Saturday, June 28, 2008

25. Malvern Road - Michael Hofmann

Malvern Road took me aback. The first few stanzas follow a couple moving in together, their first house, poor but happy, and full of hope. I read the first line, but it slipped from mind until I read the poem (one sentence long over two pages) again:

It’s only a short walk, and we’ll never make it

That’s like a warning to the reader that things aren’t going to turn out too well. The narrator is close to the old house and seems to be addressing his partner years on in L3 with his “Do you remember?” The memory of moving in follows, and then plenty of detail, intimate detail:

the health centre padlocked and grilled like an offie,
the prefab post office set down at an odd angle,
the bank that closed down, the undertaker who stayed open

It looks like a poem of nostalgia, memory of a more hopeful time despite difficulties. And then comes the final few lines, and it’s those which took me aback. They come almost out of the blue, until you go back to that first line and see how it was inevitable all along. But I find those final lines ambiguous and sudden:

…you whimpered comfort to your phantom baby boy
you didn’t have and said you’d mind him, as now,
to my shame, you have and you do.

I’m probably being really thick, but I keep changing my mind on what I think those lines mean. Is the baby no more a phantom than all the other memories he’s outlined? Or are all the memories as much phantoms as the baby?

Or - taking things in a more literal sense - could it be that they lost a baby in the womb and that he's forgotten (surely that's impossible?)? Or that she wanted a baby, he didn't, and she's reminding him of that now - almost as an accusation, and as a kick in the teeth to the romantic nostaligia?

I read a review in which the reviewer said this poem seemed “less finished” than most in this Selected. But I don’t know…I think the jarring suddenness of the close is deliberate and provocative.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if 'the muso downstairs' refers to the character in White Noise .. if it's the same house.


Rob said...

I wondered about that two. In White Noise, he is "two floors away" according to the final stanxa. In Malvern Road, the lines read, "the muso downstairs and on the ground floor/ the night cook with a farouche squint." Not that that proves anything!