Though sometimes better known as an important Australian poetry publisher, David Musgrave is also a very distinctive poet - and rather hard to classify. His seriously-strange novel, Glissando: A Melodrama, is even harder on the taxonomist.
Musgrave's mind ranges widely and certain of his poems, e.g. "Young Montaigne Goes Riding" and "Seaweed", persist in the memory many years after the first reading. His work is coherent not so much through theme or content but through quality, often manifested in strikingly different ways. This may also help to explain his substantial track record in winning poetry prizes.
Musgrave's new book, Numb & Number, is also effectively various. Its three sections gather, in turn, around the autobiographical, the narrative and the subtly polemic. The title poem in the first part may in fact be a monologue but it seems joltingly personal. Its ending could be excessive aesthetically but it's undeniably forceful.
The poem ends: " ... and since we'll never speak again, / it's time to call you out, you piece of shit, /as now at last I have your number: / you're the kind that has to keep on taking, / smart-arsed clerk, your family not enough, / numbing all around you without shame. / Now, you linger in my present. / Having taken what I once thought was my past, I'm glad / you leave me nothing. // I clean my shoe."
The stand-out poem in the second section is "The Transportations of George Bruce", a six-page colonial epic written from the viewpoint of an escaped convict tormented by religious mania. Musgrave employs nineteenth century syntax and diction with considerable authority.
The third part of Numb & Number contains a number of poems addressing climate change. Unlike many in this understandably burgeoning genre, Musgrave's are subtle, even ingenious, and almost always free of cliche.
Perhaps the most telling of them is "Oil: An Elegy", based (but not gratuitously) on Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats". We are familiar with the idea of "Peak Oil" but rarely is it presented as evocatively as this.
There are quite a number of other memorable poems here too - often employing humour and satire. Musgrave captures well, though without disdain, the more "boganesque" aspects of Australian culture. In the ironically-titled "Glamour", for instance, the poet evokes the habitués of an Australian bar: "How rich they seem in the gilding light; / the glittering interlocking rings // left on the table by their drinks; / the lapidary condensation of their beers; / but richer still , the innocent ballet // of lumbering towards the bar, / a complicated dance whose artless steps / they've studied hard to master all these years."
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.