Opening the door on David Musgrave’s book-as-mentalistic-floor-plan, we are met by the host in his transient flesh and distorted self-image. He shows us smart, sonnet-like poetic pieces juxtaposed with single paragraph prose pieces rather like diary entries. These short texts alternate through the 80 pages like endless reflections in two mirrors facing each other up and down the echoing plaster hallway.

One of the subtitles, ‘A 20-20 Vision’, describes this process. Other infinitely productive oppositions thus created include imaginative freedom versus work; calm and refuge versus angst and failed relationships; progress versus recursion; deep engagement with the inner world versus superficial engagement with the outer world; the apprehension of life versus death. These polarities are neither strict nor obvious: it would be an error to portray them as dualistic. Rather, they are complementary, contemplative, not judgemental. Sometimes they bounce off each other, and are equal assertions of a daily truth; at other times one dominates the other: the vision is not perfectly 20-20, but I feel no need to correct it, for then I might see so well that I see nothing in a series of perfect reflections. Perhaps that is a way of saying I want not to see myself in the bottom of this pond. I want to see the author.

The left hand pieces are poetic, but not always poems. Occasionally they are thoughts elaborately rendered, 'the names of multiplied obsessions/speckling the refrigerator door'. Some shards in the mirror are fragments of John Kinsella, Russell Drysdale, Jeffrey Smart. There is a kind of sparsity that is part banality of the suburb, part lack of real action in life; but there is colour too: the bus window chops up the scenery like a mechanised futurist, but Musgrave is more like a minimalist fauvist. Sometimes the colour, especially adjectival colour, is too strong for my taste:

Death is my friend, he will come to me whispering
tinkerbell sunset flamingo thrills.


These lines reveal another defining feature of what Michael Sharkey, on the back cover, so precisely terms ‘fin-de-20th-siecle decadence’; ‘decadence’ being a word Musgrave himself uses, a quality that comes through strongly in this book. This is a detachment from suffering in the safe, reliable, and complacent city; a mental consequence of safety and good health, removing, as it were, a resistance to the mind spinning on and on. Even his father’s death does not seem to disturb him particularly (not that one expects or demands any form of grief). There is no engagement with his father’s possible world of suffering, or his mother’s, and no re-examination of his own make up and propensities. It is this that leads to the strangeness of his description of himself as ‘unaccountably’ sobbing one night.

‘After a few weeks of the cycle of videos, remembrance, comfort and pain, he decides it is time to return to his own home and resume the practice of everyday life', in which ‘his grief remains unrecorded’.

In my favourite one of a number of delicious tight succinct pieces, he sees ‘ash like butterflies’ on a ‘hellfire day’, but they are not his father’s, rather, it is a back-burn out of control.

Though there is a humorous self-mockery in some poems, all too often these domestic pieces end in the ‘vacant mangled silence’, the dreadful emptiness of nightclub relationships made even more difficult by the intellectualising aspect of the poet’s mind, the literary academic within who dissects language and intention and ends up in the labyrinth, lost, alone and despairing beyond words. His ‘negative optimism’ leaves him fluctuating wildly between an imaginary world of poetry fed by that potentially distressing openness of mind that allows thoughts to be ‘cast on the still lake of oblivion’; and the banality of everyday life, missing his de facto child, looking for love, and lying around watching various screens. Occasionally, either of these extremes get out of control, and slam the door on a piece; and other times the trope is a version of ‘and then I woke up’ (here it is ‘and then I went to work’).

Musgrave’s yearnings are mythic: for love, for meaning, for the countryside; the latter, suffering as it does from the city's idealisation, becoming the vision portrayed in advertisements for new housing estates. In fact the bush is dry, snake-riddled and flyblown. The air is fresh but there are trees ruining the view. There is, therefore, a common blind spot for Australian poets working in the cities, but who, like the rest of us, have internalised our national myths of the bush. The urban environment has produced their poetry: this environment clearly is an inspiration, a ceaseless font from which the poet drinks.

At first Musgrave’s left hand is hard to read, one has to retrace and work at the pieces; but he controls the reader’s revelation nicely, focussing in to both banality and ‘imaginality’, the two sides of his reflected face. The second subtitle of this book is ‘A Novelty’, and so it is. It reflects his life accurately in the end, and, perhaps unlike even its author, I prefer reading his sort of book immensely to watching that late-night televised dross he writes about.

— Tim Metcalf, JAS

“The essential guide to the hall of mirrors”

— Thomas Crosse

On Reflection carried two subtitles, second of which, ‘A Novelty’ comes some way to suggesting Musgrave’s refreshing wit. This collection showcases his inventiveness as he constructs in alternating prose and verse sections a portrait of the poet as a young flaneur, compressing the events of weeks into something like a day in the life.

The poems are sinuous rhythmic variants on sonnets, elegantly sweeping along philosophising, gaucheries and indulgences of the rueful figure who listlessly embodies Sydney fin-de-vingtiéme-siécle Decadence. The prose sections interleave a narrative that connects the poems’ reflections on love, money, art and death. Some of the poems have the mordant bite of Andy Warhol’s Philosophy from A to Z and Back; poems on ‘friend’ death and on the dissent from which poetry grows are stunningly fine performances.

Musgrave’s text is alive with wisecracks, broad jokes, puns, (‘making his bed out of procrustination’) as it moves through rhetorical high and low styles to portray mood swings between ‘negative optimism’ and cheerful melancholic openness to life.

This is a genuinely innovative take on self-consciousness: it cheeks the character’s self-pitying hesitation to call himself a poet, celebrates his disappointments and listlessness, and neatly contrasts the ‘the poetry of commerce’ with what the poet-hero produces — in a word, a memorable production.

Michael Sharkey

This evocative collection sets poems side by side with prose poems that help enlarge the frame of reference for the author’s subjects.

The collection follows a young poet through his daily life, and the poem’s subtitle of a Twenty-Twenty Vision is an apt description of the two sides of story we see – both the creative, poetic side and the prose poetry fact side.

Musgrave’s writing is intelligent, incisive and probing, definitely work to be reflected on (no pun intended!)

This collection will appeal to lovers of poetry that enjoy seeing the everyday life described through both intriguing verse and prose poetry.

David Musgrave was born in 1965 in Sydney. He studied at Sydney University, where his poetry attracted the attention of Les Murray. He was awarded his PhD in literature in 1997 and has continued to write prose and poetry, as well as publishing a handful of scholarly articles on Australian literature.

David has won various prizes and competitions including the Somerset Poetry Prize, the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize, the Henry Lawson Prize for Poetry, the Broadway Poetry Prize, and the Sidney Nolan Gallery Poetry Prize. He was awarded an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship in 2001 and an Emerging Writer’s grant from the Australia Council in 2002.

David’s first book of poems To Thalia was published in Five Island Press’ New Poets 10 in 2004.

He is currently working on a collection of poems on the theme of water.

 

Interview with David