Anatomy of Voice – David Musgrave


It happens every so often, I come across a writer who I know is saying so much more than I can fathom, or ever hope to fathom. Queensland Literary Award for Poetry winner, or more specifically the winner of the “State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award” a few weeks ago. A work that is divided into four “partitions”, as Musgrave writes in the Afterword, “The division of the work into ‘partitions’ was modelled on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the most influential Menippean satires in English.” “The Anatomy of Melancholy” first published in 1621 and considered “one of the major documents of modern European civilization” it was republished in 2001 by NYRB Classics. Menippean satire? Britannica to the rescue;

Menippean satire, seriocomic genre, chiefly in ancient Greek literature and Latin literature, in which contemporary institutions, conventions, and ideas were criticized in a mocking satiric style that mingled prose and verse. The form often employed a variety of striking and unusual settings, such as the descent into Hades. Developed by the Greek satirist Menippus of Gadara in the early 3rd century bce, Menippean satire was introduced to Rome in the 1st century bce by the scholar Varro in Saturae Menippeae. It was imitated by Seneca and the Greek satirist Lucian and influenced the development of Latin satire by Horace and Juvenal. The 1st-century-ce Satyricon of Petronius, a picaresque tale in verse and prose containing long digressions in which the author airs his views on topics having nothing to do with the plot, is in the Menippean tradition. A later example is the Satire Ménippée (1594), a French prose and verse satire on the Holy League, the political party of the Roman Catholics, written by several royalists.

David Musgrave, the poet, completed honours at Sydney University, working on Thomas Love Peacock’s Menippean satires, following up with a Ph.D on Menippean Satire after the Renaissance. Unofficially supervised by Bill Maidment in both endeavours, Musgrave speaks of their friendship in the Afterword, which remained until Maidment’s death in 2005. This poetry collection is “a personal tribute” to Bill, “part meditation on voice, part emblem book, part portrait…’

The First Partition, you open to page one and notice a grey heading “host….guest…ghost” it is leaching ink that has been heavily printed on the reverse of the poem itself (in mirror text of course). The headings alone, read them out loud, use a voice, “bull…bill…boil”, or “warm…worm…loam”, or “ear…ere…air” , twenty-four poems in all. Every one containing the word “voice” and each twelve lines in length (three quatrains).

“Voice” a noun and a verb, these poetic definitions are not of “the voice” or “a voice”, we have the “voice of reason”, “to voice your objection” and so much more.

war        wear      were

In the first world war
an Italian officer
ordered his nearly mutinous men
out of the trenches and over the top

Not one of them moved
After he repeated the order
one of the soldiers called out
‘what a beautiful voice’

I think so too
now that you’ve lost your words
now that I cannot hear you
now that your voice shadows the way

The anecdote used in this poem was taken from Mladen Dolar’s “A Voice and Nothing More”, a philosophical theory of the voice.

The Second Partition, contains ten poems, each presented with an “emblem”, let’s use the opening poem as an example, the emblem taken from “Joannes de Boria Moralische Sinn-Bilder” (1698) for a full copy see pages 38-39 here


The text of the poem below the emblem is translated in the “Notes” section of “Anatomy of Voice” and reads;

The Short Life

Life’s rising is also its setting
The cradle itself the grave
many die
before they live
Many must farewell the earth before time
The longest life is not a span long.

As Musgrave points out, in the ‘Notes’ section, “As an emblem is considered a whole, comprising image, and any combination of legend, motto, verse and gloss, all have been provided in the original language with translations”.

The Musgrave poem that accompanies the above emblem is;

They come in the dark to those who listen,
the dead and distant, enemies and friends
crowding the silence with their voices
conjured from nothing but parts of the flesh
and bone memory. Prodigal swarms
lost in the labyrinth of the ear
join us to their shuttering selves,
transporting us across space and time
while we remain as we are, alone.

The remaining nine poems in the Second Partition use each of the lines of the above poem as their opening line (poem two opens “They come in the dark to those who listen”, poem three opens “the dead and distant, enemies and friends” and so on). Each of the remaining nine poems being six lines in length.

The Third Partition, consists of fourteen poems of various lengths and styles and contain footnotes taken from three published articles of Bill Maidment’s, or are taken from letters written by Bill or his wife Marcia to their family from Europe. Each of the fourteen poems comes with extensive notes at the back of the collection. For example, poem “6.” Uses quotes from “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” references to the stained-glass ceiling of the Jubilee Room of NSW Parliament, which housed the Parliamentary Library prior to the 1980’s, and uses lines from John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”.

The breadth of styles used here demands slow reading, contemplation, there is a poem containing morse code, with a message similar to the headings in “The First Partition”. I would suggest reading the “Notes” closely and delving into the referenced texts, it added to my understanding and enjoyment, and the poet’s “Afterword” is also a handy reference tool, giving context to the settings.

The Fourth Partition contains a single twenty-four-line poem, a rumination on memories of Bill Maidment.

This is a wonderfully rich and learned collection, scholarly but personal, Musgrave’s dedication to Maidment, an exploration of “voice”, a definition of “voice” in various forms. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice!” Psalm 130.

Enhanced by the beautiful production with the leaching inks, the reproduction of Renaissance wood-cut engravings of the emblems, original Latin texts, extensive notes, this is one of the highlights of the Australian poetry that has been produced this year. Although I didn’t manage to get to the full shortlist of the Queensland Literary Awards for Poetry, it would have taken something special to have topped this unique collection.

I’ll add a relevant quote that I came across elsewhere whilst reading this collection, although not referenced in the work I think it adds to the definition of “voice”;

Let us paraphrase this to say that the presence of a human voice structures the sonic space that contains it. Michel Chion “The Voice in Cinema”


2 thoughts on “Anatomy of Voice – David Musgrave

  1. Pingback: 2016 Queensland Literary Award winners | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Pingback: Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Six | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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