the precariousness of these very same joys:

we’re struck by the prospect of a counterworld to so much stir, such colour; loved animal forms, shy otherlings our bodies… the backward children of a green original anti -Eden from which we’ve never been expelled

Here then is a bold stance taken against the Judaeo-Christian tradition, based as it is on human ‘sinfulness’ and the supposed ‘Fall from grace’. Readers will be reminded of Malouf’s 2011 Quarterly Essay, ‘On Human Happiness’, in which he argues passionately for a return to the pagan, pre-Christian values, a life lived fully in the body, with all it appetites and joys. In Earth Hour, Malouf has not only given us a garden of delights; he offers us the prospect of a paradise that was indeed never lost.