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Friday, 1 January 2016

Earth Hour - David Malouf - Prime Minister's Literary Award (Poetry) 2015 - WA Premier's Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today.

The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate. A generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, ensures the award in perpetuity.

The prize was established in 1969 as the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature, then renamed the Books Abroad / Neustadt Prize before assuming its present name in 1976, The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. It is the first international literary award of this scope to originate in the United States and is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, and playwrights are equally eligible.

Previous Laureates of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature include Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Rohinton Mistry and in 2000 David Malouf became the sixteenth Neustadt Laureat. This year the winner was Dubravka Ugrešić, born in the former Yugoslavia and now residing in Amsterdam, I aim to get to a few of her works in 2016, once I read and digest the wonderful “Music & Literature No. 6” where there are 100 pages of literary criticism, “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written” (translated by David Willliams), seven prints by Dubravka Ugrešić and a listing of her complete works. This “Music & Literature” edition also includes Alejandra Pizarnik and Victoria Polevá, an edition I’ll eventually get around to reading.

In becoming the sixteenth Neustadt Laureat David Malouf beat a field including V.S. Naipaul, Augusto Monterroso, and N. Scott Momaday. Previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 for “Remembering Babylon” where nominating juror Ihab Hassan said “And right there I saw a glimmer of his gift: wakefulness and precision of feeling, blended in wonder, and a delicacy that can surprise the mystery of creation itself. It was this elusive quality, inward with his poetic sensibility, a quality akin to love, that first drew me to the work of David Malouf” (“Encomium: David Malouf,” World Literature Today Vol. 74, Autumn 2000). He has wont eh Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the French Priz Femina Etranger for his 1990 work “The Great World” and would be also known for his novels “An Imaginary Life” (1978), “Fly Away Peter” (1982), and “Ransom” (2009). Lesser known, or less publicized works include his poetry collections, “Neighbors in a Thicket” (1974), “Wild Lemons” (1980), and “Typewriter Music” (2007).

It is his latest poetry collection that I look at today, shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry, “Earth Hour”.

Our collection opens with ‘Aquarius’, the constellation not the astrology sign I assume, “There is more to darkness than nightfall”, setting the tone for a journey through the realms, through the soil, human memory and our environment.

‘Retrospect’, tells of a memory of a walk in winter into Sèvres, a dream that comes from a simple expression on a companion’s face when walking into the forest. ‘Tocatta’ addresses bric-a-brac and the significance of seemingly insignificant objects on human memory, “and even the domino I lost/in the long grass by the passion-vine”.

Throughout we have musical references and themes, there is something grander going on here, if only I could decipher it!! We have innumerable references to green (grass generally), the image of ‘breaths from mouths’ and galaxies.

‘Footloose, a Senior Moment’ is composed as fractured thoughts, spread throughout the page, replicating an ageing mind, with another musical reference “diminuendo”, (getting gradually softer) a poem dedicated to ‘Chris Wallace-Crabbe approaching eighty’.

Whistling in the Dark

Seeking a mind in the machine, and in constellations, however
distant, a waft of breath. Re-reading space
shrapnel as chromosome bee-swarms, hauling infinity
in so that its silence, a stately contre-dance to numbers,
hums, and flashy glow-stones bare of wild-flower
or shrub, scent, bird-song, hoof-print, heartbeat,
or bones (ah, bones!) are no longer alien or lonely
out there in the airless cold as we prepare
to lie out beneath them. Even as children we know
what cold is, and aloneness, absence of touch. We seed
the night sky with stories like our own: snub-breasted
blond topless Lolitas laying out samples
of their charms besides dimpled ponds, barefoot un-bearded
striplings ready with bow and badinage, pursued
and lost and grieved over by inconsolable immortals
and set eternally adrift, a slow cascade
of luminary dust above the earth, with the companionable
creatures, bear, lion, swan, who share with us the upland
fells and meadow-flats of a rogue planet tossed
into space and by the wild haphazard or amazing
grace sent spinning. Old consolations, only half
believed in, though like children we hold them dear, as if
                their names
on our tongue could bring them close and make,
like theirs, the bitter sweet-stuff of our story
to someone, somewhere out there,
remembered, and fondly, when we are gone.

Our collection has a very environmental edge, showing the hypocrisy of working all day in a garden to “troop home to pork-chop plastic bags, and gatherers/gather for hugs and mugs of steaming chai.” (from the poem ‘Inner City’), or “Small plots are watered in the shadow/of blackened chimney-stacks by men in shirtsleeves between shift” (from ‘A Green Miscellany’). Our feigning interest in environmental issues when we live luxury lives in suburban homes, consume and destroy.

We also have an homage to the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) in ‘Art Laterina’, set in Tuscany where Smart lived from 1963 until his death.

A collection that includes exquisite imagery as in ‘Shy Gifts’, “…the book/laid open under the desk-lamp, pages astream/with light like angels’ wings, arched for take off”. This is a small book, running to eighty-six pages and fifty-nine poems, with references to writing retreats and acknowledgement of the “Scottish Arts Council for the Muriel Spark International Fellowship in 2008, and a month-long residence in Edinburgh and at Stromness, Orkney”, it is not difficult to see the creativity being assisted by Malouf’s surrounds.

Not my favourite from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist (Poetry) to date, that currently goes to Judith Beverdige’s “Devadatta’s Poems”,  and with only the winning entry yet to be read, this has been an insightful journey into the works of Australian poets, something I will be doing more of during the year.

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