The Strangest Place : Stephen Edgar
They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts
The strangest place, this world of fact and figment we astonishingly find ourselves inhabiting, is the territory that Stephen Edgar’s poetry has been probing and framing for over four decades now, looking out on the evanescent representations of light and inwards on the mind and “the gyre of its own consciousness”, feeling “toward the labyrinth just behind Creation’s serene surface”, as Alan Gould described it, and “trying to keep faith poetically with that strangeness of the world”, in the words of Peter Steele.
The Strangest Place offers a retrospective on Edgar’s career, with selections from each of his previous ten books. Opening the collection is a book-length section of new poems, Background Noise, which continues and extends the range of his meditations, with characteristic technical mastery, interspersed with the title’s leitmotiv, whether the notes of lorikeets in the morning trees, echoing voices in an abandoned railway tunnel, the mind’s running commentary or the cosmic hum beyond the death of the stars.
Cover Image: Judith Nangala Crispin
Anika lifting to her ancestors, on a spider-string, over
Mt Cooroora, in Kabi-Kabi country - Lumachrome glass print
SARAH HOLLAND-BATTFormality within the frame
The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems.
Black Pepper, 2020.
As free verse continues its reign well into the twenty-first century, formal poetry still finds itself in the minority. It’s been derided in some quarters for being elitist and conservative, clinging to outdated ideals—yet celebrated in others for bringing poetry closer to music, and for exhibiting a discipline and technical artistry that free verse supposedly lacks.
This week’s poet, Stephen Edgar, is doubtless Australia’s finest formalist writing today, and makes a persuasive case for the enduring power of formal poetry; his eleventh collection, The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems (Black Pepper) features extracts from the poet’s previous ten volumes, along with a book-length selection of new work, “Background Noise.”
What is impressive about seeing thirty-five years’ worth of Edgar’s poetry together is its remarkable thematic and stylistic continuity, though the later poems feature slightly more linguistic embellishment and philosophical complication.
His influences—chief among them, Auden, along with Richard Wilbur, Frost, Larkin, and others—remain constant touchstones.
While Edgar has made the odd foray into the realm of narrative—most notably in his collection Eldershaw—he primarily writes introspective, metaphysical lyrics, focussing intently on transience and loss, memory, mortality, and the future.
His poems are seeded with repeated motifs of apertures - filmic and photographic lenses, windows, mirrors, reflections and other viewfinders proliferate—suggesting that Edgar sees the poem is an act of framing; there is also a strong emphasis on music and art. Often, Edgar’s poems arrive as tableaux, in which time is stilled as the poet unpacks a moment in slow-motion; their vistas are at times microscopic, and at others galactic, looking up into interstellar space.
Rather than writing in established forms, Edgar mostly devises his own metrical and stanzaic constraints. He favours sestets and septets (six and seven-line stanzas) which he arranges according to his own invented rhyme schemes.
Rather than using predictable envelope rhymes (an abba rhyme pattern) or alternating rhymes (abab), Edgar’s end-rhymes are often spaced further apart, so that they are felt less heavily. They are also almost continually enjambed, flowing gracefully over into the next line without the heavy pulse of a caesurae.
Take, for example, this stanza from the poem “Coming Up from Air,” which is fully rhymed, yet moves fluidly due to the continuous enjambment, and the postponed rhyme of “eyrie” and “theory”:And there we went: that night,
Dinner with friends, perched in their top-floor eyrie,
Watching the sky recite
The sun’s late lessons in the clouds and preach
Its pyrotechnic theory
Over the revellers on Coogee Beach.
There are many established six-line stanzaic forms—from the sestet that rounds off the Petrarchan sonnet to the Venus and Adonis and Burns stanzas—but none use the same rhyme scheme Edgar uses here.
I can think of only a handful of poems that use this abacbc scheme: Elizabeth Bishop’s love poem “The Shampoo,” George Herbert’s “Peace,” and a section of W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle.
Edgar’s self-determined forms also give his poems a nice tension between familiar and unfamiliar patterning; it’s only after reading a few stanzas that you work out the rules he’s invented for himself.
His technical prowess lends his poems an ease that all formalists aspire to, but few achieve: while he adheres to rigid structures, he does so lightly and unobtrusively.
Although they are often cleverly camouflaged, I get the sense that Edgar’s rhymes are nonetheless the driving engine of his poetry. He is expert at finding original full rhymes—a tricky affair, given how shop-worn so many rhymes in English are.
There’s the perfect chime of encrypts and eucalypts in the poem “Apprehensions,” azalea and regalia in “The Peacock’s Response,” concertina and the Italian composer Palestrina in “Analogue,” and—my favourite— limousine and Anthropocene in “Mise en scene,” all of which deliver the jolt of pleasurable recognition that a well-executed rhyme should bring the reader.
And his poems are dotted with mosaic rhymes too—where rhymes span more than one word—as in drowse of sense and recompense in “All or Nothing.” At times, this garners the poet comic frisson, as in the chime between unnerve us and BBC World Service in the poem “Letters of the Law.”
This week’s poem, “The Shadow Line,” shows Edgar’s signature technical powers at full tilt. Prompted by a passage in Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, it contemplates a distant future in which the earth has been rendered inhabitable, and the record of human life inheres in a compacted “six-inch sooty layer” remaining on an otherwise-dead planet.
You’ll notice that the poem unfolds in septets, each slightly tapered at the beginning and end, written entirely in iambic meter: the first line in trimeter; the second, tetrameter; before the poem billows out into four lines of iambic pentameter; then contracts back to tetrameter again.
The rhyme scheme—abacbca—reflects a similar shape: the initial a rhyme returns one last, unexpected time on the seventh line, a belated third echo of a rhyme which has already been resolved.
It’s a form that teases a faint resemblance to the rhyme royal stanza—a septet of iambic pentameter with an ababbcc rhyme scheme—but Edgar only gears up into pentameter for four out of its seven lines, giving each stanza a looser feel as his line lengths vary.
We begin as the poet contemplates earth as a “final star” which has been “surpassed / and cancelled.” He juxtaposes human time—described metaphorically as both a “mayfly’s one transparent day in flight” and “nothing but a background hum”— against the vastness of interstellar time and space.
Swiftly, in a single stanza, human endeavours are collapsed into residue: “Plastics and pipes and wires and ticking meters, / The deathless works, the missiles on parade, The Sphinx, the Floating Taj Mahal, St Peter’s” become “half-lives haunting our bequest.”
As the poem draws to a close, the poet contemplates the possibility of a “mere grain, one molecule” residing in all that rubble that an interstellar traveller might find one day as evidence of the poet’s existence: “the wattle leaves whose shadows pool / On a desk this afternoon, and brush across / The hand that’s poised above this page.”
And as the poem closes, we’re gently reminded of the poet’s presence just beyond the poem’s expertly constructed frame.
Sarah Holland-Batt is a poet and an associate professor at the school of creative practice at the Queensland University of Technology. Poet’s Voice receives sponsorship from The Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And there it is at last,
The last one gone, the final star,
The term of its self-fuelled fire surpassed
And cancelled. Nothing but a background hum
And darkness stretching through the nebular
Detritus into spans of time to come
More incommensurably vast,
Next to the reign of light,
Than Earth’s deep ages set beside
A mayfly’s one transparent day in flight.
But hale those aeons back and see the face
Of the dead planet swept and scarified
By strobe-lit storm clouds and red gales that chase
The skyline as the days ignite.
Just a few feet below
The stripped and lifeless regolith,
A narrow, blackened band would put on show
The fruits of our endeavour, a footnote
To the grand tale we’d left to reckon with,
A six-inch sooty layer laid down to quote
From that portentous folio:
Interred there and compressed,
The residue of all we’ve made,
Roads, sewers, factories, vehicles, would attest,
Plastics and pipes and wires and ticking meters,
The deathless works, the missiles on parade,
The Sphinx, the floating Taj Mahal, St Peter’s,
The half-lives haunting our bequest.
And so one might presage
That a mere grain, one molecule
That some outrider from a distant age
Sifted from all that indeterminate dross,
Might be the wattle leaves whose shadows pool
On a desk this afternoon, and brush across
The hand that’s poised above this page.
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