Tag Archives: Baudelaire

David Malouf’s Earth Hour

DavidMalouf. Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

0702250139 As I was reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio recently, one of my unexpected small pleasures was the occasional recognition of a place name. ‘Fiesole – that’s Anny’s town!’ I would exclaim under my breath, or ‘Campagnatico – isn’t that where David Malouf used to live?’ My pleasure comes from my North Queensland provenance: if you live in New York, Paris or even Sydney, you’re forever walking down streets that have appeared in poems, novels, movies; if you’re from Innisfail, North Queensland, not so much. My Purgatorio moments weren’t completely without wider usefulness, of course, as they gave me a whiff of how Dante’s contemporaries would have read the poem: they knew all the places he mentions, and had a wealth of personal associations with them. Any personal connection a modern reader has is a pale shadow, but a shadow all the same.

The shoe was on the other foot as I read the poems in Earth Hour. The poetry may address what they used to call universal themes (do they still call them that?), but it often addresses them as they arise in places I know, and nowhere more dramatically than in ‘At Laterina’. For a start, the poem is dedicated ‘For Jeffrey Smart (1921–2013)’: I know who Jeffrey Smart is, I know his portrait of David Malouf as petrol pump attendant, and what’s more I have fond memories of him as Phidias, the artist on the ABC Children’s Hour of my childhood, all of which may not add to an understanding of the poem, but it does add to my sense of connection with it. The poem meditates on the passage of time in an Italian village (‘Centuries pass / unnoticed here; it’s days that are tedious’), and moves on to the ‘sweet loaded breath’ of the tiglio in bloom. I’m engaged enough to find out that tiglio is lime tree. Then:

__________________Was it always
like this? Did native sons high on a scaffold
in Piedmont, streaked with smuts in a smoky canefield
near Innisfail, North Queensland, feel the planet
shrink in their memory of it, the streets, the decades
one as each June makes them when we catch
on a gust of heated air, as at a key-change,
its green, original fragrance?

I certainly feel the planet shrink, and in a good way.

There’s so much to love in this book: renderings of Horace, Heine and Baudelaire that range from elegant close translation to wildly divergent variations on the originals’ theme [Added later – not as divergent as I thought once I had the right Baudelaire poem – see Brendan Doyle’s comment below]; meditations on deep time, on what it means to be human, on our effect on the planet; profound pieces on ageing and mortality. I’m not able to do much more than name some of the poems that I am deeply grateful for: ‘Whistling in the Dark’ (‘Seeking a mind in the machine, and in constellations’), ‘A Green Miscellany’ (‘No, not nature but a green / miscellany, our years-in-the-making masterpiece’), ‘Touching the Earth’ (about worms), ‘Long Story Short’ (reminiscent of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’), ‘Persimmons: Campagnatico’ (about trees bearing fruit at the end of winter), ‘Nightsong, Nightlong’ (about a bird, and a heart), ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’ (about a sleeping cat). That will have to do.

David Malouf turned 80 recently, and was celebrated on the show that has replaced Ramona Koval’s Book Show on the ABC. You can hear an excellent interview with Michael Cathcart here, and a discussion of his work here, by a panel comprising Ivor Indyk, academic Yvonne Smith, and poet Jaya Savige.

Finally, as a service to any drop-in readers looking for information about the translations in Earth Hour, here are links to the originals and literal translations: Horace Odes II, ii, Horace Odes I, xxvii, Baudelaire’s Spleen (link corrected thanks to Brendan Doyle], Heine’s Der Scheidende and Morphine.

A bit of Baudelaire

As my November sonnet binge approaches, I apparently feel the need to limber up.

Among our dog Nessie’s amusing quirks is her terror of holes covered by grids. A couple of years ago, I was delighted when she sniffed warily at such a hole and had her terror justified when the darkness just beneath the grid turned out into a hissing cat. That gave rise to this:

She looks down
Wherever Nessie goes she takes her fear
of what might lie beneath the solid ground.
She doesn’t shrink from cliffs, she’ll gladly bound
down hillsides, but she comes all over queer
when asked to walk on grids that cover holes –
no matter if mere centimetres deep.
She turns to stone, responds to no controls
as one afraid of dreams recoils from sleep.

At times, off leash, ears pointing, she will dare,
tout pleine de vague horreur, and so so slow,
creep to the edge and, fascinated, stare
at unseen demons, the nothing-space below.

Today, green eyes stared back from an abyss,
and scared her silly with a black cat’s hiss.

A special prize if you noticed the references to Baudelaire’s poem Le Gouffre, itself referring back to Blaise Pascal’s existential terror. Now it’s not as if I’ve been abyss-obsessed myself, but I was thinking about Baudelaire’s poem recently and spent a couple of hours doing a version of it. My reading of the last line seems to be the opposite of everyone else’s, but maybe I’m the only one in step. Here it is:

The abyss
Pascal travelled with his own abyss.
Poor Blaise! all’s horror: deeds, desires, dreams,
and words! My nape too feels the screams
of bristles at the breath of Fear’s soft kiss.
Above, below, all round, on banks, in streams,
in silence, in great captivating space …
my night’s a wall for God’s hand to deface
with take-no-prisoners spray, where nightmare teems.

I fear my sleep, a door that opens wide
to formless horror on who knows what tide.
Infinity is every window’s view.

My heart, forever dizzy for a fall,
yearns for a void, for numbness over all.
Ah! Not to leave what’s solid, two plus two.