A review of On Reflection by David Musgrave

Reviewed by Harold Legaspi

On Reflection
by David Musgrave
Puncher & Wattmann
First Published 2005, reprinted 2019, $19.95aud, 89pp, IBSN: 9781922186744

David Musgrave is a man with many hats: father, poet, novelist, critic, scholar, as well as managing the independent publishing house Puncher & Wattmann, which recently published its 100th title. Musgrave’s On Reflection: A Twenty-Twenty Vision was his first written book, but for various reasons became his second book of poetry (ten have been published), and was published a decade after it was written. On Reflection imagines a portrait of a ‘reluctant poet-hero’ as a young flaneur at the centre of natural causes negotiating ‘non-events’ of his ‘eventful day’. The book could be characterised as Menippean satire [1] not in a sense that it is an attack on mental attitudes per se, rather than the way its mixture of poetry and prose illuminate possibilities & makes new connections, representative of a true poet.

‘People often think of satire negatively: for me, it is joyous and celebratory…’
~ David Musgrave, ‘Melodic Melodrama’, Bookseller + Publisher, April 2010 

The book is dedicated to his mother and to the memory of his father, and is essentially concerned, like his other works, with the broader memory of a culture and the ways that a human being can inhabit it. The book opens with a translation of a poem, ‘First Meetings’, by the Russian poet Arseny Tarkovsky:

You were
Bolder and lighter than the wing
Of a bird, down stairs like vertigo
You ran over steps and led through
Humid lilacs into your domain
From that side of the looking glass.

The translation of the poem functions as an epigraph, to the flaneur-protagonist, who is ‘bolder and lighter than the wing of a bird’, a mythological character [2], ‘[running] over steps’, ‘in [his] domain’, with ‘an accidental gaze’ [3], ‘from that side of the looking glass’, whereupon he experiences love, grief, loss and joy. 

The ‘tenor’ of’ Musgrave’s ‘thoughts’ are underpinned by ‘grotesqueries’ of the world he sees, but consciously ‘turns’ toward more specific and appealing possibilities: ‘the pastoral’, ‘love-sick cupboards’, ‘the intimacy of fingernails’, ‘wander[ing] outdoors’, ‘raindrops laughing down’. He does this to lift the ‘banal flavours into something like the sublime’.  In one of the poems, late on a night out, where going home is the least favourable option, he flips a coin to decide if he should go to a pub or not. Whereupon the coin falls down the drain, ‘he interprets’ this as a ‘promising sign’. And Instead ‘he walks home determined to save money and ignore the houri-like taxis…’ and ‘by way of compromise…buys a bottle of ginger beer from the 7-11 on the homeward stretch.’ Musgraves’ prose-poetry stun with its witticisms, and move through peaks and troughs of moods; his ‘negative optimism’ at its core, as he seemingly reconciles his head with his heart, opting for the best scenario to the worst that can happen.

fortune waits on disaster, huddled
like a cunning rat, falling like
an afternoon where death has failed to leave
its mark, instead impressing scents on cars,
the failed telephone call, the elusive taxis
with bone-grim drivers searing past lonely
gutters at 3am; all a part
of that fantastic dance, that backward glance.

Perhaps the jesting tone in Musgrave’s musing allies himself with the likes of Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, Dave Eggers and James Joyce, with their successful satiric representations, their objection to the status quo (however morally correct), by being ‘its critic, its antagonist, its scourge’ [4]. Musgrave jokes with serious cadence in another poem: ‘Shakespeare is a metaphor of our inadequacy, [of] our actions so that we cannot conceive of beating his collective genius’.  He continues: ‘If not / Shakespeare, then what else?’ Across the page, ‘a conversation with his friend’ over a beer recourse to ‘a general discussion of literature, their usual topic of last resort’.  And, ‘as expected, the conversation doesn’t last very long and they soon part company.’ Does not this depiction of a beer with a friend encapsulate the state of literature at play even today? i.e.it is short-lived. Poetically, he concludes:

Consort with paranoia
and what you get is pain, an overreaching
drive to cancel little setbacks, fuck
the strange ambitions that make life suck.

The book provides picturesque reflections of the quotidian, extended in sonnet-form, and is nostalgic: ‘his mother…as usual, graciously critical…is pleased by the pleasure [of] his visit[s]’; ‘he goes for walks, passing his childhood haunts’, and at times ‘throw[s] himself into work’. The death of his father is ‘painful’ and ‘surreal’; a grief ‘that cannot be heightened or diminished by the embellishment of words’.  It is only through scanning the library I came across a poem titled ‘The Dead’, written for his late father, which bears the wisdom of his passing. It begins thus:

He has come back
He has come from outside himself to assume
The proportions of dream, in a city of symbols falling
from deliverance, offered up to speech.

And ends thus:

Books are no consequence,
He can no longer read. He understands
The weather and is interested in me.
Nights come by from time to time, but mostly
Days with a hard-yellowness fix themselves
In his eye. He wears the clothes of a family
Man and has no need for food. He needs
Only a little time, enough for love.
He only wants to talk. [5]

The scenario whereby his dead father ‘has come back’, but ‘only wants to talk’, whereby ‘books are no consequence’ because ‘he can no longer read’, illuminates us, particularly writers, poets, to the importance of being present. One is forced to re-think the focus/value of one’s art/practise, in light of the deeply significant encounter with the late father of Musgrave, back from the place we cannot visit. That purple void. Perhaps the skies have descended, and we, like him, ‘only [have] a little time, enough for love’.

On Reflection is a novelty. It is beautiful, delicate and memorable. The collection sweeps along philosophising possibilities, inventing life with breath-taking consciousness. In its own right, it reminds us to remain centred—in a word: read Musgrave.

[1] Menippean satire is a radically a radically heterogenous literary form, usually characterised by a mixture of poetry and prose that can be said to have originated with Menippus, a third century BC Greek Cynic. Ancient examples of the form include The Satyricon, The Apocolocyntosis of Seneca, The Emperor Julian’s The Caesars, later examples include Alice in Wonderland, The Waste Land, Midnight’s Children, Cat’s Cradle, some of the deconstructive works of Derrida.

[2] Grøtta, Marit. Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics the Gaze of the Flâneur and 19th Century Media, Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2015, pp. 3.

[3] ibid.

[4] Ball, John Clement. ‘Pessoptimism: Satire and the Menippean Grotesque in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.’ ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 24, no. 1, 1988, pp. 61–81, doi:10.1353/esc.1988.0005.

[5] Musgrave, David. ‘Poems: Dew, To Thalia, The Dead, For Zoe Margaret Fenton-Smith, On Her Christening’, Journal of Australian Studies, 01 January 2004, Vol.28(82), pp.118-125.

About the reviewer: Harold Legaspi is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. His writing has been published in Australia and abroad. Apart from being the General Editor for ARNA, he is also the Founding Editor of, Lite Lit One, a bi-annual online journal of fiction and poetry. His book, Letters in Language, was the runner-up in the 2019 Puncher & Wattmann Prize for a First Book of Poetry. Harold was shortlisted for the 2018 CA WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writers’ Fellowship. Find out more about Harold at: https://haroldjlegaspi.wixsite.com/home