David Malouf was born in Brisbane in 1934. Since ‘Interiors’ in Four Poets 1962, he has published poetry, novels and short stories, essays, opera libretto and a play, and he is widely translated. His novels include Ransom, The Great World (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize and the Prix Femina Etranger), Remembering Babylon (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), An Imaginary Life, Conversations at Curlow Creek, Dream Stuff, Every Move You Make and his autobiographical classic 12 Edmondstone Street. His Collected Stories won the 2008 Australia-Asia Literary Award. His latest poetry collection is Earth Hour(UQP), while his compiled essays, A First Place are published by Knopf. He was awarded the Scottish Arts’ Council Muriel Spark International Fellowship and was the sixteenth Neustadt Laureate. He lives in Sydney.
Photograph: Conrad del Villar
One of those sovereign days that might seem never
intended for the dark: the sea’s breath deepens
from oyster-shell to inky, blue upon blue,
heaped water, crowded sky. 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, till something in us
snaps, a spring, a nerve. There is more to darkness
than nightfall. Caught reversed in a mirror’s lens,
we’re struck by the prospect of a counterworld
to so much stir, such colour; loved animal
forms, shy otherlings our bodies turn to
when we turn towards sleep; like us the backward
children of a green original anti
-Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.
Out of such and such and so much brick-a-brac.
Cut-glass atomises. An Evening in Paris
stain, circa ’53, on taffeta.
Four napkin-rings, initialled. Playing cards, one pack
with views of Venice, the other the Greek key pattern
that unlocked the attic door our house
in strict truth did not run to. A wrist
arched above early Chopin: bridge across water
to a lawn where finch and cricket take what’s given
as gospel, and even the domino I lost
in the long grass by the passion-vine
fits white-to-white, four voices in close canon.
Where in all this are the small, hot, free
-associating selves, a constellation
of shoes, sweat, teacups, charms, magnetic debris?
In the ghost of a fingerprint all
that touched us, all that we touched, still glowing actual.
It is on our hands, it is in our mouths at every breath, how not
remember? Called back
to nights when we were wildlife, before kindling
or kine, we sit behind moonlit
glass in our McMansions, cool
millions at rehearsal
here for our rendezvous each with his own
We are feral
at heart, unhouseled creatures. Mind
is the maker, mad for light, for enlightenment, this late admission
of darkness the cost, and the silence
on our tongue as we count the hour down – the coin we bring,
long hoarded just for this – the extended cry of our first coming
to this ambulant, airy
Schatzkammer and midden, our green accommodating tomb.
Shy gifts that come to us from a world that may not
even know we’re here. Windfalls, scantlings.
Breaking a bough like breathy flute-notes, a row
of puffed white almond-blossom, the word in hiding
among newsprint that has other news to tell.
In a packed aisle at the supermarket, I catch
the eye of a wordless one-year-old, whale-blue,
unblinking. It looks right through me, recognising
what? Wisely mistrustful but unwisely
impulsive as we are, we take these givings
as ours and meant for us – why else so leap
to receive them? – and go home lighter
of step to the table set, the bed turned down, the book
laid open under the desk-lamp, pages astream
with light like angels’ wings, arched for take-off.
These poems appear in Earth Hour, first published in 2014 by University of Queensland Press, and reprinted here with permission.
The Making of Australian Consciousness
Looking down the long line of coast this morning, I see the first rays of the sun strike Mount Warning and am aware, as the light floods west, what a distance it is to the far side of our country ─ two time zones and more than 3000 kilometres away, yet how easily the whole landmass sits in my head. As an island or, as I sometimes think of it, a raft we have all scrambled aboard, a new float of lives in busy interaction: of assembly lines and highways, of ideals given body as executives and courts, of routine housekeeping arrangements and objects in passage from hand to hand. To comprehend the thing in all its action and variety and contradiction is a task for the imagination, yet this morning, as always, it is simply there, substantial and ordinary.
When Europeans first came to these shores one of the things they brought with them, as a kind of gift to the land itself, was something that could never previously have existed: a vision of the continent in its true form as an island, which was not just a way of seeing it, and seeing it whole, but of seeing how it fitted into the world, and this seems to have happened even before circumnavigation established that it actually was an island. No group of Aboriginal Australians, however ancient and deep their understanding of the land, can ever have seen the place in just this way.
It has made a difference. If Aborigines are a land-dreaming people, what we latecomers share is a sea-dreaming, to which the image of Australia as an island has from the beginning been central.
This is hardly surprising. Sydney, in its early days was first and foremost a seaport; all its dealings were with the sea. Our earliest productive industries were not wheat-growing or sheep-raising but whaling and sealing. It took us nearly thirty years to cross the first land barrier. Right up to the end of the nineteenth century our settlements were linked by coastal steamer, not by road or rail. In his sonnet ‘Australia’, Bernard O’Dowd speaks of Australia’s ‘virgin helpmate, Ocean’, as if the island continent were mystically married to its surrounding ocean as Venice was to the Adriatic.
As the off-shoot of a great naval power we felt at home with the sea. It was an element over which we had control; more, certainly, than we had at the beginning over the land. It was what we looked to for all our comings and goings, for all that was new ─ for news. And this sense of being at home with the sea made distances that might otherwise have been unimaginable seem shorter. It brought Britain and Europe closer than 10,000 miles on the globe might have suggested, and kept us tethered, for longer than we might otherwise have been, by sea-routes whose ports of call, in the days before air travel, constituted a litany of connection that every child of my generation knew by heart. Distance is not always a matter of miles. Measured in feelings it can redefine itself as closeness.
And this notion of an island continent, contained and containable, had other consequences.
Most nations establish themselves through a long series of border conflicts with neighbours. This is often the major thrust of their history. Think of the various wars between Germany and France, or Russia and Poland, or of British history before the Union of the Crowns.
Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them. In our case, history and geography coincided, and we soon hit upon the idea that the single continent must one day be a single nation. What this means is that all our wars of conquest, all our sources of conflict, have been internal.
Conquest of space to begin with, in a series of daring explorations of the land, which were also acts of possession different from the one that made it ours merely in law. This was possession in the form of knowledge; by naming and mapping, by taking its spaces into our heads, and at last into our imagination and consciousness.
Conquest of every form of internal division and difference: conquest of the original possessors, for example, in a war more extensive than we have wanted to recognise. Later, there was the attempted resolution, through an act of Federation, of the fraternal division between the states; and, longer lasting and less amenable of solution, of the conflict, once Federation had been achieved, between the states and the Federal Government. Also, more darkly, suppression, in acts of law-making and social pressure and through subtle forms of exclusion, of all those whom we have, at one time or another, declared to be outsiders among us, and in their various ways alien, even when they were Australians like the rest.
That early vision of wholeness produced a corresponding anxiety, the fear of fragmentation, and for too long the only answer we had to it was the imposition of a deadening conformity.
In time, the vision of the continent as a whole and unique in its separation from the rest of the world produced the idea that it should be kept separate, that only in isolation could its uniqueness ─and ours─ be preserved.
Many of the ideas that have shaped our life here, and many of the themes on which our history has been argued, settle around these notions of isolation and containment, of wholeness and the fear of fragmentation. But isolation can lead to stagnation as well as concentrated richness, and wholeness does not necessarily mean uniformity, though that is how we have generally taken it. Nor does diversity always lead to fragmentation.
As for the gift of those natural, indisputable borders, that too had a cost. It burdened us with the duty of defending them, and the fear, almost from the beginning, that they may not, in fact, be defendable.
Our first settlements outside Sydney, at Hobart in 1804 and Perth in the 1820’s, were made to forestall the possibility of French occupation (and it seems Napoleon did plan a diversionary invasion for 1804). Then, at the time of the Crimean War, it was the Russians we had to keep an eye on. The Russian fleet was just seven days sailing away at Vladivostok. And then, from the beginning of this century, the Japanese.
This fear of actual invaders, of being unable to defend our borders, led to a fear of other and less tangible forms of invasion. By people, ‘lesser breeds without the Law’, who might sully the purity of our stock. By alien forms of culture that might prejudice our attempt to be uniquely ourselves. By ideas, and all those other forms of influence, out there in the world beyond our coast, that might undermine our morals or in various other ways divide and unsettle us. All this has made little-islanders of us; has made us decide, from time to time, to close ourselves off from influence and change, and by settling in behind our ocean wall, freeze and stop what has been from the beginning, and continues to be, a unique and exciting experiment.
From The Boyer Lectures, 1998, first broadcast on ABC Radio, later published in A Spirit of Play, ABC Books, 1998 Published in A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014
This extract is published in the chapter, titled, ‘A Spirit of Play’ page 124-129 from the collection of essays, A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014