Kylie Rose reviews Phantom Limb by David Musgrave
by David Musgrave
Reviewed by KYLIE ROSE
There are a whole host of haunting pains that torment us for reasons we do not understand and that arrive from we know not where—pains without return address.
It’s a Friday night; my daughter and I are taking turns reading aloud from David Musgrave’s Phantom Limb (foregoing Friday-night-murder-night on the ABC). For over an hour, we’ve been circling its rhymes in pencil, finding familiar surnames, drifting into discussion of our family’s history of amputations and water-deaths. We steer a diffuse, yet steady course in Musgrave’s wake, returning to the title poem, over and over. If I’m honest, Phantom Limb is paining me, and I know not why.
I have a feeling there’s something I’m missing.
Systems, order and logic underpin Musgrave’s body of work. His is an exquisitely constructed and formulated world, where painful emotional states are discharged by creating movement in the reader’s imagination through language and form. Phantom Limb reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s description of formalism being “like asbestos gloves”, allowing the “handling of materials [that can’t be picked] up barehanded”
I’m also reminded of symmetry. In The Brain that Changes Itself, I’ve not long read the chapter on pain, specifically the phantom pains delivered by phantom limbs. I’m carrying an image of my childhood hero, Lord Nelson, who was haunted by the presence of the arm he lost in battle. Nelson concluded the presence of his “phantom limb … was ‘direct evidence for the existence of the soul’ his reasoning that if an arm can exist after being removed, so then might the whole person exist after the annihilation of the body” (Doidge, p180.) Somewhere in my mind, these books are fusing.
I’m at a loss to explain exactly why I feel this sense of symmetry, and its relevance, or why I feel so uneasily at home inside Phantom Limb. Perhaps it has to do with the themes of loss and inversion—the real/invisible; the visible/unreal—where I’m limping, trying to make sense of a fluid resonance that defies tangible borders and rational explanation. I’m immersed in Musgrave’s uncompromisingly real limbo, communing with a host of his, and my “sensory ghosts”, memories and memories’ memories; a watery dreamscape where phantoms and legends converge in incessantly questioning waves.
In “Death by Water 1: Hippasos,” the poem’s geometry and trajectory eloquently configure the fate of the mathematician, Hippasos (reputed discloser of surds and irrational numbers).
to his end —
the perfect beauty
of a theorem and, hidden
within, the outrage of its inexpressible truth.
Disagreeing, the retribution they delivered was swift:
between his knowing and their need
for knowledge, he described
‘Two’ and ‘arc’ (letters away from Greek arche, or the ageless, the eternal) become the terms anchoring and prescribing the poem’s structure, linking all characters and realities in life, death, and the inevitable path of passionate pursuit. Hippasos’ past expresses itself to our present. It lends shape to an inaccessible realm, and returns us through the vehicle of form, to its point of origin, transfigured. The echoes of estranged languages, disciplines and eras are contained, stabilised and bridged within the poem’s triangulation. Beginning and end unite enemies, and resurrect the death-splash of one devoted to proving the irrational truth.
Everything in Phantom Limb feels measured, methodical and precise. Placement is critical within and between poems. Binaries are held in delicate and tense interface. Even when conventions are flouted, they are done so with utmost calculation.
Geometry is at the core of this collection, not only locating the roots of Musgrave’s poetic lineage, but plotting a framework for exploring the way we are generally held in relation to others, and specifically to the cast of fathers (absent, oppressive, lost), forebears, friends, lovers and enemies. In “Death By Water 2,” begins in the present with the speaker, following his line back seven generations, where intimate biographies bob and blur, seeping to the conclusion:
That’s what happens with death by water:
fiction flows into fact and fact into fiction
and rising up in a flood of words
the past spreads out beyond the present
carrying into life its drifting dead.
Phantom Limb expresses and expands the subtleties of interaction and relationship, honing the ‘human geometries’ defined in the opening poem, “Open Water.” How, why and to whom we are connected are overarching concerns.
In the title poem, we are introduced to one such relational puzzle.
My enemy reminds me of my father
Present in this linear equation are in fact the three points of an archetypal, yet mysterious, love triangle. The meter and consonance set in motion from the outset, create a desire to solve (and resolve) this problem.
“Who is the enemy?” my daughter asks.
I follow the iambic footprints, trying to discover the elusive feet that pose them.
He is a length of mind
which has no end. He harvests anger
and his name is myth.
I’m wary of speculation. There appears a literal answer to this riddle, and yet a deeper legend returns, arriving — as does the pain in a phantom limb — from an unknown source, accessed in dream. Congruent with the poem’s speaker, I fall asleep at this point, Phantom Limb beside me. And when I wake, a searing memory of Plath and her Daddy return as if from dream, along with a quote of Susan Stewart’s:
Poetic making is an anthropomorphic project; the poet undertakes the task of recognition in time – the unending tragic Orphic task of drawing the figure of the other – the figure of the beloved who reciprocally can recognise one’s own figure – out of the darkness. The poet’s tragedy is the fading of the referent in time, in the impermanence of what is grasped…(p2)
like a tingling nose before the lie
…an itch where nothing itched before,
A phantom absence: the limb I never knew I had, excised.
I didn’t expect to find Sylvia’s ‘ich, ich, ich’ so itchingly, hauntingly close to Musgrave’s assonant ‘I’, reanimating a classical paradigm. What did I expect?
I don’t know.
And that is what I am in love with in Musgrave’s work — the invitation to risk and curiosity. What do I know? Nowhere near as much as Musgrave, and that’s why Phantom Limb simultaneously terrifies and excites me. Momentarily I’m paralysed, awed, imagining my mind as some form of prosthesis for his formidable muses—an inadequate, stump-mind limping to allow the full intellectual flexion between painfully dislocated realities.
My daughter rescues me, cantering through “Young Montaigne Goes Riding,” and I’m captivated anew by ‘que scais-je’? We follow the sustained metrical clop through twenty three sestets adhering to an unconventional abcbca scheme, precociously, inventively coupling words—‘mine/ Saturnine, Aristotle/ battle, excrement/contentment’—echoing the pairing of this prodigious mind and its ‘jouncing nate’. Musgrave’s jaunty and crude, yet erudite Montaigne refines and deepens his physical and philosophical seat, as he and his flight animal traverse the ‘oblique paths’ of thought and discourse discovering, as do we, a steadiness and balance in mutable terrains. Mercurial Montaigne and steed, poem and reader align within the strictures of form discovering liberty within constraint and arriving at the possibility one may ‘revolve within’.
Revolution is a key theme. Within “A Glass of Water” the world of opposites elegantly reverse and wed. What the ‘mirror harbours … the harbour mirrors’. Polarities tumble in the half glass of water, stationed on the unstable railing ‘in the failing/ afternoon light’. All angles, all eventualities exist
down inside the glass, and the newly weds,
seen from outside
joining hand to hand for the wedding reel,
glide under its meniscus, head over heels.
Water is Musgrave’s primary element, and it is little wonder. He returns to what is no longer, unravelling, and restlessly, relentlessly pursues reflection — kindred to his imagined Odysseus, seeking solace and release in the ‘ever-many, the sun-deceiving/ faithful, all-embracing sea’. It is the measure (‘beat up, beat down, iambic swell’) of his investigation of those shifting human states of which he is a meticulously observant part; the perfect element through which to navigate his exacting exploration, as it manifests in liquid, solid and gas.
Water mirrors our habitation of different tenses and states, changing phase, speed and direction, expressing itself in myriad bodies and coursing through this collection, tethering disparate histories, identities and ideas. Inevitably, water begs return, and likewise, Musgrave’s poems bespeak a need for resolution, even if the wholeness sought remains elusive, waded only in dream-swell, as in ‘Bodies of Water’.
I’ve seen how, like a dream
that keeps returning
we move from state to state,
water flowing through us,
we through water,
a consciousness, a breath.
As a child, I fell in love with a number of waterborne heroes — from Jason and the Argonauts to Nelson. In hindsight, I was drawn into their worlds because they so generously mapped the vast and inexplicable terrains of humanity I was barely conscious of, yet so compelled to explore. I loved what I did not know but felt, unfathomably, to be true. Maybe I understand a little better now the symmetry I feel between Musgrave and Nelson’s phantoms and I am haunted, happily, by the uncomfortably consoling echo of ‘Rain’s closing lines.
And when it rains
the earth still aches:
it is never enough,
still it is never enough.
Open, resting on my bed between my sleeping daughter and myself, Phantom Limb leaves me with an uneasy realisation I’m missing much, yet a tingling sense that reconnection to a mysterious, vast absence is possible. I will return, over and over, to Musgrave’s poems, even though I feel it will be never enough, never enough, to fully appreciate the true depth of their intricacy, beauty and wisdom.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Melbourne: Scribe 2010. 179
Rich, Adrienne: The Making Of A Poem; A Norton Anthology, Eds. Strand & Boland. 287
Susan Stewart, Poetry and the fate of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 2
KYLIE ROSE lives in Maitland with her four children. Her work has been recognized in the Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Roland Robinson Award. She won the Lake Macquarie Literary Award, and has received fellowships from Varuna, The Writers’ House.