Andrew McDonald, Night Music (Arcadia 2017)
As I was ruminating on Andrew McDonald’s Night Music, I kept thinking of Chaucer’s phrase ‘the life so short, the craft so long to learn’ the opening of The Parlement of Foules:
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, that alwey slit so yerne
Chaucer is talking about love, but I’m not alone in thinking they apply at least as well to art, specifically to poetry.
Andrew McDonald has quietly persisted with the craft for decades. Night Music is his third book in 40 years. His first, Absence in Strange Countries, was part of UQP’s Paperback Poets series in the 1970s, the series that launched David Malouf as a poet. His second, The One True History, appeared in 1984 (and can now be bought for more that £50 from Amazon). Though his poetic voice hasn’t been completely still since then – poems have appeared in journals and end-of-year anthologies – it’s been a long time between books.
So it’s fitting that the opening poem ‘These words’, can be read as marking a kind of re-entry, moving from a tentative impersonality to a moment of relief and the possibility of a meeting of minds:
There’s a strong sense of place in what follows. The inner-western Sydney suburb of Leichhardt features in early poems, notably ‘Ode: Marketown’, which is dedicated to JF, il miglior guida and John-Forbes-ishly yokes images of tatty urban life to erudite allusions:
It’s shaping up as a day for reading cornflakes
packets in the supermarket considered as prolegomenon
to a proper reading of the Purgatorio.
Later, there are places visited – in rural New South Wales, North Queensland, Scotland, Ireland, the Lake District (I think), an unnamed tropical beach. As an old Innisfail boy, I love ‘In the Rainforest’, one of the longest poems in the book, in which the Daintree National Park takes on metaphorical power:
The trees assemble themselves in their lack of rows or thought,
higgledy-piggledy, overgrown with creepers and vines and palms,
undergrown with mantras of the unnamed, the undiscovered, the unsuspected –
yet all this vast hubbub has, somewhere or other, to stop:
at the sea, at the incision of a road, at the counter-text
of pasture or cane or tea or some other human blankness,
so that the voice of the forest must finally cut short
its ancient murmurings and chatterings, its breath steam up
the pane of some other idea, until it simply ceases.
There are domestic moments. I’m a sucker for a poem about men and babies (see Francis Webb’s ‘Five Days Old‘ (at the link you need to scroll down a bit for the poem) or Galway Kinnell’s ‘After making love we hear footsteps‘). There are two here: ‘Night’, in which the speaker worries that his baby son will stop breathing:
I lean over him long, feeling the small warmth
that rises with his milky breath,
the smell if not the sound of life.
and ‘Cradle Coda’, which reads as written decades later. Here is the whole poem:
It’s just a couple of weeks before my own first grandchild is due, so this poem strikes a chord. And I seem to have come back to Chaucer: ‘the lyf so short.’
There’s lots more than this in the book, much to enjoy. A fourth book is on the horizon. I’m glad.
My copy is a gift of the author, who has commented on this blog occasionally but whom I don’t think I’ve met in person.