David Musgrave (b. 1965) traces his ancestry to English and Irish convicts and free settlers who came to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Among his forebears are an American Sea captain from Nantucket, a fifteen year old convict from London, and a colour sergeant from the notorious NSW Corps. Their stories inspire aspects of his work. He is a graduate of the University of Sydney where his PhD thesis was on Menippean satire. He has worked variously as a gardener, night porter, mail sorter, book editor, university lecturer and IT manager. In 2005 he established the independent publishing house Puncher and Wattmann which has since become one of the foremost publishers of Australian poetry, and also of fiction and critical non-fiction. He is an essayist, critic and reviewer and also writes prose fiction.

In On Reflection Musgrave writes of going to the beach ‘with a few stubbies and a volume of Voltaire’. With its casualness and surprising marriage of hedonism and high culture this seems, if not essentially Australian, essentially Musgrave. His poetry moves restlessly between formality and informality, between the serious and the comic, and between the romantic and the ironic. It ranges, in ‘Lagoon’, from the personally and historically informed meditation on his matrilineal forebears who settled the hard country beyond the Blue Mountains in the 1830s – ‘Flat skied, convict-shaped/earth, the barren sweep/from Tanner’s Mount knuckled/with Bathurst quartz, small and obedient/noon shadows: this is where justice/jammed them, impatient and impenitent/forebears transported for a brace/of crimes’ – to the happily parodic humour of the grandly titled ‘On the Inevitable Decline into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician who Reaches Middle Age’ whose only line is, ‘O Sting, where is thy death?’

Musgrave is a formally inventive poet. His second book, On Reflection, includes variously formed sonnets and prose pieces. The prose pieces more comic, the sonnets darker, more internal, they dare comparison and invite interpretation of a young flaneur’s life. His control of tone and line can be seen in the extended monologue ‘Young Montaigne Goes Riding’ in which Montaigne ‘read[s] the steaming/dollops falling from the jouncing nates/of my companion’s horse as I would a text//of some thousand words, theorising/the consistency of excrement/and what it tells us of the teeth, the heart/the firmness of the gut and the contentment/and the clearness of a conscience…’ Montaigne’s prose is versified and reworked to produce a portrait that is at once affectionate, comic, revealing and serious.

Musgrave can be frankly romantic building a poem out of precise observation of nature, apt and surprising images, and an attention to sound as in ‘Skimming Stone’ where ‘Each throw is like/a puckered thread/of kisses pulled from the water/or slaps teasing the patience/of the sea’ or in ‘Wollombi Falls’ where ‘… a thin roar/of falling water tempts us with the knowledge/you can fall only once.’ At the heart of the writing is a belief in the power of words to explain and sustain. As he has said himself: ‘Poetry for me is like what Franz Beckenbauer said about football: it is the most essential of inessential things.’

David Musgrave’s understated, conversational reading leaves room for the poems to make their own voices heard.

David Musgrave’s novel Glissando has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and his poetry collection Phantom Limb for the WA Premier’s Award.

The CD Open Water was recorded in August 2007 in Sydney, Australia by Carol Jenkins for River Road Press. Other material was recorded by Carol Jenkins in June 2009 for The Poetry Archive.

Poems by David Musgrave

Wollomombi Falls - David Musgrave
On the Inevitable Decline into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age - David Musgrave
Young Montaigne goes Riding - David Musgrave

Books by David Musgrave



Grace Leven Prize for Poetry

Prize website