Eldershaw : Stephen Edgar
SHORTLISTED FOR THE PRIME MINISTER'S LITERARY AWARDS 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE QUEENSLAND LITERARY AWARDS 2013
a high point of Australian poetry
Geoffrey Lehmann, The Weekend Australian
Then he went through her bits of jewellery,
Such as the girls had left, her purse, her perfumes,
Her make-up bag, in which among the tweezers,
Lipsticks, eye pencils, creams, one folded tissue
Presented to his gaze the perfect form
Of her pursed lips in pink, on which, he knew,
A few forensic cells of her still clung...
A children’s game in an overgrown garden is the first hint of a troubling presence in the old house ‘Eldershaw’. But is the haunting a memory of the past inscribed in the stonework or a discord the occupants have brought with them?
At the heart of Stephen Edgar’s compelling new collection are three interlinked narrative poems ranging forwards and backwards in time from the Second World War to the present day. Drawing on personal experience, reimagined and transformed through the lens of fiction, they enact those charged episodes which shape and scar the lives of several characters. From the dim rooms of ‘Eldershaw’, to the recollected infernos of war, to the uncanny waters of a seaside pool, these narratives affect us with a moving and haunting power.
The book is completed by sixteen shorter lyrics in Edgar’s more characteristic manner, some glancing at or directly treating themes from the narratives.
The cornerstone of this collection is a brilliant verse novel exploring both a love affair and the uncanny events that impinge on it. It is a narrative written under the pressure of complex and conflicted experiences rather than to order and the difference shows in the vitality of the writing
Martin Duwell and Philip Neilsen, judges, Queensland Literary Awards (2013)
These pungent and brightly coloured fragments of more than a dozen people’s lives are a sustained single narrative, a wonderful love poem and elegy for a woman, Helen, viewed through the eyes of Luke, her lover... The final dateless narrative, ‘The Pool’, is intensely emotional and a high point of Australian poetry.
Geoffrey Lehmann, The Weekend Australian
an extract from the poem "Eldershaw"
The Warwick Review (UK), December 2013
In three superb narrative poems, Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw moves like a Jamesian novel through the lives of its troubled characters. Eldershaw is an old country house, and in searching for the ghosts who haunt the house, we are clearly in the same territory as The Turn of the Screw: are these hauntings part of the fabric of the house, or the hysteria of the inhabitants? The epigraph—Novalis’s “character is destiny”—offers the first clue.
Helen is the central figure in the sequence, knowing the house as both child and grown woman. She appears in the first poem, ‘Eldershaw’, when her husband buys her childhood home. Her own children play in the wild overgrown garden, running among the plants in a trance-like nakedness, “beautiful corrupted angels”. Nakedness recurs throughout the poems. Ghosts seem to haunt the children, though Helen’s husband dismisses such talk with dismissive rationality: “‘I’d say the girls // Are feeding on your own anxieties.’” Helen concludes that she has “been the one // On whom the ghosts of Eldershaw had fed”.
‘Eldershaw’, and then ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘The Pool’, move on to an ever-widening circle of family and friends, sexual and ghostly crossovers in a world of liminal uncertainties. In Helen’s marriage, the sexual ambiguity becomes most damaging when a male homosexual friend moves in. At first, Helen believes that the oppressive spirit “lodging in her heart” is the house. Now, recognising her husband’s secret homosexuality, she admits “The incubus that suckled at her life // And withered her was not the house itself, // It was her marriage”. “‘I want him out,’” she screams at her husband, and his “‘Don’t be hysterical’” suggests the Jamesian theme, as does her reply when he taunts her about seeing ghosts: “‘I didn’t say // It was a ghost. I just said what I felt, // And heard and saw.’”
Whether this is hysteria or the spirit world, it leaks through into the lives which are entwined in this rich narrative, a “‘bewitchment’” that follows Helen to the grave. Eldershaw closes with sixteen lyrics in Edgar’s more familiar style, some reflecting the themes of the longer poems, but the heart of the collection is definitely the blank verse narratives. Their achievement is considerable. English poets have found blank verse difficult ever since Wordsworth, not having the relaxed, idiomatic tradition which makes Frost’s longer poems so powerful. Edgar makes the form his own, not least with the music of the occasional rhymes and sound patterns and the subtle use of allusion: the house being “full of noises,” the “darkness visible” of Milton hinting delicately at Golding’s own use of the quotation. These are poems that deserve and reward repeated readings, a fine kind of haunting.
Linda Weste (poet and academic)
Mascara Literary Review, December 2013
Publishers are not usually champions of narrative verse: it is not sufficient that writers of poetic narratives have literary history on their side. None would deny the pre-eminence of literary antecedent: the verse narratives that arose in each period - be it antiquity, the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, the Victorian era, or modern times - are exemplars essential to the canon and remain in readership.
Small presses as a rule, are more willing to include contemporary verse narratives among their titles. Any style of narrative poetry may seek a place, but in a discerning literary market, a collection of the calibre of Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw, by virtue of its formal accomplishment, asserts that prerogative, and is vouchsafed a welcome reception.
Edgar is conversant with the narrative poems valorised in western literature long before prose novels became an institutionalised genre. The technical elements of poetry accumulated over centuries are at his disposal, and he employs them with grace and ease. The process by which a poetic narrative emerges, unique, from each poet’s individualised treatment of elements and themes always inspires a sense of awe, and Edgar’s poems are distinctive; resolute in the contemporaneity of their storytelling, and full of references to the natural world, a feature for which his poetry is widely regarded.
Eldershaw comprises three long interlinked narrative poems spanning seventy-three pages in Part I, and a further sixteen single page lyric poems in Part II which in some measure link to the larger narrative. Part I has three sections: the first shares the volume’s title ‘Eldershaw’ and comprises nine segments set in the years 1941-1965; these have a non linear order that begins with 1955 and ends with 1961. The events in this story pertain to vicissitudes in the lives of twelve discernible characters, but focus in particular on the high and low moments of the central character Helen, who, twelve years after meeting Martin in London, finds herself unhappily married, with two daughters. Martin is attracted to men, and Helen’s affair with Lex over a period of years attracts detriment in Martin’s lawsuit; she loses both house and custody. In the later years, from 1961-65, after Lex has an affair with Vera, Helen lives alone in a Sydney flat, and the events of this period include a trip to Greece.
The second section of the verse narrative has a further seventeen pages in seven subsections with titles such as ‘April 1945. Evan. Fire’ and ‘November 2000. Isabel. Water.’ This cycle of poems, thematically framed by the title, The Fifth Element, conjures space, heaven, void, aether, quintessence - words used to describe ‘heavenly’ phenomena like stars or other supposedly unknowable, unchangeable, or incorruptible entities. ‘Character is destiny’ - Edgar cites George Eliot citing Novalis, in the preface to the book, and we are drawn to what is vital about life, about energy, that is manifest in the fabric of these characters’ lives.
The third section, titled ‘The Pool’ provides a physical and emotional locus from which Luke [with whom the older Helen has had an affair] contemplates life, following Helen’s death. These poems draw attention to the miscellany of lives lived. ‘The Tapes’ recounts a drunken recording found among Helen’s possessions, and ‘The Papers’ refers to the documentation that gathers over a lifetime, and which stands in for Helen’s physical absence. Materiality is prominent, too, in ‘The Annexe’, one of sixteen shorter poems in Part II. The poem pans cinematically over the furnishings in a room: an Afghan rug, a television, a sofa and window blinds; nondescript, commonplace, generic, their qualities do not matter; they are objects that outlast us. What remains? The narrator of ‘Vertigo’ asks (105) ‘Are not your own / Made of the same and failing elements?’ (105)
Indeed the book makes much of material remains. In references to a Minoan comb, a crushed fossil, the detritus of millenia, Edgar’s narrative poems connect present to past. Edgar’s study of Classics finds synthesis in a host of classical allusions such as ‘Some drowned god drags your foot off Sounion’ (107) that imbue line, stanza, and narrative with mythical and allegorical constructions of place - the magnificent Cape Sounion of now with its temple dedicated to Poseidon, and the cliffs from whence Aegus leapt to his death, a narrative event in Homer’s Odyssey.
‘A Hansel and Gretel pathway’ (7) - an intertextual, thematic construction of place - leads to the site of Helen’s historic family home, Eldershaw; a distinctively Australian bush setting with its ‘embassy of possums’ (8). In ‘Lost World’ (108) Edgar maps loss onto place as he describes, without sentimentality, fire’s devastation of a home that could be Eldershaw: the roar of bushfire ‘dragged by the vacuum it creates, / Swarms up the slope into the sky’s / Exhausted limit, where a cottage waits. / ...Trees thrash and, one by one, volatize. / Paint bubbles from the walls. The rooms explode. / Fragments of melted window strafe / The lawn like wept and frozen tears’ (108).
In an age inclined to posit verse narratives as anachronistic, to produce a work such as Eldershaw takes resolve. Only painstaking refinement enables contemporaneous words such as ‘tweezers’, ‘bureaucratic business’, ‘garage’, ‘home-made Florentines’, ‘truck’, ‘curtain’ and ‘landlady’ to perch comfortably at the ends of metrical lines - a good many of which contain the requisite number of syllables and feet for iambic pentameter, while occasional lines accommodate a triple foot with an extra syllable at the end. The rhythmic momentum of blank verse brings buoyancy to unfolding events in the verse narrative, and complements Edgar’s accomplished application of metre.
Reading verse narratives can take resolve too, if one prefers prose, but narrative verse in English is not inherently harder to read than narrative prose. One challenge with Eldershaw may be to keep track of the inter-generational characters across the entirety of the narrative. Faced with its non-linear discourse some readers may reconstitute the chronological sequence, while others will enjoy the free association and fusion of time-planes in memory, and the corresponding emphasis on existential and psychological concerns.
‘What compels writers to produce a verse narrative?’ Edgar once mused. Now he has contributed to the longest tradition in literature in English. Eldershaw, constructed with great complexity, economy, and clarity, serves to demonstrate the staying power of verse narratives, despite contemporary preferences.
Aspects of Australian Poetry in 2012
Westerly, Issue 58:1, June 2013
At the formal end of narrative poetry Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw makes elegant, thoughtful reading, the blank verse suited to Edgar’s thematic preoccupations with Time, apparition, memory, history, loss. Edgar is able to change gear from speculative to piquant (see the conversation about fellatio between Sasha and Helen) to dramatic intensity as in the poem ‘1961’ when Martin intrudes on Helen and Lex. Edgar excels in convincing detail and interior monologue; he uses flashback, elements of dialogue and an episodic sequence extracting fictional elements and hybridising these with his voluptuous elaboration of language. His new and selected collection, The Red Sea, evokes the passage of contemplative exile in which the lyric is nuanced by a subtle ethics. The quietness and complexity of Edgar’s poetry, its syntactical challenge to postmodern tropes, is a rare accomplishment.
Lovers dance through time
Geoffrey Lehmann (poet, co-editor of Australian Poetry Since 1788)
The Weekend Australian, 15 June 2013
Stephen Edgar, who was born in Sydney in 1951, has an international reputation as one of the most accomplished formalist poets writing in English. Eldershaw marks a watershed in his work.
Together with 16 shorter rhyming lyrics (more typical of his intricate and constrained style), there are three linked narrative poems spanning more than 70 pages. These narratives in unrhymed blank verse, ranging in time from World War II to the start of the present century, have allowed Edgar to break through into a more explicit expression of emotion.
They can be confusing, with their complicated time lines and multiplicity of characters. But at the end you realise these pungent and brightly coloured fragments of more than a dozen people’s lives are a sustained single narrative, a wonderful love poem and elegy for a woman, Helen, viewed through the eyes of Luke, her lover.
The publisher’s blurb describes these narratives as ‘drawing on personal experience, reimagined and transformed through the lens of fiction’. This gives them an authenticity and power they would not have if they were pure fiction.
The first narrative, ‘Eldershaw’, has nine parts with dates as the only headings. It starts with ‘1955’. Helen and her husband, Martin, have bought the ‘haunted house’ of Helen’s Tasmanian childhood, Eldershaw. They have two children, Sally and Claire, dancing naked among the rhododendrons, singing about imaginary friends called deppites.
Then ‘1941’ follows, giving a glimpse of Helen, on the edge of puberty, immersed in the bush around Eldershaw.
The next section is another ‘1955’. We get the first hint that Helen’s marriage is dead at its heart. Abandoned for the evening by Martin, who prefers a night out with the ‘boys’, she screams at a ghost in the back flat of Eldershaw.
This is followed by ‘1965’, ‘1957’, ‘1945’, ‘1959’, ‘1963’ and finally ‘1961’. The high point is ‘1945’ with the description of Helen naked on her honeymoon, ‘with her gleaming breasts’ as ‘great washes of white water surged around her’, and Martin ‘naked as she, calf-deep in the bubbling swirl’, balancing with the camera, taking snaps.
As Edgar presents us with these slices of time, like biopsies on a glass slide, we discover that Martin prefers men to Helen. He encourages her affair with his client Lex. Then he sues for divorce on the basis of her adultery, and gets Helen’s share in Eldershaw and custody of Claire and Sally. Helen’s cup of bitterness is drained dry when Lex dumps her for another woman.
The second narrative, ‘The Fifth Element’, set in Sydney, again has dates at the head of each section and the chronology jumps around. It tells the story of Evan, a psychologically damaged World War II bomber pilot, and his baby-boomer children Angela and Luke. In a section headed ‘November 1980. Luke’, Luke is having dinner with Helen and hears on the phone about his father’s death. Apart from this casual reference to Helen, there is no link between the first and second narratives.
The third narrative, ‘The Pool’, has no dates and begins after Helen’s death. We discover that Luke and Helen have had a love affair over many years.
There are flashbacks: Helen seducing Luke, ‘Helen had stood up / And, heading for the fridge apparently, / Had kissed him slowly on the mouth, and stopped / And looked at him, then led him by the hand / Along the long and unlit corridor’; Luke waking late at night when he hears a ‘sudden rush of wings and a panicked starling’, to discover Helen is dead; the disposal of Helen’s things:
Then he went through her bits of jewellery,
Such as the girls had left, her purse, her perfumes,
Her make-up bag, in which among the tweezers,
Lipsticks, eye pencils, creams, one folded tissue
Presented to his gaze the perfect form
Of her pursed lips in pink, on which, he knew,
A few forensic cells of her still clung...
This image appears again at the end of a sonnet, ‘Inarticulate’, that is one of the accompanying 16 lyrics:
And in your purse, imprinted on a tissue,
Your red lips waiting in a folded smile
Will show themselves as lost for words as I.
What contributes to the almost unbearable poignancy of the romance between Helen and Luke is their age difference. She is old enough to be his mother. With a restraint worthy of Henry James, Edgar does not mention this. But it is apparent from the elaborate dating of the sections in the first two narratives.
The final dateless narrative, ‘The Pool’, is intensely emotional and a high point of Australian poetry. In it Helen and Luke’s love exists outside time, except that Helen dies.
Stephen Edgar: Eldershaw
Australian Poetry Review, 1 June 2013
The title poem of Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw is a three-part verse narrative which, nearly eighty pages long, makes up more than two-thirds of the book. The final twenty-five pages is a collection of poems described, on the back cover, as being ‘in Edgar’s more characteristic manner’. The narrative, ‘Eldershaw’, is a brilliant piece of ‘uncanny’ fiction focussed on the Tasmanian home of the grandparents of the central character, Helen. She and her husband - a successful lawyer - rebuy it in the mid-fifties and, almost immediately, become prey to disturbing events the most affecting of which is finding their two little daughters dancing naked in the backyard singing, mysteriously, ‘Dep-pites! a-Darra-dan!’. Both partners end up behaving badly (certainly madly) and divorce messily. Helen later takes up with the much younger Luke whose family history forms the basis of the second part. Luke’s father is one of those victims of war (he flew Mosquitoes in raids over Germany) whose later life is a process of denial and almost self-willed deadness interspersed by eruptions of traumatic memory. The final section of ‘Eldershaw’ deals with Luke’s responses to Helen’s death and records instances of the way her presence asserts itself: he finds a tape on which she had, unwittingly, recorded herself while drunk; he reads her extensive diaries; clearing out her things he finds, among her make-up, a tissue imprinted with her lipstick kiss; and, most importantly, wakes in the night with a clear vision of her sleeping alongside him only to find that she disappears the moment he tries to touch her.
Described like this, ‘Eldershaw’ seems not much more than a melange of topoi from the genre of uncanny fiction, even down to alluding to the sinister and equivocal children of The Turn of the Screw and having a central character (in this case, Luke) who is resistant to any suggestion of the occult. But the whole poem works alarmingly well. Unlike a conventional genre piece, it is alive and convincing at every point, crackling with engagement and intensity. Working out why this should be the case is a tricky critical issue.
It can’t be put down to superlative narrative skills on Edgar’s part since there isn’t much in his seven earlier collections to prepare us for this movement into narrative. True, there is an early ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ and there is also ‘King Pepi’s Treasure’ from the 1995 volume, Corrupted Treasures. Written in the same brisk blank verse as ‘Eldershaw’, this latter poem also visits the familiar landscapes of the uncanny in that it is a search for a missing text - in this case a Victorian short story referred to in the footnote of a scholarly book. The ‘rules of the labyrinth’ apply: the harder the narrator searches using correct bibliographic procedures, the more the book in which the story appears recedes - even the British Library has mislaid it. Eventually, when all desire to find it has been leached away, the narrator stumbles on it in a secondhand bookshop in London only to find that the short story has been physically cut from the volume. Like much of the uncanny it can be read as an allegory of the search for textual meaning: so much is promised ultimately to be endlessly deferred, the text continually slipping out of reach. And there is much about ‘King Pepi’s Treasure’ which is obsessed by text: the narrator as a child is fascinated by his first experience of cursive script - ‘the ‘running writing’ he could never catch’ - and fills pages with imitation scripts which he hopes will, one day, have a meaning. After his father’s death, he reads, in a late letter, not an act of communication from the father but a textual substitute for emotions:
An offering of uninformative,
Embarrassed platitudes which gestured at
Some more remote sense of what might be said,
For which the act of writing in itself
Would have to be the formal substitute,
So touching, so profoundly not himself.
Just like the face presented by his coffin,
If ‘King Pepi’s Treasure’ could be about deferred textual meanings, we also learn enough about the central character’s love-life to see that desire, too, is about receding and ultimately unreachable goals: touching his lover’s body he is visited by the image of a babushka doll hiding ever smaller dolls within:
Continually deferring the embrace,
Continually receding from his hold
Towards the central space in the final doll
Still moulded by its absence in her shape.
There are other related readings as well. Perhaps this is not so much about text generally as about poetic text. Perhaps, even, bearing in mind the sceptical protagonist of ‘Eldershaw’, it is about the occult (or any religion which harnesses the miraculous) which continually leads would-be adepts on with promises of revelation only to present them in the end, when the curtains are finally whisked aside, with an empty temple.
Another reason for approaching ‘Eldershaw’ by this roundabout path is that ‘King Pepi’s Treasure’ connects with ‘The Secret Life of Books’, a ‘more characteristic’ poem which immediately precedes it. It is a poem which turns text from being a controlled human tool into a dimension with its own agenda:
The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph
Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.
They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.
I dwell on this at length because it encapsulates in a small ambit what might be one way of approaching Edgar’s work as a whole. In other words, there is an entire corpus of poems in Edgar’s previous books which stand in the same relationship to ‘Eldershaw’ that ‘The Secret Life of Books’ might be said to have to ‘King Pepi’s Treasure’.
We have met Luke’s father, for example, as early as Edgar’s first book, Queuing for the Mudd Club, published in 1985. ‘Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures’ is an early example of a characteristic shift in Edgar whereby reality is frozen or illuminated into art: that is - land becomes landscape. But the landscape here is an expressionist one, encapsulating the deadness of the relationship between father and son in an imagined painting of ‘Grey road and river, grey / Sky gumming the interstices of trees, / The buildings pasted flatly like screens...’ When we are told:
Those fingers now are fused
Beyond prising. He’ll not be reached through them.
The rigours that made him are emptied and set
By. That expression is closed to appeal
And the closed eyes are focussed in a different
I’m not absolutely sure whether this is because the father is emotionally dead inside or actually, physically dead, but the fact that ‘Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures’ is followed immediately by ‘Patrimony: Four Poems on my Father’s Death’ suggests that it may well be the latter. The first poem of Edgar’s second book, Ancient Music (1988) dwells on his father’s old 78s, accumulated before the war but never played after: ‘All secrets were quite safe / In our technology of silence’, it says, ‘He couldn’t speak to me, nor I / To him.’
Above all we have met Helen continually throughout Edgar’s poetry and a great number of the events of ‘Eldershaw’ have found their way into earlier lyric expression. She is clearly based on Edgar’s late former partner, Ann Jennings, known to all readers of Australian poetry from Gwen Harwood’s much-loved ‘An Impromptu for Ann Jennings’. She is the dedicatee of the first book and the posthumous dedicatee of Edgar’s fifth book, Lost in the Foreground, published the year after her death in 2002. The first poems of the first book, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Boobook Owl’ and ‘Home Comforts’, might well be about their life together but after 2002 she becomes increasingly the focus - at least the emotional focus - of Edgar’s poetry moving it from a set of elegantly formal meditations about art, life, time, the future, our genes (and so on) into a poetry which seems - to me at least - to be trying to deal with an oppressive and disturbing subject that continually demands consideration, rather like the house’s protests in ‘Eldershaw’. Lost in the Foreground concludes with a comparatively conventional elegy, ‘Elemental’:
The body’s graces which you graced
Are irretrievably effaced,
And all you were that now is not,
And will no more, resolves to what
These gathered memories can make
From shreds of pleasure and heartache.
The lines around your eyes and lips,
The gestures of your fingertips,
Those limbs that love moved and desire
Are disembodied now like fire.
By the time of Other Summers (2006) she (or, more precisely, her absence) is a major recurring theme. There is an extended suite of ten disparate poems, ‘Consume My Heart Away’, devoted to getting to grips with the experience of loss from different angles.* It carries as an epigraph Francesca’s famous comment that there is nothing so bleak as recalling times of happiness in a time of woe, coupled with a comment from Durrell’s Justine: ‘I saw that pain itself was the only food for memory’. Two of these poems are especially fine. ‘History of the House’ - again the title specifically recalls ‘Eldershaw’ - deals with ghostly presences and the way that while the central character needs to be free of them in general (‘Switch off the radio, / Enough of ghosts...’) he cannot be free of her, specifically (‘She will not be denied. / The ghost of her is too much to ignore, / More stubborn to remain since she is gone’). ‘Man on the Moon’ is a magnificent piece of poetic indirection where the sight of the moon recalls the experience of seeing the moon landing which itself moves, with the obsessive logic of love, to thinking about the way the lover was ‘in the world then and alive’ and how love makes an accidental crossing of paths seem a destined meeting. The conclusion:
The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe
That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.
brings us back to Dante, I think, in recalling the circle of the moon in Paradiso. And there is also a wonderful ambiguity in that ‘Don’t smile’ which might, in its defence, be addressed to the reader but, as we all know, is really addressed to the dead lover (since we never stop speaking to those we have truly loved) and thus is a neat and wry contradiction of the last line.
Visitations and memories continue. In ‘Her Smile’ (from later in Other Summers) an old video is recovered showing her in ‘the years before you met / When you were not alive to her, / Nor she to you’, a story retold in ‘Eldershaw’. ‘2.00’ from History of the Day (2009) tells the story of awaking to the sensation that she is lying next to him, the ‘visitation’ with which ‘Eldershaw’ concludes, and ‘Nocturnal’ from the same book is based on the experience of hearing her voice accidentally recorded on tape. It also includes the story of Jenning’s being disturbed by a sinister presence not long after buying the house. This poem is thickened by the fact that the tape itself is a recording of Gwen Harwood, a dead friend of both Jennings and Edgar, reciting ‘Suburban Sonnet’. In other words it has a frame that doubles the experience of being visited by the voice of the dead. It’s the closest that these more conventional poems get to the world of ‘Eldershaw’:
Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
Those who are not, who once had been?
At that old station on North Head
Inmates still tread the boards,
Or something does; equipment there records
The voices in the dormitories and wards,
Although it’s years abandoned. Undeleted,
What happened is embedded and repeated,
Or so they say. And that would not faze you
Who always claimed events could not escape
Their scenes, recorded as on tape
In matter and played back anew
To anyone attuned
To that stored energy, that psychic wound.
You said you heard the presence which oppugned
Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion
In your lost house. I scarcely need persuasion,
So simple is this case. Here in the dark
I listen, tensing in distress, to each
Uncertain fragment of your speech,
Each desolate, half-drunk remark
You uttered unaware
That this cassette was running and would share
Far in the useless future your despair
With one who can do nothing but avow
You spoke from midnight, and it’s midnight now.
What does all this mean? It is hard to resist the conclusion that this life/love experience is so powerful that it has, cumulatively, put a lot of strain on Edgar’s usual poetic methods. In other words ‘Eldershaw’ is not merely a successful narrative which mines personal experience to lift it above being a mere genre piece. Nor is it a sort of roman à clef - the kind of fiction that gets its drive from coded references to a known story that is, in itself, for various reasons, unsayable. ‘Eldershaw’ is, I think, an attempt to deal with a profound experience by exploiting poetry’s protean possibilities and constructing a verse narrative to both air and attempt to control the material. I think it is more successful than the ‘lyric/dramatic’ poems - like ‘Nocturnal’ - largely because it is a mode where complexity of expository detail, far from being the awkward drag it can be in a lyric poem (for how can any poet calculate how much contextual detail is necessary before an innocent reader can make sense of such a central and repeatedly visited experience?) forms the substance of the text. The main question about ‘Eldershaw’ - which a reader cannot answer - is whether this is a final, freeingly successful engagement with this intense material or simply another approach, admittedly successful, from a new angle. Time - as they so often say - will tell.
The advantage of having quoted ‘The Secret Life of Books’ and ‘Nocturnal’ at some length is that they give readers new to Edgar’s poetry some idea of what makes up his ‘characteristic manner’, a mode that dates back to the first poems of his first book. It is almost always stanzaic, usually intricately rhymed, and exploits a truly prodigious technique to make long sentences articulate themselves within the stanzas. There is rarely any end-stopping and the rhymes are almost always half-rhymes (I usually find myself rereading the first stanza with an eye to working out its rhyme scheme before I go on with an Edgar poem). Those who dislike it will claim that it is stodgy and old-fashioned but it seems to have served Edgar well and choices in poetry should be judged by the extent to which they enable a poet to do what he or she wants and needs to do, rather than by any abstract standard such as whether they are ‘in keeping with recent developments’. And getting the syntax of longish sentences into a predesigned stanzaic shape produces a distinctive quality of voice: the three stanzas I have quoted from ‘Nocturnal’ will give some idea of how brilliantly Edgar does this. Another component of this voice is the presence of lexical density - there are quite a few words beyond most people’s competence. ‘Streeling’, ‘obtunded’ and ‘stravaiging’ occur within a few pages of each other in Edgar’s first book and ‘planish’ turns up in one of the last poems of Eldershaw. Odd lexical items can create different effects. On the crudest level they can just be there to raise the level of the style so that the poem establishes and sustains a slightly hieratic quality. But they also have an estranging effect and in Edgar’s style they sometimes seem like (to risk mixing metaphors) little knots in the stately, brahmsian flow of the verse.
Apart from the fact that it isn’t in one of Edgar’s favoured six or eight line stanzas and is, rather, in syllable-counted couplets, the first poem of the sixteen that fill out Eldershaw, ‘Nothing But’, is in touch with Edgar obsessions that go back to some of his earliest poems. It begins with the sun illuminating a domestic coastal scene:
Like wind and spray, the first sun hits the coast
And paints it into being, strikes the face
Of the sleeper who awakes, in character,
Convinced she is herself and yesterday
Woke also in this room, who, rising, gazes
At waves like travellers in time which bring
Reports back from tomorrow. Even so,
How frail an artifice the pigface seems,
Streaming in purple down the quarry wall;
The empty laundromat, this Monday morning,
Its window like an exercise to render
Transparency from plain day, a collage
Of this and that...
The work of art which the woman sees through the laundromat window is one in which the objects of the day are revealed for what they are - ‘Nothing but this, nothing if not this’ - rather as components of a painted scene with a predetermined meaning.
But this transmutation of reality into one kind of artwork or another is a theme (if that is the correct word) that seems to recur so commonly in Edgar’s earlier poetry that it is almost an obsession. Just as the poems of Gwen Harwood - another poet who moved to Tasmania - often touch base with the poetic equivalent of a primal scene (wandering at sunset on the edge of water, receptive to the otherworld of dream etc) so a scenario peculiar to Edgar is often repeated in which the poet is looking at the landscape of estuary and hills through a window. Probably there is a gull flying, either at random or pursuing goals quite different to the rest of the landscape. Some event of light then transmutes this scene into art with the window acting as a plane. ‘Ulysses Burning’ (another Dante allusion) from Corrupted Treasures, expresses this perfectly:
This room is the darkened theatre. Through the glass
The white veranda frames the stage
Like a proscenium. Garden, street and beach,
River and mountain, layer on layer, reach
Out to the backdrop of the sky
Before which all must pass that has to pass.
The river with its diamond-crusted gloss;
A Petri dish of gel in which
A culture of the sun is flourishing.
On the mountain, which aspires to Monet, cling
Veiled glares, some squeegee smears of cloud.
And so on. In its own way it is a mode full of possibilities especially for dealing with endless variations on the opposition of life and art. (In ‘Nothing But’ and another poem from Eldershaw, ‘Auspices’, you have the feeling that the later Edgar wants the result to be an art that will be more about things-in-themselves rather than, say, interpretable allegories.) But it is also a mode that suits Edgar’s style perfectly because this steady progression of sentences through stanzas has an oddly viscous effect which mimics the transitions that the poems deal with. It is a case of an odd music finding its theme perfectly. If I had to locate a word within the poetry that might act as a totem, I would choose ‘frieze’ (with its homophonic second meaning as well).
‘Nothing But’ also recalls - in its notion that the waves bring reports from tomorrow - those earlier poems interested in the future. One of these, ‘In Search of Time to Come’, belongs to that large poetic genre devoted to how we can suddenly be exposed to other dimensions either by the destruction of what another early Edgar poem calls ‘that golden stock / Of certainties’ or by being exposed to other orders of existence, such as animal consciousness. ‘In Search of Time to Come’ describes an imagined prehistoric community in a cave, turned inward - ‘Always back / On itself’ - rehearsing familiar tasks. Outside the sun is setting and the threat of the external dark is beginning to loom. The individuals feel that someone is out there but, as the poem concludes, what is out there is us, their genetic and cultural future.
Given time one could also write a great deal about the way that the past is dealt with. Often it emerges in poems that are about genetic determinism and this colours many of the poems about the father like, for example, ‘His Father’s Voice’ from Where the Trees Were and those about the family. In fact poems about the family form an interesting counterpoint to the poems of loss about which I’ve spoken. In Other Summers there are three different versions of a poem called ‘Im Sommerwind’ in which late adolescence is revisited. In each poem the scene is, essentially, frozen but the three versions look like three different snapshots. In the same book there is a wonderful piece, perhaps my favourite Edgar poem, ‘Eighth Heaven’, in which the poet wanders through a frozen image of his family home:
And there is my father
Standing in the lounge room, half-turned away.
I summon up some greeting and can feel
The words unbodied, though not a sound disturbs
The house’s depth. I walk in and am baffled
To find, however much I move about him,
That that one aspect is still turned to me,
Unmoving, a one-sided hologram.
I’m sure that much of the magic of this poem lies in the fact that so many of the Edgar themes are focussed in this bizarre scenario. The family is frozen in time in the same way that it is in memory and in photographs but it is a benevolent freezing into an enabling art rather than into the horrors of the later cantos of Inferno where the lack of movement symbolises a moral deadness. One of the most significant moments in ‘Eldershaw’ occurs when Luke’s father, returned from the war, goes with his new wife on a delayed honeymoon in the country:
But some particulation of the light
Applied across, or rather through the miles
Between here and the faint blue hazy sky,
In which the sun, a smouldering orange disc
Behind a screen, was sinking gradually
As though the air resisted its decline.
How beautiful she thought it. ‘I don’t know,’
He said at last, ‘it all looks dead to me.’
What we get here - in compressed form - are the two different results of freezing (or ‘friezing’): the enabling beauties of art or deadness.
Many of the other poems at the end of Eldershaw reflect on the painful material that the long narrative deals with and are thus a part of the dynamic of how Edgar’s poetry is to deal with this issue. We are left with the book’s final poem, ‘Lost World’, which describes how a Tasmanian bushfire burns down a shed which contains a lover’s photograph in a gardener’s old jacket. The picture is lost but in a sense, the poem reminds us, much more was lost since the picture only captured one instant out of many instants:
A little earlier, or in a while,
And a quite other face or pose
Might have been taken than this shadowed smile,
Which no one may have seen except
These two, the nameless and the dead, or kept
The curling memory of. And now, who knows?...
All life is loss, even (or especially) life frozen into art. Narrative may be a solution but it, despite its commitment to a fuller depiction of process and change, is also only a sketch of reality. ‘Lost World’ concludes with the hope that everything on earth (crushed fossils, drowned Minoan combs, experiences of love at its most intense) survives somewhere as a ‘print in space... coded like a chromosome / With lost millennia and multitudes’ - but, at best, it’s a desperate and very faint hope.
* Stephen Edgar has provided the following author’s note: “In fact ‘Consume My Heart Away’ does not refer to Ann Jennings”.
Fractured Narrative of Haunted House Evokes Ghosts of History
Sydney Morning Herald & The Canberra Times, 9 March 2013
Stephen Edgar is now recognised internationally as one of the most accomplished practitioners of metre and rhyme in English. His poems, particularly in recent collections, are poised, visually acute and quite often emotionally detached. Eldershaw, his eighth collection (not counting The Red Sea, his recent ‘selected’, published in the US), is something of a departure for him.
The book also reminds us that the narrative element in poetry has been crucial from the beginning (The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, for a start), despite the postromantic emphasis on the lyric. In the first part of Eldershaw, Edgar employs blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters) as used most notably by Milton in Paradise Lost and Wordsworth in The Prelude. It’s a form that, for good reasons, has never gone out of date. It was used superbly, for instance, by the modern American poet Wallace Stevens in masterpieces such as ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. Edgar, like Stevens, makes excellent use of the form’s flexibility, its combination of leisureliness and compression.
Eldershaw is divided into two sections, the second of which comprises individual rhyming and scanning poems with the same virtues as those in the poet’s earlier books. The first half of Eldershaw breaks into three related narrative sequences that go some distance towards the verse novel but seem, ultimately, to draw back from it. Spread across 21 poems, these three sequences (‘Eldershaw’, ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘The Pool’) revolve, at least partly, around an old family home in Tasmania called ‘Eldershaw’ that is thought to be ‘haunted’, though not in any melodramatic way.
Many, though far from all, of the poems are set in the house, but the narrative’s main interest is in the marital, family and other relationships of those who have lived there. The tone varies considerably, from ultra-romantic evocations of landscape to almost satirical accounts of dinner party conversation. Edgar’s blank verse accommodates all this and more without strain.
One problem, however, that may be experienced by readers is the book’s lack of a dramatis personae, or perhaps genealogy, to show the connection between the characters - who range across three generations and include other important figures not in the immediate family.
In Eldershaw, it’s as if Edgar has determined to give us only the key scenes, often the epiphanies, of a novel without all the (often laborious) transitions, scene setting, physical descriptions etc. normally found there. Its structure is loosely analogous to Frank Moorhouse’s fictional experiments with ‘discontinuous narrative’ in the 1970s.
There are, nevertheless, in this discontinuity, many highly memorable scenes or set pieces. In the poem ‘April 1945. Evan. Fire’, for instance. Edgar gives a relatively short but horrifying account of the aerial campaign over Germany towards the end of World War II: ‘...how that pure stellar heat/ Is melting lives from bone and boiling blood,/ Volatilizing screams from a thousand mouths...’
Earlier, and in total contrast, there’s a lusciously sensual account of one of the key characters, Helen, naked in the surf. ‘Delirious with joy, her shining arms/ Flailing to buoy her up, her gleaming breasts/ Emerging and retreating through the veils/ Of spume that clothed her so lubriciously/ In lacy and translucent folds of gauze.’ By itself, a passage like this might seem overwritten, but seen in the context of the overall narrative it’s apposite.
At times Edgar’s narrative risks the tangential, but usually the digression is beautiful in itself - and, partly, a key to understanding one of the main characters more fully. It’s only occasionally, as in the first of two poems called ‘The Pool’, that Edgar seems to drift off into a pure lyric and lose narrative momentum, but this is rare.
As in his other poetry, the pace is unhurried and the old device of ‘deferral of reader satisfaction’ works here very well.
Some readers may wish for a bit more ‘signposting’ as the narrative develops across its 79 pages, but Edgar is probably right to trust his readers to go back, reread and sort things out for themselves. If they do, they will conclude that Eldershaw is a considerable expansion of Edgar’s characteristic scope and technique - just at the point when he may have been at the risk of resting quietly on his (extraordinary) laurels.
One should also emphasise that Eldershaw is not merely an achievement in narrative technique and descriptive power; it contains many moments that are more than satisfying in their emotional impact. One can sense from certain episodes prefigured in earlier collections that much of the raw material for Eldershaw is crucial to Edgar personally, and the book is a product of his compulsion to do it justice.
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Sunflowers of a kind
Sydney Review of Books, 28 November 2014
As with an ear for music, an ear for the rhymes and rhythms of language is hardwired into the human brain; the deeper structures of poetry, in other words, are inscribed in our DNA. Like music, their evolutionary purpose is, in part, mnemonic: to help us to remember the knowledge of the tribe in pre-literate times. Hence we remember every nursery rhyme we ever heard. Hence, the lyrics of every second song. Hence, a hard-to-forget stanza like this, in an earlier, justly celebrated poem of Stephen Edgar’s:
Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the paring of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.
Nail-clipping moon metaphors are a dime a dozen in literature, but what a rejuvenation this is: imagism with a Robert Gray or Galway Kinnell quality of freshness. Or refreshment. And with style nicely fused with substance: a formal pentameter and abab rhyme sings subtly beneath the images. No surprises there: although Edgar is a superb imagist, it is not through that particular poetic ‘ism’ that he has made his name: he is known first and foremost as a formalist.
There are few as accomplished in the English-speaking world, or with as large a command of forms. He can turn the music on and off at will: beat it like a drum; allow it to whisper sotto voce; or loosen the shackles into easy-flowing, conversational blank verse. Even when using a standard form – a sonnet, say – he is seldom predictable. He especially likes to invent his own end-rhyme schemes. One favourite trick is to rhyme the last lines of his preferred six- or seven-line stanzas (sestets or septets) with, say, the second line – an end-rhyme so delayed that it is a half-forgotten echo. Auden pioneered this kind of musical suspense in early poems, such as the famous ‘Lullaby’; Edgar stretches our rhyme attention span even further. Which is not to say he isn’t perfectly capable of finishing things off with the clashed cymbals of a rhyming couplet:
The sun displays its gorgeous jewellery
Across the spread
Of harbour, as it heartlessly arranges
Over the bluffs and bays of Middle Head
The silken trance it’s spun and shed.
Edgar wears his influences plainly: Auden, yes, and Larkin, Frost and Hardy, with the towering figure of John Donne whispering to us over their heads from several centuries before. Donne’s influence is seen not just in the form of the poems, but also in their content. Edgar’s Metaphysical streak jumps out from the first page of his latest book Exhibits of the Sun. ‘All Eyes’ begins at the rim of the solar system, seen through the proxy eyes of the Voyager probe:
Look, look, it says, and peels away the night
As it flies on. And there,
A ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space,
Saturn comes looming at the satellite
With all its shattered rings of icy lace
Exquisitely beyond repair.
The regularly varying line-lengths of this poem’s sestets owe something to Donne’s spirit of formal experiment, but its evolving argument owes even more to the Metaphysical conceits of Donne’s love poetry. After speculating what might lie further out in space, Edgar reverses his telescope, pulling the focus sharply back in, via a joke at the expense of William Blake, and ending in a final knight’s-move, or perhaps a warp-jump, to a lover’s face:
The fossil in the paginated book
Of shale that once was slime
Falls open and cries, Look! And these sunflowers –
Their yellow is the synonym for Look,
Though they’ve no word for weary or the hours
The sun has summoned them to climb.
Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?
To look and make it so?
The moth wing’s intricately subtle scales,
The fleck of matter in the nucleus,
As light as light, your face which never fails
To show me what I can never know.
Sexual love is more central in the second poem in the book, ‘Moonlit sculptures’, which is also written in sestets, and with the same personalised rhyme scheme – abcacb – but with the variation of a two syllable-length breather, like a musical fermata, in the fourth line of every stanza.
Too hot and humid to do more than drowse
And slip – who knows how brief the interims? –
Into a chafed consciousness,
Too clammy for the slur and press
Of fabric or each other on our limbs …
All night the poet watches his lover turn and thrash through various sleeping positions and stanzas (sextets might be the better term than sestets, given their sensuality) until:
Morning approaches and the moon is swamped
With day. All of those figures, though, survive
In you, it’s you that they comprise,
Your mind to waken, and your eyes,
And you to turn, now sunlit and alive.
No pining away with desire for this little sunflower. Edgar’s meditations can spring from love, or from the natural world, but they can equally spring from art or cinema or literature: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in the next poem; Proust in two superb later poems. The first of these, ‘The Representation of Reality in Western Art’, qualifies as a typical Metaphysical conceit as the poet, reading Proust in a library, decides to step into the book as a character:
After reading Chapter Two of The Guermantes Way
He thought ‘Why Not?’ and wandered in himself
To that immense hall which the drawing room
Gave access to.
The progress of the day could now resume
And someone cleared the book from where it lay
And put it back in order on the shelf.
Meanwhile he casually sauntered through
The hall, surprised by his command of French …
And by his new French friends, until our time traveller finds himself standing before a framed streetscape by Magritte, and steps out of frame again. Having come full-circle, he is now back in the library before he had opened Guermantes Way to begin with:
So browsing for a book
He paused and thought ‘Why Not Give Proust a try?’
And sat and opened it and stretched his toes.
And presumably steps back into the book, searching for lost time ad infinitum. My advice? Open a book by Borges next.
Unlike Blake’s sunflower, Edgar is never weary of time. In fact, he is a little obsessed by it. As he is by space. And consciousness. And light. And love. And landscape. But time, ‘the fifth element’, ticks along beneath all his work, present both in its rhythms and its ideas. In some parallel world, Edgar is probably a physicist, writing equally formal and beautiful equations. On our slow-ticking, sunlit world his algebra is rhyme-schemes, and the solution he found for the Proust poem is abcdcab, with that apparently lost and isolated ‘d’ (‘to’ at the end of the half-line in the first stanza) finding a delayed echo in the first line of the next stanza: ‘through’.
Edgar uses seven-lined stanzas more than any other poet since the Middle Ages – but unlike, say, Chaucer, he runs endless musical variations on the basic template. Chaucer’s standard Royal Rhyme has seven-lines of regular iambic pentameter in ababbcc. Edgar is having none of that; he is having anything but that. The nerd-taxonomist in me wants to classify his Mozartian profusion: let’s call this a K.7(a).
The next poem in Exhibits of the Sun, ‘Off the Chart’, also in septets, runs abcbcab. K.7(b)? From a meditation on Proust and time, we now meditate upon a suburban clothes hoist and space. The direction of the ‘Look’ (a word to remember with Edgar) of this poem is the reverse of the opening Voyager poem: from near focus, to far. It begins with the gentle oscillation of hung clothes turning in a breeze, which in itself seems to be a memory of rotary motion on an even smaller scale:
An action to compare
With the white machine that they were packed
And swirling in not half an hour ago,
As though they were aware
Or held a memory of that loose,
I like to think that the this-goes-with-that tricks of the poetry trade – analogies, similes, metaphors – are a form of rhyme themselves. Conceptual rhymes, perhaps. This concept snowballs (to pick an obvious metaphor) as our gaze widens:
So the hoist relays
Its agitation to the trees …
And ever onwards and upwards, until ‘the obsessive to and fro’ spreads to affect the oscillations of the planets themselves:
… you sense,
The planets and the star-slung zodiac
Swung out to some immense
Imagined limit, forth and back,
Impelled by these few things hung out to dry –
An astral influence
Unknown to chart and almanac.
These growing Russian doll rinse-cycles are the ultimate anti-Copernican joke, in a way. A Hills Hoist as the centre of the turning universe? In fact, the consciousness that can make such a joke is the true centre, as it is in most of Edgar’s work. Nothing we can put into words (or into maths or PET-scanned brain images or AI analogues for that matter) gets closer to capturing the weirdness of consciousness than poetry. The next poem, ‘Steppe’, takes up this theme. The poet has a lot of fun, in a serious way, about the world-in-itself and our perception of it.
‘Steppe’ is written in blank verse tercets – K.3(c) perhaps. One of the great advantages of writing within formal constraints is the paradoxical freedom they provide. Yes, sense has to be squeezed into a straightjacket, but that straightjacket can, oddly, provoke a bit of useful madness. That is, it can dislocate natural logic, and force fresher and stranger connections on the poet. With luck, and hard work, a differently received wisdom can emerge. And the disadvantages? The occasional need for padding to make ends meet, literally.
So far I have been mainly talking mainly about Edgar’s ear. What of his eye? Exhibits of the Sun is well-named; the poems are all sunflowers of a kind, drenched in light, or seeking it. For a Metaphysical Poet, Edgar has a surprisingly painterly eye. He especially loves the way light rebuilds the world – or the consciousness that perceives it – in the light of morning. It is a leitmotif, somewhat in the manner of Eugenio Montale’s great short poem, ‘Perhaps One Morning Walking’.
And so the sun inscribes the invented east
With its jawline of light …
‘Song Without Words’:
Light of the nursery invades
The morning ward and its uncoloured walls,
And like a white sheet on his adult brain
Settles opaquely where it falls,
And will remain
All day, as day assembles and degrades.
Like wind and spray, the first sun hits the coast
And paints it into being …
Edgar uses all kinds of lighting effects, sometimes turning the daylight on, blindingly, in the middle of a poem, as if in some close encounter of the floodlit kind, and then just as abruptly turning it off. More often, his preference as a painter with words is for Turner-like dawns and sunsets, clouds and seas:
Four years hence and she
Would lie with Martin here as day went down,
Although it seemed that time forgot its way
In them as they embraced and saw the sun
Incarnadine the clouds, and the sky rise
In blended and aspiring zones of peach
And luminous mauve and violet, while gold,
Too heavy for such heights, was poured away
Extravagantly over the eastern shore.
Edgar is extravagant with his palette. The ‘she’ in this poem is Helen, the central character in a group of linked poems in Eldershaw. The title poem, and its two loosely associated sequences, ‘The Fifth Element’ (what else?) and ‘The Pool’, form not so much a discontinuous narrative, as a shuffled narrative. Another major heave: there isn’t a rhyme in sight. The whole verse ‘novella’ is in deft, subtly shifting blank verse, pentametric, but with endless iambic and non-iambic variations played upon its five-stopped flute.
Time is again central – but, as befits a verse novella, so is human character. Character is destiny? Time, at least, is the stage on which character will out itself – literally, in the case of Helen’s husband Martin. Their Bruny Island home Eldershaw is the other main stage: a Chekhovian country house, with ghosts. Even the light in its bush glades is a little spooky:
The clouds muster their shadows on the hills
Of Bruny. Mist among the foliage
And hallways of the footpaths trapped the light,
Like gas ignited in a jar, and glowed
And though the radiance were self-sustained
Within the vapour.
Most of Edgar’s obsessions ravel together in Eldershaw, as we examine the joys and savagery of the marriage of Helen and Martin and its long aftermath, often tangentially, through a range of variously unreliable consciousnesses. The ghosts of the past are always present, but equally often, rhetorically, ghosts from the future appear, as we time-jump back and forth in clairvoyant asides. Here is Martin, photographing his naked wife in the sea in a moment of honeymoon bliss:
… calf-deep in the bubbling swirl,
Struggling for balance with the camera,
And taking snap of Aphrodite
Anadyomene, who was his wife.
The Representation of Reality in Tasmanian Photography? Not quite. In the midst of life we are also in the darker future:
Perplexing to bethink that decades hence
Such shots as these alone might verify
The life that they were now inaugurating,
Such scenes, empty of all but life and joy,
Whereas what lay in store, dense with event,
Unwitnessed, unrecorded, unportrayed
In publishable dramas, would prolong
Its parallel being in the dark
Of memory and bitterness. Memory?
A lie perhaps even to call it that,
Considering how unreliable
It proves to be, each instant of recall
Subtly rewriting, under influence
Of mood and circumstance and subsequent
Occasion, its each detail till the whole
Might no more hold the substance of the day
It claimed to represent than the body does
When seven years of supervening cells
Have re-embodied it.
Yes, memory lies as much as a Box Brownie – but what, ironically, should we make of Edgar’s witnessed, recorded, portrayed and published drama, Eldershaw, which we are reading now on a third parallel time-track? The narrative retrospectoscope is always at work. Describing Martin’s ‘meteoric’ law career Edgar writes:
Though meteors, they might well have remembered,
In fact don’t rise but fall.
The entire book is a Fall, of a kind: an exile from the lost Tasmanian paradise, and the various misadventures, seductions and cruelties that punctuate Helen’s attempts to return to a state of grace. Perhaps Edgar is closer to Milton here than to Donne. A later Helen stands on a cliff overlooking a Bronze Age Greek dig, and the meltemi – the powerful north wind that washes the Aegean – blows:
Down there she stood
On that flat promontory, buffeted
And shuddered by the gale. As mud-caked stone
Is washed clean in a stream, she felt the current
Of air pour through her, carrying away
All she was clogged and matted with.
And blow her back to Sparta, and Menelaus, perhaps. The very next section time-travels back two years, and we are plunged into a marital cruelty-as-usual story for which there can be no forgiveness.
The final, stunning sequence, ‘The Pool’, ends with a later lover of Helen’s, the much younger Luke, grieving for her in Eldershaw. Photos of her life – including of the honeymoon Aphrodite – are arrayed on a shelf. Helen is dead, but …
That night he woke and saw her lying there
Asleep beside him in the midnight glow
Of streetlights …
Another ghost, but Luke reaches out to touch her:
… and in that instant broke the spell.
Like a magician’s cape that settles over
The volunteer, then emptily subsides
On no one to the floor, the quilt gave way,
Relinquishing her substance, and her head
And wavy hair were reabsorbed by shadow.
And then? Well, the Montale effect, with a less pleasant twist:
The first sun strikes his face and he awakes,
In character. He can’t escape himself.
What remains besides Helen’s photographs and journals? Another ghost is a lipstick-printed tissue which
Presented to his gaze the perfect form
Of her pursed lips in pink, on which, he knew,
A few forensic cells of her still clung.
Eldershaw is a collection of forensic cells, which we try to piece together. Luke’s memory of his first sexual encounter with Helen is one of them, as she leads him down a passageway to her bed for their first time:
A lesson and conundrum from new physics
About our abject inability
To grasp the simplest principles of time,
That corridor, with every step he took
Towards his life to come, was drawing him
Back to her past and what was living there.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?
The final, separate section of Eldershaw contains sixteen of Edgar’s more typical shorter poems. All the musical variations on old forms are here, including Donne-like shortenings, enjambs and fermate. Voyager also makes an early appearance, before it passes beyond the rings of Saturn in the next book and lights out for the really deep territory. But as in the later book, there are far more richnesses than I can hope to compass here. Some last honourable mentions, perhaps: the Audenesque (think ‘The Shield of Achilles’) ‘Lest Me Forget’ with its alternating stanzas of domestic holiday bliss and scenes of torture. Some poems fascinated by the representation of reality in film – ‘Continuous Screening’, ‘Cinéma Vérité’ – or the nature of consciousness – ‘Saccade’, ‘Song Without Words’, ‘Sight-reading’. Some typically intricate (obsessive?) explorations of history and personal memory – ‘The Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’, ‘Pictures in the Water’, ‘The Trance’ – or of consciousness and memory – ‘A Scene From Proust’, ‘Future Perfect’, and especially ‘Pictures in the Water’, with its lovely central metaphor of a couple rowing a boat, seated, as we are when we row, with their backs to the future, facing their wake. And so we beat on.
Stephen Edgar is a modest man, somewhat of an oddity in the world of poetry, where the gradual shrinking of the environmental niche seems at times to demand a Darwinian survival struggle for readership. That’s not a poem, this is a poem! Or, conversely, it inspires minimalists: mine is smaller than yours!
Edgar’s extravagance is at a tangent to all this. One of his early poems, ‘All Will Be Revealed’, is set in a nudist camp. The problem is:
In the nudist camp identity is lost
See, over all the fashions of the self,
They’re slipping on identical pink suits
Which sets our latter-day John Donne up riffingly, until the poem ends:
In such a place
One might devise a nightclub for dress-tease
Where they could face,
To whistles, randy cries of ‘Get it on!’
Themselves as lewd
Performers who would strut and bump and grind,
Discarding part by part their bare accord,
Till they finessed
The erotic climax of true self-display
One reading of this poem is as a parody that works the narcissisms of both sides of the room: the naked and the dressed. But here I choose to read it as a parable of the clothes that Edgar’s body of work wears. His poems are fully dressed in every sense: musically, intellectually, visually. They are erudite, but also down-to-earth; Proust is never far from the Hills Hoist. They are drenched with painterly light, and can freeze landscapes and moments in a satisfying frame of words, but they are also philosophically restless and unsatisfied, banging at the bars of their cage. At times, an unnecessary word or two might be roped in to fill a metric line, but what we write always seems at some level to be either too little or too much. Formal rhythm and rhyme might be a little out of fashion these days, but fashions come and go. Certainly, despite Edgar’s modest personal qualities, his unique achievements are slowly and deservedly emerging into – what else? – the light.
The judges for the Award said of the winning titles:
Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife is original and deeply moving, wonderfully observed, intriguing, and irresistibly readable. The paths of a recent widow, one of the most attractive heroines in modern Australian fiction, and two victims of the Second World War cross in a lovingly recreated Thirroul, 1948. Each of the three characters regains better spirits but “the addictive powerlessness of unequal love” leads to an unpredictable outcome. A truly beautiful poem by Stephen Edgar, ‘Lost World’, plays a pivotal role in this brilliantly executed novel, as does the suggestive epigraph: “It’s not what we forget / But what we never knew we most regret/ Discovery of”.
Stephen Edgar’s new book of verse represents a triumphant change in direction. The second part of Eldershaw contains lyrics of the kind for which Edgar is already renowned. But the first part is innovative narrative, each poem presenting real people in contemporary, but timeless, humanity. The poems relate the essence of the action, without customary explanation and with creative disruption of chronology. But Edgar’s poetry is classically lucid; the words, sometimes adventurously chosen, are always transparent; the metaphors and cadences are those of the clear-eyed craftsman as well as of the imaginative artist. Ranging from easy conversation to flashes of the sublime, Stephen Edgar’s brilliant and versatile narratives encapsulate the joy and complexity of relationships set within the landscapes and seascapes of Australia and Greece.
A Pair of Ragged Claws
Report on Eldershaw winning the Colin Roderick Award
Stephen Romei (Literary Editor)
Weekend Australian Review 18/10/2014
... there’s another feelgood literary story I want to share ...
DEPARTMENT of Truth is Stranger than Fiction: A novelist puts a poem of her own creation in her new book. Not just willy-nilly, but as a necessary part of the story. She is not a poet, a fact her publisher makes clear on reading the manuscript. So the novelist goes on a strange search for a poet to pen a bespoke poem for her book. She finds one, a poet she has read but never met. The poet finds the proposition unusual, too, but writes the poem and it is included in the book. It’s a fine poem. A year later, the novelist and the poet share a major literary award. Had the fiction writer come up with such a plot twist she might have been accused of overreach, but it is just what has happened to novelist Ashley Hay and poet Stephen Edgar. This week Hay’s 2013 novel The Railwayman’s Wife, which features a poem written for the book by Edgar, was named joint winner of the prestigious Colin Roderick Award. The other joint winner was Edgar, for his poetry volume Eldershaw.
Hay explains how this odd coupling worked: “I sent him some of the imagery I hoped the poem would contain, a bit about its content and its context, and a bit of information about the character in the book who would be doing the writing.’’ Edgar sent back a first draft of the poem within a week. “What amazed me,’’ Hay says, “was that it not only fitted the voice of my poet so perfectly, and contained all the imagery and ideas I’d sent through, but there were also nods to other elements of the novel that Stephen didn’t know about — couldn’t know about. It took my breath away.’’
Edgar says novelist Michelle de Kretser was the link between he and Hay, putting them in touch after hearing of Hay’s dilemma. He reveals he did not read the novel but based his poem on the one Hay had written, and on the context she provided. “I simply immersed myself in the words Ashley had sent and let my imagination work on them and try to find a new form that seemed to be effective. I found it a very interesting and satisfying process. But I regarded it as something like working on a libretto for a composer — she would have the final say and I would adapt anything I wrote to suit her needs.’’
It’s a lovely story, but we should not forget the poet’s achievement in winning a literary award open to all genres. Reviewing Eldershaw in these pages in June, Geoffrey Lehmann lauded a “high point in Australian poetry’’. The Roderick is awarded to the “best book published in Australia which deals with any aspect of Australian life’’. First awarded in 1967, it honours the Queensland author, critic and scholar Colin Roderick (1911-2000), who was the foundation professor of English literature at James Cook University in Townsville. The award is worth $10,000 to the winner — and in an act of generosity Roderick’s widow, Margaret, contributed a further $10,000 this year so that Hay and Edgar each received the full prize cheque. Previous winners include Ruth Park, Tom Keneally and Peter Carey, but as the ever gracious Hay suggests, this year may well represent a first: “Stephen Edgar becomes, in a way, the first person to win the Colin Roderick twice in a single year, because my book would not hold without him.’’
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Acceptance Speech by Stephen Edgar for the Colin Roderick Award for Eldershaw
Eldershaw consists of three interlinked narrative poems and, as the blurb says, it draws on personal experience, reimagined and transformed through the lens of fiction. They do not exactly constitute a verse novel. You could, I suppose, think of the book as a novel in which only the crucial episodes are related, while all the connecting and subsidiary matter is omitted: a series of highlights that jumps from place to place and time to time over the years, leaving the reader to join up the dots. An acquaintance of mine, the American poet Joshua Mehigan, characterized this as “the purposeful omission of context”, a description for which I am enormously grateful to him; now if anyone complains that I have left out vital details, I can reply: ‘Oh, no, no, no. That is purposeful omission of context.’
My reason for writing the poems was simple enough: to make some record of the lives of three people, in particular, whom I loved, my first partner, Ann (called Helen in the poems), and my parents, and in doing so to unburden my mind of a freight of accumulated emotions, explored in other ways elsewhere in my work from time to time; and, in the case of Ann and my father, both of whom are now dead, to give some final shape to my feelings. Just as the apparent hauntings in the poems are really a figure for the psychological and emotional conflicts of the characters, so they are perhaps a counterpart for the way these people have haunted my memory. So the poems may be an act of exorcism as well as an expression of love.
They are also quite a good read, I think. In fact, my original motivation for writing the title poem, ‘Eldershaw’, was to preserve some of the marvellous anecdotes that Ann had told me over the years of events in her earlier life, before I knew her—anecdotes by turns moving, and funny, and horrifying. The whole book grew out of that. The nonchronological arrangement of the sections in the title poem is perhaps partly to reflect the haphazard operation of retrospect and partly the emotional disorder being represented. Originally each of the poems was conceived as a separate work, but in due course I saw how they could form a loosely connected narrative, even though the connection of the second poem, ‘The Fifth Element’, to the other two lies in the solitary mention of Helen’s name. The seed of ‘The Fifth Element’ lay in my mother once mentioning to me the episode which opens that poem, when my father, after returning from the war, observed that, in contrast to the green of England, the Australian landscape seemed to him dead. And it struck me that he was projecting onto the external scene his own psychological wound, a wound extending through his subsequent life, and leaving its mark on us. The third poem, ‘The Pool’, is a logical extension of the title poem and deals with my own relationship with Ann/Helen, its beginnings at any rate, and her death, though curiously enough, the image of that haunted seaside pool itself was grafted on to the poem from an originally separate idea and was linked with a separate narrative strand which I ultimately dispensed with.
Why did I cast the poems as fiction? Well, in the first place because, despite their basis in fact, I have invented certain details, altered chronology and events, conflated characters; also in part to give myself some emotional distance from the events, a bit of artistic elbow room. Partly too because, especially in the first poem ‘Eldershaw’, if I had identified real people by their actual names I would have been morally obliged to do a deal of research to make sure I had got the facts right, and I had no wish to write that sort of poem. It was the emotional truth I was after, not factual accuracy. Having used fictitious names for the first poem, I had to make the other two match. For the record, the house Eldershaw is in reality called Ashfield, and is in Sandy Bay in Hobart. And the painter Wil Gaudry is the writer Hal Porter, who himself wrote about Ashfield once, giving it the poetic but unlikely name of Cindermead.