The Strangest Place : Stephen Edgar










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ook Description


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 


ISBN 9780648038740
2020
302 pgs
$29.00 Australia
$39.00 International

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Book Sample

From Background Noise : New Poems

Apprehensions


A spattering of early sun
Flung through the high leaves of the eucalypts,
Like dabs and splashes of shellac,
Or spangles on a pool cast up to stun
The ceiling. So, the day is back.
Each note of the rainbow lorikeets encrypts
A quick scintilla, a synaesthetic pun.

By ten, the house is all your own.
She’s gone to work. And the dog, you keep forgetting,
Is gone now too. The radio
Emits its unattended monotone,
A streaming sonar beam, as though
Sounding the day’s deceptive depths, and vetting
The echoes for what must remain unknown.

The rooms take on the false proportions
Flaunted in real estate advertisements,
Unless perhaps it is the hours
That swell and stretch the place with their distortions.
A crane up on the hill’s crest towers
Over a future you can’t influence,
Against which your faint heart inanely cautions.

Later, as daylight starts to fail,
The two of you sit out in the courtyard with
A glass of wine and watch for Mars
Emerging in the heavens. And now, a pale
Astonishment against the stars,
The full moon rises to recite its myth.
Like children, how you love to have that tale

Retold. You never tire of it.
Well before dawn you wake up to the mind,
And its inveterate rigmarole,
Staring into the dark till you commit
That act of faith you can’t control,
Conscious again, you realize, and consigned
To the monstrous world you’re terrified to quit.



From Corrupted Treasures

The Secret Life of Books

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.

What do they have to say and how do they say it?
In the library
At night, or the sun room with its one
Curled thriller by the window, something
Is going on,
You may suspect, that you don’t know of. Yet they

Need you. 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.


From Transparencies

Jupiter
The harbour’s idle undulations slew
And swill their slicks of glaze to make
An unimaginable shape in time
The mind would ache
To contemplate. Above, small figures climb
The bridge, aspiring to a simpler view.

Down on the upper deck of the toy ferry
Now sliding underneath that span,
Deep in today’s political polemic,
A businessman
May miss the news that renders academic
That puppet show, and makes unnecessary

Proposals he is anxious to embrace,
Initiatives already planned,
Between the tropics and the poles, between
The Ice Age and
The Holocaust, juju and mutant gene,
Planck’s constant and the curvature of space.

Tethered in mid-Pacific still revolves
The dateline, dealing out the days
Like there was no tomorrow. Each of them
Plays and replays
Self-replicating hours—a theorem
Of endless present it propounds and solves.

And here, out from the shadow of the bridge,
The ferry surges into this
Ceramic swash, whose crazing would defy
Analysis.
The businessman reads on, but you and I,
Illiterates of trade and leverage,

And risk too intricate for even Lloyd’s
To cover, simply watch the slurs
Of gloss and shifting craquelure. They say
It’s Jupiter’s
Vast mass that draws off, and may hurl our way,
A terminating hail of asteroids.




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REVIEW


POETRY

An assured place

Australia’s pre-eminent formalist
by 
Geoff Page •
March 2021, no. 429

Stephen Edgar, over the past two decades or so, has earned himself an assured place in contemporary Australian poetry (even in English-language poetry more generally) as its pre-eminent and most consistent formalist. His seemingly effortless poems appear in substantial overseas journals, reminding readers that rhyme and traditional metre have definitely not outlived their usefulness.

Edgar’s The Strangest Place: New and selected poems is an ideal opportunity to examine what this reputation is founded on. Its poems were written across some forty-four years, though it is only in the past twenty or so that we recognise clearly the poet we know today. In the earlier collections (Queueing for the Mudd Club in 1985, and Ancient Music in 1988), the poems already show Edgar’s formal command but are perhaps less ambitious technically than his more recent ones. The use of blank verse is never less than assured, and the rhymes, while less complex and original than the ones Edgar uses currently, are still more than fit for purpose. His long poem ‘Dr Rogers’ Report’, for instance, is a highly engaging exercise in a nine-line variant of Byron’s ottava rima.

Edgar’s next two books, Corrupted Treasures (1995) and Where the Trees Were (1999) feature a number of highly memorable poems: ‘The Secret Life of Books’, ‘Daisy, Belle and Arthur’, and ‘Penshurst’, to name three. All of these have the vividness of Edgar’s best poetry from Lost in the Foreground (2003) onwards.

It is worth pausing here for a moment to consider the virtues and limitations of closely rhymed and metred verse when free verse is available as an alternative. Free verse can have a directness and rhetorical (even metaphorical) energy that highly formal poetry often lacks. Tightly rhymed poems (even when as subtle as Edgar’s) can occasionally have an ‘ingenious’ quality about them, where the reader is paying more attention to the technique than to the ‘substance’ of the poem. They can also involve complex syntax that can sound more like a legal argument than an outburst of lyricism. The reader’s reward for successfully negotiating such a poem may have more in common with the successful completion of a Times Literary Supplement crossword than with the ‘spontaneous overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquillity’ of which Wordsworth spoke.

It is interesting that in this context Edgar’s most ‘typical’ poems are not those that stay in the reader’s mind longest. The default ones tend to be clever and persuasive descriptions of weather (wind, in particular) or of estuarine or marine vistas. The final lines of ‘Summer’ are a reasonable example: 

Almost without 
A cloud, the unimagined sky annuls
All qualms across the bay’s embellishment
Which it exults above – except, far out,
A white dismay among the feeding gulls

Of course, taking an excerpt such as this from an almost fifty-line poem is hardly fair. It’s easy to appreciate, however, the sheer metaphorical energy of the ‘white dismay’ among the gulls and, likewise, the ‘unimagined’ sky that ‘annuls / All qualms’. So too the evocative and comprehensive imprecision of the ‘bay’s embellishment’. It should also be remembered that the ending here is a consolatory contrast to the boredom and monotony suffered by hospital patients earlier in the poem. 

The drinking vessels and the get-well cards 
Again, again the faces drained of hours, 
Emptied by their waiting even of boredom

Subsisting in their realm of four o’clock.

In ‘Summer’, it’s more than obvious we are in the hands of a highly skilled poet, and that’s a good place to be at any time.

It is even more satisfying, however, to read a smaller number of unforgettable Edgar poems that focus on something outside the poet’s usual sensibility. Poems of this degree are most often encountered in Lost in the Foreground (2003), Other Summers (2006), and History of the Day (2009). They involve suffering (or a postlude or prelude to suffering) in other countries and times. Interestingly, they also involve ekphrastic accounts of photographic images. Three stand out: ‘Sun Pictorial’, ‘Living Colour’, and ‘Memorial’.

‘Sun Pictorial’ deals with how many of Mathew Brady’s photographic plates of the US Civil War were afterwards used to build greenhouses. Earlier in his poem, Edgar evokes the conflict’s 

gauche onset  
Of murderously clumsy troops
Dismemberment by cannon
before concluding with how the sun each day ensured the soldiers
ordered histories of the war 
Were wiped to just clear glass and what the crops transpired.

More telling still is Edgar’s account of recently discovered footage from pre-World War II Munich. 

In colour too
As bright and vivid as delirium. 
It seems a kind of fault 
In history and nature to restore 
This Munich underneath the flawless blue

 
Of mid-July in nineteen thirty-nine
This pageantry of party-coloured kitsch
The Fuehrer, with his bored assessing gaze 

A third example is ‘Memorial’, a careful scrutiny of the well-known photograph ‘The lynching of Rubin Stacy, 19 July 1935’. After a more general description of the crowd, Edgar zooms in on 

A girl of twelve, maybe, too unaware  
To mask her downward grin 

before, at the poem’s end, moving on to: 

The days that have to be the day that’s been 
Lighting forever everything she knows  
With what she saw, and knows she saw, and knew

It is poems of this subtlety and drama that, for this reader, are the highpoint of Edgar’s career. What then of the book’s opening section, ‘Background Noise: New Poems’?

There’s no doubt that Edgar’s technical standards here are maintained, or even extended a little. The observation is just as sharp and cleverly rendered as usual, but there are not many poems as gripping (or distressing) as the ones just referenced. The poems here are often philosophical, concerned with ‘background’ issues such as the nature of time and our place in the cosmos. Occasionally, there is a more personal (though hardly confessional) poem that has a more emotional than speculative thrust. ‘Possession’ is one example – where the poet is clearing out the house of a recently deceased old woman, almost certainly his mother. He tells of how: 

We emptied out the lot  
Some to distribute 
much though to discard.
And so she was herself, after that stroke
Emptied out: for four years there is not 
One thing she owned that is not torn away

The Strangest Place thoroughly justifies Edgar’s impressive poetic reputation. He certainly does have the formal control and poise of which people speak. And in addition, from time to time, without warning, he can move you very deeply.


POET’S VOICE

SARAH HOLLAND-BATT

Formality within the frame
Stephen Edgar.
The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems.
Black Pepper, 2020.

Weekend Australian
REVIEW

DECEMBER 12-13, 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.

 
The tensions between free and formal verse are as fiercely held as they are unproductive.

 
As the American formalist Dana Gioia once wrote, “only the uninformed or biased can fail to recognise that genuine poetry can be created in both modes.” But Gioia’s conciliatory tone was short-lived; in the very next paragraph of the same essay, he railed against “the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric…and the denial of musical texture” in contemporary free verse. So much for a ceasefire.

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 sarah.hollandbatt@qut.edu.au.

 

  Shadow Line

 

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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