Other Summers : Stephen Edgar

Book Description

Authors Notes

Book Sample

Launch Speech

Five Bells
Clive James in
Poetry (Chicago)
Blue Dog
Critical Survey
Times Literary Supplement
Poetry (Chicago)

Australian Book Review
Wet Ink
Radio National

Clive James website
ASAL Awards

"...some of the finest lyric poetry to have been written anywhere in recent times"

Gregory Kratzmann, Australian Book Review

"...as good as anything in the 800 year-old history of love poetry in English"
Geoff Page, Radio National

"....a supple classicism that earns him a place next to the best twentieth-century American formalists"
D.H. Tracy, Poetry (Chicago)

Book Description

The trees, as though self-mesmerized, all climb
Unmowed, you’d say, into a printed breeze

In which the yachts, remnants of an event,
Have long been left behind

Those of us who thought that Stephen Edgar had already reached a kind of perfection must now face the daunting possibility that he is only just getting into his stride. The range of knowledge and the depth of emotion are contained and intensified by an infallibly musical sense of form. Here is the poetry of someone who has been granted all the gifts, including a sense of proportion so concentrated that it sings. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all is that under the enchanted lyricism, the technical intricacy and the dazzling vocabulary there is always the bedrock of good, plain, conversational speech. This is the way we would all talk if we could. It’s just that almost none of us except him can.
Clive James

I can’t think of anyone writing poetry in English, at the moment or recently, who renders the natural world with the voluptuous precision of Stephen Edgar. These are poems of elegance and depth.
August Kleinzahler
Cover image: Louise Tomlinson, Strand 2003

ISBN 9781876044541
Published 2006
108 pgs

Authors Notes on "Other Summers"

I don’t set out to write ‘books’ of poetry. I just write one poem after another, as ideas occur, and when I think I have enough for a book I look through the available poems to see what themes or preoccupations emerge from them according to which a book could be shaped.

In the case of Other Summers I was aware, before I ever got round to ordering a MS, that the theme or image of summer recurred a number of times. Summer is mentioned by name, or alluded to by imagery, in about fourteen of the poems in the book and constitutes a link between a number of different thematic strands: reminiscences of childhood and my parents, my father’s death, the death of my partner Ann, some poems about war and cultural destruction, and meditations on time, transience and mortality generally. The book, of course, has nothing to do with summer directly but I wanted somehow to exploit the sense of luxuriance and hedonism summoned up by summer, along with an elegiac and nostalgic tone of temps perdu. The reason that I used the same title, ‘Im Sommerwind’ (in the summer wind), for three separate poems, two of them versions of the same poem, was also to allow the summer motif to bind the personal thematic strand with the nonpersonal historical strand. Just as I often use the beauties of the natural world as a setting in which to explore the crises of consciousness, so here the idyllic image of summer forms the setting for sorrows which outlast summer’s lease.

Of course, not all the poems in the book can be accommodated under the above framework and there are other patterns or correspondences present. There are a number of poems about love in various guises, particularly the sequence ‘Consume My Heart Away’ and the two poems of ‘Alpha and Omega’, all of which reflect on a love affair; and these are balanced on the one hand by the more impersonal views of love presented in the Baudelaire translation ‘The Jewels’ and the suite ‘Pictures of Love’, and on the other by the elegy ‘Her Smile’, about my deceased partner. Other poems don’t particularly fit into any of the above thematic strands, such as perhaps the three poems of ‘Things with Wings’.

Book Sample

The Immortals

A breeze fills up the manna gum’s huge lung,
That hologram of bronchioles. It sways there
Tethered and shifting like a hot-air balloon
Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt
To circle the great globe. Heaped at its base
The litter of shed bark and collapsed boughs,
So much dumped ballast. Across an expanse of lawn -
The cat’s savanna - a drowsing figure slouched
In an easy chair inhabits ‘Summertime’,
Living by emptying this gap of day:
A straw hat on her face like a cartoon peon,
Her right arm limply draped over the side,
Jehovah’s index finger pointing down
To where, half lost in the long grass, Daniel
Deronda’s lying in Daniel Deronda,
His pages palping at the air, as though
Blindly taking in what it all is like.

It is hard to imagine. The shallow bay
Offers up to the light the illusory depths
Of a table buffed and polished to a lustre,
Except where an inlet-wide, flung net of wind
Hauls at the panicked shoals of chop and dazzle.
High up the sky is pale as faded denim
Worn through in a few frayed clouds, but where it comes
To earth, a cyan heavier than air
And not to breathe. And sometimes in the evening
The whole space thinks again, and sky and sea
Lie in each other’s mirror, robed in gold
And self-absorbed against the envious land
They leach away, but for some failing islet
Or bluff that barely makes its presence felt.

Look, on her hand’s back are the clues to grief,
Whatever she may think - those patches like
The remnants of a suntan, veins as blue
As any sky could wish, swollen through skin
As beautiful as birch bark, and as frail -
The emblems of a loss that will see out
The ending of the world.

Persisting in some region of obtuse
Sublimity, and full of an inhuman,
Distant pity, he’ll contemplate her, baffled,
Then turn away perhaps like Beatrice
With her doubt-tainted smile. But he’ll be there.

The heat is a dimension now, like time,
And as improbable. The cottage floats,
Not quite convinced it’s happening, with its flies
And cracked linoleum, its shelves of books
Unaltered since the war, its bush-rat droppings,
The clocklike clicking of the roof - all tethered
To the least twitching of her dreaming fingers,
Her shallow breath. Later, before her friends
Descend, she’ll wander barefoot through the rooms
In something easy with an ice-filled glass
And put some music on and watch the sea.


You can’t see it from here,
But caught up in its business to begem
Some ripple-silvered bay or the crests of trees,
Or just a golf course with its dewed veneer,
Ante meridiem
The day unfolds its golden auguries
On a charmed sky. A secular congregation
Is out already to revere
The lit east with a helpless expectation.

It’s like a Hopper painting:
A row of figures sitting mute in the sun,
Which by a plantlike, heliotropic action
Their faces and their thoughts are orienting
Towards, almost as one.
And, gazing on that source of benefaction,
They contemplate and inwardly affirm
What lies in store for their acquainting
At the expiration of a certain term.

And even as they stare,
Appraising what the morning rays appoint,
The light that photocopies her crow’s-feet,
The grey encroachments in his thinning hair,
That stiffening hip joint,
Has swept past as though history were complete.
Back in the bedrooms of this white hotel
Their things, wiser than they, declare
No contest in these fancies. Where it fell

An empty shirtsleeve throws
A purely formal gesture of despair
Across a bed, while nothing will arouse
From lank indifference the pantihose
Haunting a sidelong chair,
The disembodied presence of slip and blouse.
Those traveller’s cheques, laid out in a fat wad,
Half signed away, only propose
Their outlays for the briefest period.

The day’s lucid ascent
Has charmed its way in here, it’s true, but lacks
Suspension of disbelief that those outside
Contribute, their frank willingness to invent.
On their reclining backs
They count up the instalments, smile squint-eyed
Into a rushing solar past their sight
Will never stay, far too intent
On what’s to come to see it for the light.

Im Sommerwind

On a hot listless Sunday afternoon
Of adolescence, on the parapet
Of cooler brick on our front porch, propped up

Against the pillar, I look lazily
Across the park that’s faded less by summer,
It seems, than from the day’s inert aversion

To the principle of colour, as when you stare
Directly at the sun, then turn away,
And everything is washed out, overexposed -

Like oriental art, less form than space.
From somewhere indeterminate nearby
A radio, suffering the same effect

In synaesthetic, sallow murmurings,
Emits the emptied inklings of a tune
That hangs there with the heat, shifting a bit,

Like a curtain, but not going anywhere.
My mother perhaps has brought a folding chair
To sit out for a while and interrupt

Her artful chores. The front door is wide open
And the flywire screen is trying to tempt in
Such enervated airs as circulate

Pretences of refreshment. The TV
Is on, or has been on: some resurrection
From the fifties—Gina Lollobrigida?

The day’s on hold. Nothing can happen here.
Far out across the park’s threadbare expanse
Are figures poised inside the motivations

They came here for. My mother goes indoors
For that incomprehensible cup of tea,
Or at any rate is gone. The music loiters.

What are they calling by the cricket nets?

Peter Steele photograph
Launch Speech

Peter Steele - Poet and scholar
10 March 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, I had considered confining my remarks today to saying, ‘Stephen Edgar’s Other Summers is so good a book that I don’t know what to say about it, beyond recommending that you read it,’ but I guessed that you would think that something more was called for.

When, with pleasure, I began some years ago to read Edgar’s poetry, an early reaction was, ‘Somebody has been reading Anthony Hecht.’ From my point of view, this was a very good sign - not only because as it happens Hecht was a dear friend, but because I had long admired a number of elements in his poetry. Stephen Edgar’s work does not in any sense replicate Hecht’s poetry, but it may be useful this afternoon to name several features of the American’s writing which point us towards Edgar’s poetry.

The first of these is a fascination with the enigmatic and the transient. One book of Hecht’s is called Millions of Strange Shadows, another, The Transparent Man, and he wrote many poems in which a central motif is the evanescence even of the vivid. And while titles are not necessarily guarantees of anything in particular, consider some of the titles of Edgar’s poems in Other Summers: ‘The Immortals’, ‘Tomorrowland’, ‘Unsunned’, ‘State Secrets’, ‘From the Labyrinth’, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, ‘Optical Illusions’, ‘Against My Ruins’, ‘Night Vision’, ‘Never’, ‘Diversionary Tactics’. And indeed it proves to be a fact that what Edgar’s strikingly expert verse steadies in the mind is an awareness of unsteadiness, of the ‘going... going...’ of things which refuse nonetheless to be gone. This is a paradoxical state of affairs, but Edgar has little interest in tricksiness: it is rather a question of his trying to keep faith poetically with that strangeness of the world which is attested by his sensibility and framed provisionally by his intelligence. The Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll remarks that’The talent many poets share is that of making the ordinary seem ordinary’: that is a talent which Stephen Edgar does not enjoy.

O’Driscoll has also remarked, ‘Poetry is my preferred language. Music is poetry’s preferred language,’ which points us towards an important feature both of Hecht’s and of Edgar’s work. I am thinking here of the frequency with which each of them uses music as motif or as implied context - as in, say, Hecht’s ‘A Lot of Night Music’ or his ‘A Love for Four Voices’, or as in Edgar’s ‘Song Without Words’ or his ‘The Sounds of Summer’ - but more importantly of that latent musicality of all warranted precision in speech, of the buoyancies and cadences which seem to sustain the phrasings by which they are themselves sustained. Open ‘The Immortals’, the first poem in Other Summers, and this is how it begins:

A breeze fills up the manna gum's huge lung,
That hologram of bronchioles. It sways there
Tethered and shifting like a hot-air balloon
Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt
To circle the great globe. Heaped at its base
The litter of shed bark and collapsed boughs,
So much dumped ballast...

In such a passage - and passage it is - the pentameter is in effect a rudimentary keying of attention through which there play, in point and counterpoint, phrasings of insight and fragments of lyricism - as in, ‘That hologram of bronchioles’, or as in ‘Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt / To circle the great globe.’ This poem is not one of those in the book which most overtly reach for musicality - they would include, say, ‘The Transit of Venus’ and ‘The Implicate Order’ - which is part of my point. It is as if, for Edgar, the world is constantly in audition, constantly being assayed for its fitness to be heard into life, whether it portends good news or bad, or the customary mutual suffusing of the two.

That mention of ‘good news or bad’ reminds me once more of a salient feature of Anthony Hecht’s poetry. Countless Australians, once upon a time, taking their cue from Dorothea Mackellar, attributed to this country, ‘her beauty and her terror’, and Hecht found the matrix of his imagination in a convergence of the beautiful and the terrible. He was often, to use the word with some precision, a tragic poet, though he did not suppose that this committed him to a poetic austerity. Stephen Edgar, writing in the remarkable sequence ‘Consume My Heart Away’ of love found and lost, says at one point, ‘I took all that you said as true / But what is true is more than what is said, / And maybe after all your years of practice / Your body’s mastered how to lie in bed’, and then at the end of the same poem, ‘Tralee’,

No rules, but consequences should be clear.
To hear on that last morning your
Last words, ‘Think of the good things, let’s be friends,’
As though a wounded heart’s a frippery,
As though love’s really ended when it ends.
The path we took was no detour.
There is no other way. And oh, my dear,
If you still think that we might reach Tralee,
The truth is that we cannot start from here.

There is enough and to spare of the terrible in both of these passages, but in one way they are not austere, in that the bitter wit of the first has a beauty of its own, and the second’s blend of seasoned wisdom and thwarted aspiration is carried melodiously.

The prompting human experience that lies behind such poems is no doubt, to put it mildly, demanding enough: but so in another sense is the aspiration to do some kind of real justice to it in poetry. If there is one thing more than another that I admire in Stephen Edgar’s poetry it is that, while he plainly has a virtuoso’s expertise in the disposition of forms, he is so constantly open to what Yvor Winters called ‘the rain of matter upon sense’: he wants the reader to see the rain quite as much as the gleaming buckets in which it is being collected. James Richardson asks, ‘Why would we write if we’d already heard what we wanted to hear?’ and says, at another place, ‘Only half of writing is saying what you mean. The other half is preventing people from reading what they expected you to mean.’ Together, such sayings warn against taking it easy in poetry, since there, too, easy come, easy go. It is not a practice to which Edgar is given.

I claimed earlier that Edgar’s imagination inhabits the enigmatic and the transient, and perhaps that is the note on which to end, provided that one notices the alertness and the achieved proficiency with which he lives there. He writes as though it is possible to be at once a veteran and an innocent, and reading him, very often, one believes this. Late in his poem ‘State Secrets’, it is a veteran's voice which acknowledges that ‘The folded rose / Is now too intimately classified / For any name that named it to disclose’, but the innocent is there to be heard, too, in the poem’s final stanza:

Astonishments of time and light,
The source of feathers, the atrocious doubts
That flood the bloodstream are too recondite
For you. The last kiss on the brow,
What love becomes, your father’s whereabouts,
Once whispered - these are all State secrets now.

Stephen Edgar is a broacher of such secrets, and Other Summers passes them on authoritatively. It is a pleasure to declare this book launched.


Other Summers
John L. Sheppard
Five Bells, Spring/Summer 2008/2009

Stephen Edgar has often been regarded as Australia’s foremost formalist. The collection of poems in Other Summers, his sixth book of poetry, only serves to strengthen this reputation. It is evidence of a master craftsman at work. He uses rhyme, but not in every instance; he often has regular stanza lengths, especially four or three lines, but not always; he sometimes uses known classical forms, like sonnet and villanelle. However, it is not the structural aspects that make his writing compelling: it is his elegant use of language and his sophisticated lyricism, often expressed in free verse.

Here is an example of this elegance of expression, compacted with metaphor, carefully chosen adjective and personification:

The day unfolds its golden auguries
On a charmed sky. A secular congregation
Is out already to revere
The lit east with a helpless expectation.


And in another extract, also compacted with metaphor, and with simile:

A breeze fills up the manna gum’s huge lung,
That hologram of bronchioles. It sways there
Tethered and shifting like a hot-air balloon
Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt
To circle the great globe.

‘The Immortals’

One of my favourite poems in the book is ‘Salvage’. It is the extraordinary poetic power of the language that attracts me, and the dramatic quality in Edgar’s imagery. Consider the following:

And when the winches
Shriek and groan in concert, and the chain winds in,
And the churning surface, growing smooth now, shows
The green emergence of a rising bulk

And bulges momently like a streaming eye,
And something broaches, oceanwater-curtained,
What would it serve them, even if they could see,

Whether the deeps fall dazzlingly away
Like foamy gauzes trailing Aphrodite,
Or spill like eels out of a rotting horsehead?


The verbs are highly expressive, indeed onomatopoeic, in ‘shriek’, ‘groan’ , ‘bulges’, ‘broaches’; the adjectives are intense, in ‘churning’, ‘streaming’, ‘oceanwater-curtained’, ‘foamy’, ‘rotting’; the similes are startling, in ‘like a streaming eye’, ‘like foamy gauzes trailing Aphrodite’, ‘like eels out of a rotting horsehead’.

There is also a rhetorical flourish in the writing, where the lines build up to a climax as the repeated ‘and’ (given five times) adds one image after another, until there is the ‘What would it serve them...?’ This build-up gives the writing special strength and purpose, just like an orator may use repetition to make a powerful point.

The reference to Aphrodite (p.73) reflects the author’s classical background, for he is a Latin and Greek scholar, and occasionally alludes to the ancient myths; for example, he refers to Beatrice (p.2), Andromeda (p.10), Ithaca (p.19), the Minotaur (p.36), and Sappho the writer (p.ix). It helps to know your classics. It also helps to know your literature; for example, Edgar often refers to Dante, and has allusions to several other writers.

Another part of the book I find intriguing is his treatment of a summer theme in three different ways under the same title of ‘Im Sommerwind’, which is a German term. In the first and third rendition he addresses the same general scene of his family home, with mother and author present, but deliberately describes it in different tones. I asked him about this, and he said he just wanted to try it out in a different way. I am reminded, having just been to the current NSW Art Gallery exhibition, of how the French Impressionist artist Claude Monet in the 1880s and 1890s painted several series of the same subject in different light, as changes occurred through the day. One of these was of the Creuse Valley, another was Rouen Cathedral, another was haystacks. He thereby produced an extraordinary sequence each time. Edgar is taking the same approach of viewing the one subject in different lights, for the sake of making the comparison. All three of the poems are in triplet stanzas. The third is in chained verse, a villanelle. The first line is the same in the first and third poem. The second treatment is very different in approach, seemingly based on a photograph of his family, and acknowledges an extract from Primo Levi which has in it the themes contained in Edgar’s own poem.

There is a certain artistic playfulness in this approach, of producing a triptych and scattering the three parts to different locations in the book, not side by side, leaving it to readers to find what they will. We see here Edgar’s versatility. The three pieces bind the book as a whole, setting up thematic unity. One can compare the beginning of the first poem and the third:

On a hot listless Sunday afternoon
Of adolescence, on the parapet
Of cooler brick on our front porch, propped up

Against the pillar I look lazily
Across the park that’s faded less by summer,
It seems, than from the day’s inert aversion

To the principle of colour, as when you stare
Directly at the sun, then turn away,
And everything is washed out, overexposed -

‘Im Sommerwind’


On a hot listless Sunday afternoon
I’m sprawling on the porch by the front door
While someone’s radio murmurs a tune.

My mother’s brought a chair out to maroon
Herself a moment between chore and chore
On a hot listless Sunday afternoon.

The screen door wants to let the house commune
With languid airs that stray in to explore
While someone’s radio murmurs a tune.

‘Im Sommerwind’

The first poem is in free verse; the third is formalist, following a tighter set of rules. Both versions work; both are competently crafted. All three are founded on reminiscence.

It is intriguing to relate those three poems to a fourth in the collection, ‘Eighth Heaven’. In it Edgar seems to take the ideas further in another treatment, this time including his father in the scenario. Here is the beginning:

I open the flyscreen door and slip inside
Easing it shut. Low voices - the radio? -
Drift from the dining room, although their words

Are indistinct. A milky sort of light
Clings to the ceiling showing that the summer
Is well established here and the inner shadows,

However cool they may appear, are tacky
As bare thighs on a vinyl chair.
My mother, at the kitchen bench, is pouring

Afternoon tea...

‘Eighth Heaven’

Here again we have the screen door, summer, radio playing, colour and light, his mother: another ‘variation on a theme by Paganini,’ so to speak.

Further binding the work is an emphasis on memory, reminiscence, time, season, nostalgia, lost love, transience of existence, mortality, and the need for hope. These ideas are treated sometimes with complex syntax, density of expression, rich diction, and colourful ingenuity. Rhyme and musical rhythm are an integral part of the whole, working in intricate harmony. Time occasionally takes on a haunting aspect, an elegiac quality, bitter-sweet memory bringing forward paradox as time stands still. This is serious poetry, and its wealth is worth the effort of mining.

For sheer brilliance of sophisticated use of language, for extraordinary formal control of rhythm and rhyme, for delicate lyricism, this book is not to be missed.

An Almost Perfect Break-up Poem
Clive James

Poetry (Chicago), January 2009

A critic’s second reading of a poem by Stephen Edgar proves that a first reading is the best-kept secret of criticism.)

On a second reading of a poem that has wowed us, we might grow even more interested, but we start to sober up. For my own part, initial admiration for a single poem often tempts me into a vocabulary I would rather avoid. The Australian poet Stephen Edgar’s poem ‘Man on the Moon’ can be found in his collection Other Summers, or—more quickly, and for free—in the selection devoted to his work in the Guest Poets section of my website, clivejames.com. With a single reservation, I think it is a perfect poem, although ‘perfect’ is an adjective I would rather not be caught using. The word just doesn’t convey enough meaning to cover, or even approach, the integrity of the manufacture. I knew that already on a first reading. But on a second reading, I begin to know how I knew it:

Hardly a feature in the evening sky
As yet—near the horizon the cold glow
Of rose and mauve which, as you look on high,
Deepens to Giotto’s dream of indigo.

Giotto is dreaming of indigo because he couldn’t get enough of it: in his time it was a pigment worth its weight in gold. Edgar is always good on facts like that. I could write a commentary picking up on such points, but it wouldn’t say why the poem is perfect, or almost so. The obvious conclusion is that I don’t need to say that. But I want to, because a task has been fudged if I don’t. There are plenty of poems full of solid moments, but the moments don’t hang together even by gravity. So why, in this case, do they cohere?

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.

We can already see the moments cohering. The indigo sky of the first stanza has supplied the background for the moon, which has become two different things, one growing out of another: the soap paring and the separated crescent of a fingernail, possibly the same fingernail that scratched the soap, but probably not, or he would have said so. These specific but metaphorical details provide the warrant for a general but more abstract statement about hope. Out on its own, the abstract concept of hope could be the town where Bill Clinton was born, or a mantra in a speech by Barack Obama. We don’t know what the poet’s hope is about yet, but here it looks planted securely on firm ground, because of the store of specific noticing that has already been built up:

There was no lack of hope when thirty-five
Full years ago they sent up the Apollo
Two thirds of all the years I’ve been alive.
They let us out of school, so we could follow

The broadcast of that memorable scene,
Crouching in Mr. Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.
There’s not much chance, then, of forgetting that.

Now we see where hope was going: all the way to the moon. The Apollo mission landed there in 1969. Add a ‘full’ thirty-five years to this and we can calculate that the poem was written in 2004 or perhaps the year after. Increase thirty-five years by a third and we find that the poet is about fifty-three years old at the time of writing. And he was about seventeen at the time of the landing. So he was in high school, with Mr. Langshaw for a teacher: a dedicated teacher, living alone in tight circumstances, here made tighter by the presence of the whole class. The number of boys in the class is the only statistic we can’t work out, but it must have been a substantial number or the word ‘whole’ would not have been used for effect.

Because these two stanzas form one unit, the first bridging syntactically into the next, we can see that the pace has picked up. The first two stanzas of the poem made one statement at a time, but they were just the overture. This is the opera. Or at any rate the operetta: there is an air of lightness to it, mainly conveyed by ‘that memorable scene,’ which is a knowing allusion to a time-honored line of poetry (from Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’), and is obviously put there on the assumption that we also know it, or can at least guess that the heroic elevation of an archaic-sounding phrase is deliberately being used to say that this, too, is history. Those who remember the story of Marvell’s poem will be glad to realize that this time nobody is getting executed. In Marvell’s poem, it is Charles I, and not Cromwell, who bravely faces death, and the diction is a token of the poet’s generous scope of understanding. But to borrow the phrase is also a way for this later poet, Stephen Edgar, to say that literature now must make room for the machines. Readers who go further into his work, as they surely must, will find that Edgar is unusually sensitive to science and technology. They increase his vocabulary, which is lyrically precise over a greater range of human activity than anyone else’s I can think of, with the possible exception of his senior compatriot Les Murray. More of a city boy than Murray, Edgar has fewer words for evoking life on the land. But for all other realms he has whole dictionaries in his head:

And for the first time ever I think now,
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time’s long labyrinthine avenue

Eventually you’d bring yourself to me
With no excessive haste and none too soon—
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man on to the moon.

And this, suddenly and unexpectedly, is another realm, the realm of personal emotion. One of Edgar’s favorite strategies is to set up an area of public property, as it were, before bringing in the personal relationship: a way of spreading inward from the world. The effect, especially acute in this case, is to dramatize his isolation. But as yet we don’t know that the isolation will mean loneliness. Perhaps he and ‘you’ are still together. The portents, however, are ominous. For one thing, she is probably younger than he. She was in the world then, but the wording suggests that she might not have been so for very long. She was on her way to him, down a ‘long labyrinthine avenue’ that sounds as if it has passed through the mind of Philip Larkin. Edgar is fond—sometimes too fond—of echoing Larkin, but he is usually, as here, careful to echo only the cadences, not the wording. Larkin often used a monosyllabic adjective before a polysyllabic one, with no separating comma. The sonorous glissando of the device was useful to give the pathos of passing time. But Edgar undercuts the evocation of inevitability by giving the loved one an air of caprice. She brings herself (good of her) with no excessive haste (what kept her?) and none too soon (finally she deigns to turn up).

On a fine point of technique, rather than a larger point of tactics, the way that the poet, in the penultimate line quoted, gives ‘memorable’ and ‘history’ their full syllabic value recalls Auden, and in the final line of the octet we can hear Empson, as we can always hear him when trochees are laid over an iambic pattern to give a spondaic tread. Since Edgar obviously weighs his words with care, it is safe to assume that he knows Neil Armstrong blew the script. Armstrong should have said ‘one small step for a man.’ When he fluffed it and said ‘one small step for man,’ he ensured that ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ would mean the same thing and that the sentence would be deprived of its intended contrast. But Edgar seems to be saying that even the giant step for mankind is small—small enough, at any rate, to be matched by the moment in his own history when he and the loved one met:

How pitiful and inveterate the way
We view the paths by which our lives descended
From the far past down to the present day
And fancy those contingencies intended,

A secret destiny planned in advance
Where what is done is as it must be done
For us alone. When really it’s all chance
And the special one might have been anyone.

Here again, a whole argument is bridged over two stanzas, and this time with only a single terminal comma, so that the effect of a lot being said at once is reinforced by the technical fact of compressed syntax. The word ‘inveterate’ gets a hypermetric emphasis, making it sound important enough for us to figure out exactly what it means here, or to look it up if we’ve never seen it. (If we do look it up, we find that the current meanings of something long established and settled by habit are underpinned by a historic meaning of something hostile—an undertone which soon turns out to be appropriate.) In the last line of the stanza we have to figure out, in the absence of the poet’s spoken emphasis, that the word ‘intended’ is an adjective qualifying the noun ‘contingencies.’ That’s one of the tasks fulfilled by the comma: to tell us that the contingencies aren’t about to intend anything, but are, themselves, intended. The other task of the comma is to set up a development in which the contingencies amount to a destiny, which turns out to be the wrong idea. ‘Where what is done is as it must be done’ has a playful musicality, but the play is sad, because it isn’t true: determinism is an illusion. Chance rules, and when the repetition in the line is matched by the repetition in the last line, the game is over. The poem, however, isn’t. Casting our eyes down we see that there is more of it to come, although not much more. It’s going to have to cover a lot of distance in a short time if it is to bring these themes together:

The paths that I imagined to have come
Together and for good have simply crossed
And carried on. And that delirium
We found is cold and sober now and lost.

This time the argument is confined to one stanza and has the effect of a summary. We know that there is more of the poem to come, but it could conceivably end here. The separate trajectories of the mission and the moon successfully met each other according to plan, and the Apollo Lunar Module came down in the right spot. The separate trajectories of the poet and the loved one met each other as well, but each of them kept going. Ecstasy (called ‘delirium’ in retrospect, as if it had been a fever) didn’t hold them together, and the return of sobriety revealed that it couldn’t have. What was ‘lost’ was a big chance, but a chance was all it was. The under-punctuation is an indicator, telling us that he’s had time to work this conclusion out, and that it can therefore be set down economically, as a given. The whole story can be seen in the turn of the second line into the third. The phrase ‘And carried on’ comes out of the turn with a reinforced inevitability. (In the heyday of practical criticism, such an effect would have been called ‘enactment,’ but when it was eventually realized that almost any technical feature could be called enactment, the term thankfully went into abeyance.) The idea that if their two paths crossed they might stick together was a wrong guess on his part. Was it the wrong wish? Well, separation seems to have been her decision, so perhaps she was the wrong woman. Maybe delirium wasn’t what she wanted. We are left free to speculate about all those things as the poem spreads outwards again, and makes an end:

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

This is only the first stanza of a conclusion that spreads over two stanzas, but let’s break into the flow and see how it works. My own first judgment was that an otherwise unstoppable advance had interrupted itself. On a second reading, I still think so. When I mentioned that I had only one reservation about the poem, the phrase ‘to quote myself’ was it. He isn’t quoting any other part of the poem, so what is he quoting? Investigation reveals that he is quoting another of his poems: ‘Nocturne,’ the second part of a two-part sequence called ‘Day Work,’ which was collected in his previous volume, Lost in the Foreground. A poet need not necessarily be asking too much when he asks us to read one of his poems in the light of others in the same volume, or even in other volumes. In the later Yeats, to take a prominent instance, there are plenty of individual poems making that demand. But when a poem has successfully spent most of its time convincing us that it stands alone, it seems worse than a pity when it doesn’t. It seems like self-injury: a bad tattoo. It was the poem itself that made us wish it to be independent, so it has revised its own demand.

Edgar’s poem can have this flaw and still remain intact. (Presumably the crack in the golden bowl did not stop it holding fruit.) But it’s definitely a blip in the self-contained air of infallibility. The perfect has momentarily become less-than-perfect, with the sole advantage that one is forcibly persuaded that the word ‘perfect’ might mean something. (If it means ‘stand-alone,’ ‘independent’ and ‘self-contained,’ then those are already better words.) But the argument continues despite the backfire. The motor hasn’t stopped running. It powers the radio telescope of the moon, which is listening to the stars, appearing here in their old-style, pre-scientific form. What does he wish to believe about the possible destination of his thoughts after they are beamed up to the soap paring, or nail paring, that has now become a parabolic dish? (This poet doesn’t mix his metaphors: he morphs them.) The answer is in the two-part coda’s second stanza, which is the last stanza of the poem:

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.

He wants their two trajectories, his and hers, to join again. But we have seen that they haven’t, and now we are told that they won’t, because when he addresses her, she isn’t there, except in his head. This is a drama for one person, and it’s over. He has been talking to himself all along.

* * *

When reacting to a poem, the word ‘perfect’ is inadequate for the same reason that the word ‘wow’ would be. But it isn’t inadequate because it says nothing. It is inadequate because it is trying to say everything. On a second reading, we begin to deduce that our first reading was complex, even if it seemed simple. Scores of judgments were going on, too quickly for us to catch but adding up to a conviction—first formed early in the piece and then becoming more and more detailed—that this object’s mass of material is held together by a binding force. Such a binding force seems to operate within all successful works of art in any medium, like a singularity in space that takes us in with it, so that we can’t pay attention to anything else, and least of all to all the other works of art that might be just as powerful. We get to pay attention to them only when we recover.

But recover from what? A spell? Here again, all the natural first words are suspect. I could say why I picked this less-than-perfect, but almost perfect, poem by Stephen Edgar out of all the scores of perfect poems by him, and out of all the hundreds of perfect poems by other people. I could say I picked it out because it haunts me. If haunting is what ghosts are good at, hanging around to rattle the pots and rearrange the furniture when you least expect it, then ‘haunt’ is the right verb. But it’s a verb that I would rather not use. I think Edgar is a fine poetic craftsman. But in that sentence there are two other words I would rather not use either. The word ‘craftsman’ always sounds like a doomed attempt to give an artist the same credibility as a master carpenter, and ‘fine’ smacks of self-consciously upmarket (i.e. effectively downmarket) American advertising, as in ‘fine dining,’ ‘fine linens,’ and ‘fine wine.’ Well, yes, of course the poet is a fine craftsman, and of course his poem haunts you with its perfection. All these superannuated words we should take for granted when talking about any poem that is properly realized. Actually to put them back into print is like diving on a wreck, with no yield of treasure except scrap metal.

Yet we need the ideas, if not the vocabulary, if we are to begin talking about why and how the poem in question is a made object, and not a foundling. Every bit of it might well be a trouvaille—how phrases are assembled and lucky strikes are struck is an even deeper question—but all the bits are put together by someone who either knows exactly what he’s doing or else can control the process by which he doesn’t, quite. You could say that the poet, right from the start and without interruption, transmits an air of authority, but I doubt that the phrase counts for much more than all those other words I’ve been trying to avoid. (Even the author of a jingle on a birthday card has an air of authority if you like the sentiment.) The thing to grasp is that the fine words and phrases are standing in for a complex reaction. They serve as tokens for a complete discussion of an intricate process that doesn’t just happen subsequently, on a second reading, but happens initially, on the first reading. Most of the analysis that I have supplied above almost certainly happened the first time that I read the poem, but this time I have written it out.

So much can happen, and in such a short space, only because we bring our own history to the poem, even as it brings the poet’s history to us. Contained within the first reaction are all the mechanisms we have built up through reading poems since we were young: reading them and deciding they were good. (We might have learned even more from the poems that we decided were bad, but we could do that only by having first learned to recognize the good.) This mental store that the reader brings into play on a first reading is, I believe, the missing subject in most of what we call criticism. The missing subject needs to be illuminated if we are fruitfully to pursue all the other subjects that crop up as we speak further. Without that first thing, all the subsequent things might be full of information, but they will lack point. It makes little sense, for example, to say that a poem fits into the general run of a poet’s work if we don’t first find ourselves saying why it stands out even from that. We can say later that it blends in, but it had better be blending in only in the sense that it stands out like a lot of the poet’s other poems. A poem doesn’t, or shouldn’t, express the author’s ‘poetry,’ and it’s a bad sign when we contend that it does. It was a fateful turning point for the career of Ted Hughes when his later poems were discovered to be ‘Hughesian,’ i.e. characteristic instead of unique. The idea that a poet should be praised for producing sequences of poems, and even whole books of poems, that give us nothing but a set of exercises in his own established manner, is ruinous for criticism, and is often the sign of a ruined poet. The great mass of later Lowell is weak when tested by the intensity of early Lowell. Read ‘A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ again—or merely recall the bits of it that you have in your memory—and then try to find anything as strong in the bean silo of History. It takes a critic who has never appreciated the strength of Lowell’s early poems to think that the later work is a development rather than a decline.

In the sum of a poet’s achievement, it isn’t enough that the same tone recurs, and often it’s a sign of deterioration when it does. Edgar, always precise about shades of color at each end of the day, is a modern master of what I would like to call the daylight nocturne, but I would expect to arouse suspicion if I praised one of his poems for having no other characteristics. As it happens, almost every poem he publishes is impossible to reduce to a kit of favorite effects. The argument and its illustrations always serve each other inseparably: they can be discussed separately, but they flow back together straight away. So everything I can say about him follows from his capacity to produce the unified thing. From that initial point, the discussion can widen. We can say that Edgar suffers from the peculiar Australian critical climate in which it is widely and honestly believed that a rhymed poem in regular stanzas must be inhibiting to a sense of expression that would otherwise flow more freely. The elementary truth that there are levels of imagination that a poet won’t reach unless formal restrictions force him to has been largely supplanted, in Australia, by a more sophisticated (though far less intelligent) conviction that freedom of expression is more likely to be attained through letting the structure follow the impulse.

In that climate, Stephen Edgar’s name is not yet properly valued even in Australia. To believe that it one day will be, you have to believe that something so good is bound to prevail. But that might not happen. Australia (and here we enter into sociology and politics) has a small literary market anyway, and for poetry it is minuscule, so prizes and grants count. Though his position has somewhat improved lately, Edgar has been awarded remarkably few of either: partly because, I fear, the committees are stacked with poets who couldn’t write in a set form to save their lives, and with critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete. It would be nice to think that this tendency could be reversed by the example of a single poet. But of course it can’t. All one can do is argue for the importance of his work, and that argument must start with the certainty of our first judgment, made on a first reading: a judgment which is not yet concerned with advocacy. On a second reading we can, and must, begin to propose a restoration of the balance. There is a place for free forms: they no longer have to justify themselves. There should be a place for regular forms too, but they now have to justify themselves every time. One of Edgar’s dictionaries is a classical dictionary. He can read the ancient languages, and might have written poems with no properties except those from the far past. But his work participates in a new classicism, fit to incorporate the modern world, in which it deserves a high place. Almost any of his poems will tell us that, on a first reading. The second reading tells us why we should try to tell everyone else.

Tight Knot of Time: Stephen Edgar’s
Other Summers

Pauline Reeve
Blue Dog, Vol. 6, No. 12 December 2007

This summer, the first without my father, saw me putting up the periscope for the first time in a long while, to look for any return of blue skies. Skies that vanished when a ‘white dismay’ of cancer invaded and banished an idyllic life with its sense that ‘it will be now for evermore.’ Summer is fading into autumn. Outside, the huge gum tree in our backyard no longer winces in the heat even though the sky is flawless, and I reflect that for the first time in perhaps five years there has been the satisfaction of more blue sky. And yet... and yet... life viewed from this present has changed. For one thing, time itself has taken on new significance.

It was during those years dominated by dismay that I discovered my first Stephen Edgar poem ‘Im Sommerwind’ (pg 67) which now appears as the central refrain at the heart of his most recent collection, Other Summers. I was drawn in by the sensual summer scene he depicted, only to discover that out of it reached a hidden grief. Was this not precisely my own experience? Summer so often spent outdoors in the enlivening light was now being shot through with an impending final goodbye.

There is a symphonic poem called Tm Sommerwind’ by the late nineteenth/early twentieth century composer Anton Webern, itself based on German poet Bruno Wille’s poem of the same name. Jonathan D. Kramer writes of this music, ‘the melodic style of Sommerwind does not comfortably fit its harmonic style. From the tension of disagreement comes an unsettled undercurrent that gives Sommerwind an unusual and memorable quality’ (http://www.cincinnatisymphony.org). Though speaking of a musical style, Kramer may well have been speaking of Edgar’s voice in Other Summers. Here, summer on the one hand brings with it that drowsy sense of timelessness where things don’t change. On the other, it brings an element of unease. Clouds rise even in summer skies. Time brings change and there is no going back. Except perhaps vicariously, through imagination, writing, photography - those means by which we seek to hold onto time by duplication. More than that, it is ‘this moment’ that holds both ‘a past remoter than / The pyramids’ and ‘an era that is yet unknown.’ Here in Other Summers too, theme is matched with tensions of language. There is a fusion of images and poetic forms and styles from past and present, with elements borrowed from science fiction and fantasy so that one might describe his poetry in his own words as a ‘tight knot’ (pg 7) of time.

In the end, ‘Im Sommerwind’ led me to Edgar’s fifth collection, Lost in the Foreground (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2003), a collection which I read like a soldier fighting for every piece of ground. I was unaccustomed to such density of thought and intricacies of style, and alternated between delight and despair, until I put it aside overwhelmed by the realities of the bleakness filling my own life. And Lost in the Foreground does present a rather jaundiced view of life. It takes its title from a line in a poem called ‘The Company’ (pg 48) which imagines the facelessness of the Company and has the speaker in the poem pondering:

You wonder if it’s you
Who after all

Must be the last
Forlorn surviving soul

The collection is populated with poems of despair, death, void. ‘Life’ is that which the speaker in ‘Stranger to Fiction’ (pg 33) would save the child from, ‘If [they] knew how to.’ What I did delight in was Edgar’s imagination, his skill in evoking landscapes with which I was familiar and his inescapable mastery of traditional form and rhyme.

On picking up Other Summers, his sixth collection in a career commencing with publication in 1985, much of it conducted from his adopted state Tasmania (he has of late returned to Sydney), I was immediately struck by the similarity of its cover to that of Lost in the Foreground. Both depict blurred scapes. The latter, a dark streetscape, with an obscure figure merged in the foreground. The former, a foreshore with figures emerging out of misty light. In retrospect, the two are not disconnected. ‘Space and time are one,’ a phrase more often employed in reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity, rings through my thoughts. It is possible to see Lost in the Foreground as concerned primarily with space - albeit a metaphysical void. It is seeded, however, with the themes of time and the language and imagery characteristic of Other Summers. ‘Arcadia’ (pg 24), an elegy for Gwen Harwood, demonstrates this. Setting the poem in a seascape not unlike that of a Harwood poem, Edgar writes, ‘We can recall the past; Why not what is to come?’ And later:

When one that we love dies
With childlike panic we
Are forced to realise
The vast simplicity
Of waiting pain
In which the heart is hurled.
Never again
In the story of the world

Will this person appear.
We look for the known face,
Imagine it is near.
But there is just a space.

Nature as imagery also provides a significant source of connective tissue between the books, but so too do the ongoing references to Dante, shadows, lemon light, outer space, underwater salvage, fiction, history and even the Prime Minister, to name just a few.

But whereas Lost in the Foreground conjures despair, Other Summers is a journey to recapture hope and meaningfulness; a hope and meaningfulness that despite the expanse of space and time explored in the collection, are very much to be found in a closed but intricately connected system. There is no appeal to transcendence or incarnation. ‘Permaculture’ (pg 105) the second last poem of the book, marks the philosophical stance assumed in the end. Reflecting on the ‘Men of the world’ in the Qantas Club as they wait for the mechanics and officials conferring about the ‘jet’s improbable, / Impendent engine,’ the speaker asks rhetorically: ‘Who could imagine or / Desire their absence from the way things work, / This frame they helped contrive and help sustain?’ Only in contemplating and understanding the relationship of part to whole, can one hope to understand and move on.

In journeying towards hope, Edgar takes us through a four-part collection of poems woven around the refrain ‘Im Sommerwind,’ which occurs three times in three variations. The refrain has the effect of binding parts to the whole, underscoring the knottiness of time as well as creating a sense of drowsy timelessness. The first and last refrain both perhaps depict a child, observing his mother take time out from the chores in the heat; a radio emitting ‘inklings of a tune’ which is ‘not going anywhere’ (pg 5). There is a pervasive sense of being stuck in time and changelessness. Edgar’s only variation is to employ the villanelle for the last refrain to emphasise through repetition this sense of time.

In the central refrain of which I’ve already spoken, time collapses and becomes improbable and is at its most colourful when grief threatens an idyllic scene captured in a photograph. It is as if the central figure reaches out of the photograph, reaching beyond the moment. ‘You almost feel / Down on her mortal cheek as she kisses you / Goodbye...’ says the speaker observing the photograph. Edgar uses a similar ploy of collapsing time borrowed from fantasy in ‘The Immortals’ (pg l), almost bringing to life in a contemporary scene both Daniel Deronda and Dante’s Beatrice. Of the former, Edgar writes: ‘Deronda’s lying in Daniel Deronda, / His pages palping at the air, as though / Blindly taking in what it is all like.’

‘The Immortals’ opens the first section of Other Summers, intimating one of Edgar’s disputes with summer: the haunting of the present with the past. It is a theme which dominates this section through the ten poem sequence ‘Consume My Heart Away’ (pgs 11-28), an engaging lyrical-narrative hybrid collection of poems occupied with coming to terms with the loss of love. The opening poem, ‘History of the House’ (pg 11), embarks the reader, through the eyes of the abandoned lover, on a recollection of the passage of their relationship and speculation about why things happened as they did. Time collapses. Ghosts of the past haunt the house. ‘Enough of ghosts, of those who lived before. / I have to live. Switch off the radio’ says the lover. But the radio is difficult to switch off when the voices are from a past and valued relationship. The sequence concludes in ‘The Transit of Venus’ (pg 28) in keeping with Edgar’s philosophical stance that the reason (if there is one) for the passage of the relationship, was ‘to prove / Lability the gift of love.’ These are perhaps the most moving poems in the collection, carried by their easeful conversational tones, linking narrative and depth of feeling. They are amongst the poems least locked with classical reference, though the sequence does not escape this entirely (consider ‘Merlin and Vivien,’ pg 22). And although Edgar’s language is extraordinarily rich it is less obtuse in these poems than in others in the collection. The award winning ‘Man on the Moon’ (pg 26), towards the end of this sequence, broadens Edgar’s appeal beyond the literati. This poem is a gentle, regretful, romantic musing drawing on twentieth century images of the Apollo landing and of space technology (‘the crescent moon... / a radioscope’), exploring the idea of destiny in relationship, the longing for intimacy, the idea of thought transfer despite physical absence that can occur in intimate relationships, again touching on the theme of collapsed time and space.

Time continues to appear in collapsed states in the second section of Edgar’s collection.’Stilts’(pg 54), which appears in a bracket of nature poems, is beautifully evocative of the shimmering light out of which these long-legged birds appear. The effect of light is to transport us into a kind of fantasy world. The speaker observes the stilts and questions:

They gradually progressed...
With no mark amiss,
Contained within a still bubble of time
Contiguous with this
And visible from here,
Transparent to our view,
...but to theirs too?

When it comes to nature, Edgar is focussed on the interplay of context and creature and on creating images that support his philosophical content.

Selections from a longer work entitled ‘From the Labyrinth’ (pg 38) employ the labyrinth of Minoan myth as a time travel device. It begins as a marble structure and progresses to the asphalt surface of the twenty first century. The light along the way also varies from natural light to ‘tube-fed neon.’ Edgar adopts a psychological interpretation of the myth not unlike that of Dorothy Porter in ‘The Labyrinth of Intimacy’ {Crete, Hyland House, 1996, pg 42), and perhaps more directly relevant, ‘The Flying Leap’ (Crete, Hyland House, 1996, pg 40) where she writes of Ikaros: ‘he could smell the Minotaur / playing in his own mind.’ Edgar’s character journeys into the labyrinth of himself to confront self-doubt and fear. The journey puts one in mind of Dante’s journey from the inferno to paradise where, along the way, he, like Edgar’s character, confronts people from his past.

Given Edgar’s training in the Classics, it is not surprising that an exploration of memory dominates the third section of Other Summers. Opening with ‘War and Peace’ (pg 61). he first draws attention to our tendency to be oblivious to the repetitiveness of time. In other poems such as ‘Living Colour’ (pg 65), the tools of memory - including television, still photography and film and the activities of salvage and mummification - pass through his poetic scrutiny, as he addresses such issues as the comparative futility of memory and the dangers of time-lapse. Several are perhaps akin to social commentary cum criticism. ‘Promises, Promises’ (pg 69) is partially a backhand swipe at politicians, as well as being about ‘time and chance and things that might have been’ and the power of time-lapse made possible through the media. The poem closure is apocalyptic: ‘Lights shudder in the clouds and cities sway,’ as if prophesying the consequences of falsity. ‘Sonnets in Silicon’ (pgs 70-71) similarly offers social commentary, alerting readers to the negative impact of technology on our humanity. It is possible to ‘know so much and yet not understand’ matters of the human heart; to lose one’s sensitivity and compassion. Most intriguing for myself, who works in the knowledge industry, is the six poem sequence ‘Against My Ruins’ (pg 74) in which Edgar imagines a world without archives. Electronic archives... All that numeric memory was mum.’ He imagines the delivery of the reading rooms ‘To the illiterate savage purity / Of wind and sky.’ A kind of futuristic Dark Age followed by the slow restoration of writing. At first ‘pictographic scratches’ appear, then the return of scholarship, until ‘Sweet waters in the desert flowed again.’ It is a sequence rendered, unusually for Edgar, in free verse and again is almost apocalyptic. It is dedicated to Alberto Manguel, who has both authored A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and has been engaged in the restoration of a medieval farmhouse which incorporates space to house his 30,000 volume library.

Reassured by the purpose of memory, Edgar propels the reader towards a hopeful future in section four. The opening poem ‘Don Juan in Hell’ (pg 81), has us looking upon Don Juan as he is ferried across the ‘lower seas,’ the world of the dead, a ‘calm hero’ who does not ‘look or turn’ to those who are dead and the one steering is ‘a great stone man hollow.’ Perhaps it is such a calm one who can be open to new love, and Edgar proceeds to a unique sequence of love poems ‘Alpha and Omega’ (pgs 89-91), capturing for us the breathless surprise with which new love arrives bearing gifts of renewed life and purposefulness. In similar cosmic imagery to that employed in part one, he paints the wonder of standing ‘alone, / Not waiting, as I thought, my eyes on / The blank, recessional horizon’ only to find ‘Without my noticing, you were there / Tapping my shoulder’ so that ‘Everywhere / The day unfolds new shapes and designs.’

Time yields its surprises, ‘a blink ago’ writes Edgar, ‘No such patterns were on show. / Where were they hiding in the day?’

‘Diversionary Tactics’ (pg 107), following on from ‘Permaculture’ as the last poem in the collection, finds the speaker touring the suburbs, city centre and foreshore of Sydney, observing: ‘Surely, here at the heart of things, / Here is the ideal place for the attempt.’ Sydney holds the prospect of the new beginning, already hinted at in ‘Permaculture.’ He observes how ‘summer has its way.’ This is the place of Edgar’s childhood and here is the old sameness mingled with the new - ‘old ritual’ continues here, he writes, ‘With a new but undeflectable endeavour, / For all that childhood has resigned / Its codes and haloed circumstance forever.’ Here too, clouds are no longer described in terms of ‘white dismay’ but rather as a ‘fine smudge’ rising ‘in the summer sky.’

Understanding Edgar’s poetry is not always easy going. For those of us less linguistically versatile, reading his work will require the presence of a good dictionary. Edgar’s poetry follows the tradition of A.D. Hope and Gwen Harwood with its emphasis on classical form, and particularly Hope in the use of myth infused with contemporary relevance. What is therefore required then, for those not of the literati, (and maybe for those who are), is the hunting down of relevant keys, whether in a Google search, a dip into a good print reference on mythology, or literature, in order to unlock the significance of a poem. And one must also come to this poetry with a preparedness to sit with a poem awhile in order to untangle the sometimes convoluted and lengthy sentences he employs (some run to fourteen lines). Mostly these are decipherable. Occasionally they are not. I am still puzzling over parts of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (pg 43). These strategies for unlocking poems can be an annoyance. Alternatively, they might, if allowed, enrich one’s language and yield the benefits of contemplative thought. And are these not also a part of the role of poetry?

Edgar is unique in Australian poetry with his pervasive use of end rhyme. Only a minority of poems appear in this collection without it, either as blank verse or free verse. Often a rhyming scheme is combined with the more contemporary feel of the conversational style, which has the potential to create unsatisfactory tension at the end of lines. ‘The Transit of Venus’ (pg 28) is a case in point. Here, the combination of rhyme, indentation and heterometer seems far too disruptive of the conversational tone. There are times too when, in an effort to maintain the balance of meaning and sound patterning, sentence structure deteriorates into slightly archaic patterns, as happens in the second stanza of’Optical Illusions’ (pg 63). On the other hand, the rhyme can work quite unobtrusively as it does in ‘Man on the Moon’ (pg 26), binding it together with repeated sound and adding musicality.

When I came to Edgar’s Other Summers, I came with a view to keeping ‘in the zone’ of poetry while I settled into a new job taken up after the passing of my father. I have come away with a deep sense of pleasure and appreciation for the beauty of patterning in poetry. And I am instructed. In ‘Diversionary Tactics,’ the final poem in Other Summers, there is a slight edge of hesitancy and doubt in the speaker’s voice. It lingers in the opening words, ‘Surely, here at the heart of things, / Here is the ideal place for the attempt,’ as if only time will fully convince. Loss does that to you. Time kicks in with memory and walks along with whatever wishes time also unfolds. The trick for contented living is in their reconciliation.

Other Summers

John Lucas
Critical Survey, 2007

Stephen Edgar’s poems are unusual and, to me at least, unusually welcome in that they bear testimony to the fact that formalism, over which obsequies have so often been pronounced, is alive and well. Edgar positively relishes the chance to write in a number of demanding forms, though wary readers will be relieved to know that the sestina, that curse of the creative-writing class, makes no appearance. (‘Right, class, it’s sestina time. No pain, no gain.’) There are, however, two villanelles, one of which, ‘Unsunned,’ while it isn’t very good, is in the manner of its failure, in exalted company: Edgar’s strained rhymes on effluence/rents and quail/ail are no worse than Empson’s famously desperate ills/rills, in ‘Missing Dates.’ and at least the Australian poet’s syntax holds steady. Good readers will also delight in Edgar’s readiness to make much use of polysyllabic words, thereby thumbing his nose at that silly bit of current orthodoxy which insists that each line should be packed with monosyllables - ­this, despite, or perhaps in ignorance of, Pope’s ‘And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.’ There’s a down side to this. Edgar has an unwary fondness for such formulations as ‘empowered,’ ‘embowment,’ ‘empetalled’ and ‘enwraps;’ and he over-uses the word ‘lucid’ (which turns up 4 times), as he does its close neighbour ‘lucent.’ A good editor would surely have drawn attention to this, as they would query the bookishness that from time to time sprinkles dust over otherwise good poems, as when Edgar speaks of a repeated scene that ‘reinstates but not redeems’ (my italics), or when he imagines someone who ‘contemplates his day to the sublime / Inevitabilities of the late Mozart’. And when he refers to ‘the grey encroachments in his thinning hair,’ you think, yes, well, Stevens coined the word ‘encroachment’ with an authority that now makes it as unusable as Shakespeare’s ‘multitudinous,’ though this is dropped in to what is for the most part a fine poem, ‘Against my Ruins.’

This title comes of course from T.S. Eliot, but then why not? Elsewhere there are allusions to or quotations from Shakespeare (Henry IV, Lear, The Tempest), Dante, Cavafy, Wittgenstein, George Eliot, Yeats, Pushkin, Baudelaire, Albert Manguel - to whom ‘Against My Ruins’ is dedicated, and others beside, and I think, GOOD. A poet who is unembarrassed about his reading and who sees no reason to apologise for it. Other Summers is about as far as you can get from the street-wise knowingness of postmodern allusions to whatever happens to happen, every one of them accompanied by a kind of wink-and-a-nudge on the grounds that - whatever - it’s all equally valid. No, it isn’t. Reading, for example, the opening of ‘The Immortals’ is to feel a serious delight at the lines’ eloquent cadences:

A breeze fills up the manna gum’s huge lung,
That hologram of bronchioles. It sways there
Tethered and shifting like a hot-air balloon
Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt
To circle the great globe...

I don’t know whether this is the first time ‘bronchioles’ has appeared in a poem, but I can’t imagine anyone will have used it to better visual and aural effect. (Those repeated long os make for a kind of hollow sound that is intrinsic to the phrase’s wit.) There’s a similar delight to be taken from the ‘The Time Machine,’ whose intricately-rhymed six-line stanzas allow Edgar to stretch a complex syntax over them, one that rarely threatens to snap under pressure. (Though, if I’m to be picky, I must note that to open three out of six successive lines with ‘While’ is going it a bit.)

For all I know, there may be readers of this review who by now are finding the terms of my praise for Edgar a form of damnation. Formalism? Polysyllables? Complex syntax? Aren’t I as good as suggesting that Other Summers is, you know, ‘inaccessible.’ Not long ago I read a review in which a poet was taken to task for using words the reviewer hadn’t previously come across. (They included ‘ferrous’ and ‘strophic.’) Goodness only knows what he’d make of Edgar’s use of ‘favela’ and ‘pome,’ to choose from a rich variety. If this kind of thing bothers you, dear reader, go back to the baby language of those ‘accessible’ poets who fly forgotten as a dream flies at the opening day. And good riddance. As Louise Bogan said, ‘The muse is immortal ./ And it isn’t for you.’

Other Summers, a deeply serious collection of poems, and one that deserves serious readers, is mostly deeply engaged with memory: personal, social, and cultural. Three different poems, each bearing the same title, ‘Im Sommerwind,’ occur at different points during the book’s progress. They are all written in three-line stanzas, the last being an adoitly-managed villanelle (aha!), and it occurs to me that Edgar’s use of trimeters may be intended as a slant homage to Dante, given that the three poems all use remembered images to evoke the glimpse of a paradisal past, though a sense of menace, of future threat, hangs over each of them. And this can also be felt in the poem called ‘Summer,’ where a hospital setting contains, in most senses of that word, bodies seen ‘As in a nightmare,’ or, I think, as in a kind of Dantean vision. For there is something spectral, dreamlike, about much of the material in Other Summers, a quality which both attends to but tries to distance anguish.

Appropriately enough, then, probably the finest poems in the collection make up a sequence where such distancing is all-but impossible. ‘Consume My Heart Away’ consists of ten poems tracing the course of a love affair from start to finish, and it is prefaced by epigraphs from the Inferno -  ‘No greater pain / Than to remember happy times / In misery’, and Lawrence Durrell: ‘I saw that pain itself was the only food of memory: for pleasure ends in itself.’ I can understand and sympathise with the temptation to pin these epigraphs to the head of the sequence, but I’m not sure it shouldn’t have been resisted, as perhaps should the unattributed borrowing from Yeats for the title (which only makes full sense when you know the next words of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: ‘sick with desire’). Between them, title and epigraphs seems as though they want to authenticate the pain of the writer, whereas what needs to be authenticated are his poems. Put it slightly differently. Too much bad criticism relies on finding poems ‘moving.’ What that nearly always means is that the critic claims vicariously to feel the same pain as the poet claims to have felt in writing about lost love, bereavement, other summers. And it won’t do. Randall Jarrell once said of bad ‘sincere’ poems: ‘it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick.’ In the past year alone I have read any number of such poems, often pressed within the pages of books put out by reputable publishers, each of them crying out ‘I was the man -  or woman - I suffered, I was there.’ What makes Edgar’s sequence different is that he has written a powerful, achieved sequence of poems that are entirely free-standing, so that if I’d heard he’d made the whole thing up it wouldn’t in any way diminish my admiration for what he’s done.

There’s one exception. ‘Song Without Words’ not only suffers from the knowing allusiveness of its title, but from what seems to me a blank at its heart. When the male narrator looks at the woman he loves while, unaware of his presence, she plays at the keyboard (a Joni Mitchell number), he thinks that ‘Too self-possessed and too suspicious / To give herself away, / She took back what she’d never given / One day.’ The trouble with this is that we’ve had no inkling of either the loved one’s self-possession or her unreadiness to give herself away, and have therefore to take it on trust. But why shouldn’t she simply have changed her mind? It’s been known. Or come to the decision that she didn’t fancy him as much as he did her? That, too, has been known. It’s a small point, but as the rest of the sequence so tactfully and beautifully establishes her presence, both physical and emotional, ‘Song Without Words’ feels like a flattening-out of what elsewhere is amply attested precisely because it isn’t treated reductively. Having said this, though, I should at once add that I certainly don’t want any caveat to diminish my praise for the overall achievement of ‘Consume My Heart Away,’ which is never less than very good indeed, and in the last poem ‘The Transit of Venus’, rises to absolute distinction. That this, the closing poem in the sequence, should be written in the Scots ‘flyting’ stanza, is part of the sequence’s accomplishment: its supple, assured strength as poetic art. And to say this is, I hope, to provide some measure of the worth of this excellent collection.

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Other Summers

Shane McCauley
Indigo: No.1, Winter 2007

Sometimes when sampling a book of poetry, several poems have to be read and re-read, tasted, before their tone and quality registers. In Stephen Edgar’s latest collection (his fifth), however, there is no doubt from the first poem on, that this is poetry of real aesthetic magnitude.

The reader can discern that here is a poet who relishes wielding the machinery of verse to direct and to conduct emotive response. Here is the superb final stanza of ‘The Immortals’:

The heat is a dimension now, like time,
And as improbable. The cottage floats,
Not quite convinced it’s happening, with its flies
And cracked linoleum, its shelves of books
Unaltered since the war, its bush-rat droppings,
The clocklike clicking of the roof - all tethered
To the least twitching of her dreaming fingers,
Her shallow breath. Later, before her friends
Descend, she’ll wander barefoot through the rooms
In something easy with an ice-filled glass
And put some music on and watch the sea.

The senses of sight and sound cleverly combine to present the essence of skateboarders in ‘Proprioception’:

Their whole
Design to flout
The iron rule of balance, as they careen,
Curvet and caracole
A wheeled mock dressage through, between,
Among pedestrians.

It is such a relief to find a poet who has ignored the trend towards prosaic and poorly crafted minimalism and who, instead, has made extensive use of the full panoply of poetry’s forms and techniques.

This is poetry rich in metaphor and allusion; it is poetry which complements the visual with the vital underpinning of rhythm and unobtrusive rhyme. In fact, Edgar helps to demonstrate just what can still be achieved with traditional patterns such as the quatrain:

They did not seem to see,
Or not at any rate
To mind our tangent temporality,
But with unruffled gait
They lifted up and set
Back down their graceful feet,
With poise unconscious as the etiquette
Of an age-old elite.

Apart from the variety of subject matter - modern science, optical illusions, films of Hitler, the transit of Venus - there is a virtuoso display of forms: sonnets, villanelles, free verse and beautifully wrought translations of Baudelaire.

Edgar is particularly adept at exploring facets of time, season and memory, as suggested in the book’s title. In ‘Im Sommerwind’ he perfectly captures an enervated adolescent’s perspective:

On a hot listless Sunday afternoon
Of adolescence, on the parapet
Against the pillar, I look lazily
Across the park that’s faded less by summer,
It seems, than from the day’s inert aversion
To the principle of colour.

Cycles of presence and absence permeate his reflections on the seasons, as in ‘The Sounds of Summer’:

The cicadas, as though never here, are gone.
A silence that was always immanent
Slides back.

Edgar time-travels back through memory in many poems. In ‘Man on the Moon’, for instance, he is a boy again, watching the moon-landing with:

The whole class huddled ’round the TV screen.
There’s not much chance, then, of forgetting that.

He is also a very fine poet of love, and such poems are redolent of commemoration and gently bruising regret. Poems about lost or old love can be mawkish and embarrassing. Edgar effortlessly avoids the pitfalls and simply records his reflections with controlled dignity:

She will not be denied.
The ghost of her is too much to ignore,
More stubborn to remain since she is gone.
Enough of ghosts, of those who lived before.
I have to live.
Switch off the radio.

This wry bitter-sweetness also filters through Tralee’:

Why blame
A woman who right from the start
I saw could not be good for me but still
Desired so badly you might well assert
That I conspired with you to break my heart.

The poem comes to an aching close: ‘If you still think we might reach Tralee, the truth is that we cannot start from here.’ This is poetry that most definitely passes the ‘Do the hairs rise on the back of your neck?’ test.

At the other end of the spectrum, Edgar tackles the hi-tech, fast-paced world of Information Technology in his ‘Sonnets in Silicon’. Here, a characteristically lucid form and diction enables him to philosophise on real and artificial intelligence:

How did that little man with such brief time,
Know what he knew about the human heart?

And on virtual reality:

The sun is a child’s drawing, brash and bright

Edgar’s range of craft, thought and feeling is immense. Other Summers has to be recommended unreservedly.

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Other Summers

Oliver Dennis
The Times Literary Supplement, 11 May 2007

Stephen Edgar’s previous collection, Lost in the Foreground (2003), was one of the most significant achievements in Australian poetry - or, indeed, in poetry anywhere - of recent years. An advance on Where the Trees Were (1999) - which, though impressive, suffered throughout from a slight bitterness of tone - it prompted comparisons with two of Australia’s foremost formalists, A.D. Hope and Gwen Harwood. Here was a poet, interested for the most part in our essential helplessness, who had clearly read widely in the English canon, digested useful lessons there (from, among others, Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats and Auden), and gone on to develop a distinctive lyricism of his own. Most remarkable of all was the sense of tranquillity these poems attained: ‘A wind from nowhere just as soon invents / The evening’s empty, lemon-lit reprieve’.

Lightness of touch like that was always going to be difficult to sustain, and, admittedly, this new book (Edgar’s sixth) has less of it. Whereas Lost in the Foreground achieved the objective emotion of which the best poetry is capable, Other Summers doesn’t hide the fact that it has been written under some personal imperative, making the impression it leaves seem, overall, a touch more commonplace. For the first time, Edgar has turned consistently to aspects of his own life. The volume’s longest sequence, for example, looks in detail at the unravelling of a love affair, but seldom gets off the ground: exceptions are ‘The Transit of Venus’ and ‘Man on the Moon’, which reads as well as anything Edgar has done previously:

The paths that I imagined to have come
Together and for good have simply crossed
And carried on. And that delirium
We found is cold and sober now and lost.

Elsewhere, more than once, Edgar remembers scenes from childhood summers (‘On a hot, listless Sunday afternoon etc.’) and memorializes departed loved ones. One of the chief beauties of this collection is the poignant contrast it makes between sadness and a general fascination with warmth and sunlight.

It is a measure of Stephen Edgar’s abilities that, even below its best, his work is hardly ever less than first-rate. On that basis, Other Summers deserves as wide a readership as possible, particularly if it introduces new readers to Lost in the Foreground, still the benchmark of Edgar’s poetry to date.

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Other Summers

D.H. Tracy
Poetry (Chicago), March 2007

Of Australia, David Malouf writes:

Its English was not the seventeenth-century English of the United States, with its roots in Evangelical dissent and the revolutionary idealism of the Quakers... It was the sober, serviceable language fashioned by writers like Addison and Steele and others to purge English of the violent and extreme expression, and political and sectarian hostilities, that had led to the Civil War... This was the language Australia inherited. The language of reasonable argument. Of balance. Of compromise.

Impossible to say whether a given author is subject to such forces, but Australian poet Stephen Edgar has developed a quiet, nonvolatile rhetoric of such balance and reason, and has reached such a level of syntactical control in this mode that he can write well about, and is at his best writing about, next to nothing: a woman lounging alone in a house on a hot day, some birds walking up the beach. Actors in these poems are frustrated from acting by futility, apathy, or anomie, and are thrown back variously onto what they see and what they remember, which may bring misery or happiness. The poetry therefore gravitates towards the action of the mind, and fits most comfortably into the uncomfortable gap between the senses and sensation:

The optic nerve still lives in paradise
And hankers to admit
Its innocent improbabilities.
The mind has paid that price
And always seems to see through seeing’s wit
What was observed by Mephistopheles:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.

‘Optical Illusions’

Life, especially at its quietest, is a brandy that must be sipped, even if it doesn’t taste good.

Like Thomas Hardy, Edgar derives considerable impulse from the stanza form, and adapts to it a Latinate syntax that artfully defers and paces meaning. He gives image and metaphor limited play, because these devices are liable to run away with a thought he has other plans for. The poetry is under high compression, to be sure, and occasionally something leaks out the side: metrical considerations lead to a few stiff word choices (like ‘begem,’ ‘conflagrate,’ and ‘empetalled’), all the more evident because the diction is generally mellow.

Edgar is a bit too angular for his translations of Baudelaire, and an attempt to locate the metaphysics of two laboring porn actors topples over into decadence. Though not invulnerable to the rococo dangers of the style, he achieves, overall, a supple classicism that earns him a place next to the best twentieth-century American formalists. Nor is he in their image: more exposed than Hecht, more troubled than Wilbur, more Horatian than Merrill, he is as capable as all of these poets of weaving out of verse that fine grade of mesh that sifts from experience grains of meaning otherwise lost.

Other Summers

Janet Upcher
Island, No. 107, Summer 2006

A muted contrast to Deane’s work is Stephen Edgar’s latest collection, possibly the apex of his poetic oeuvre, surpassing even the achieve­ment of his previous five volumes. Edgar is not known for his exuberance: in many ways, he seems of another time, another place - another summer. Perhaps it’s the yearning wistful quality, the nostalgia, which imparts such emotional resonance. The haunting nature of his complex images and the crafting of his lines with their musical cadences are exquisitely moving. Until now, I’ve often found Edgar’s work to be lacking an emotional depth-charge. The opposite is true here. It is as though he has antennae more delicate, more sensitive to experience than the rest of us. He knows how to start a slow fuse which ultimately detonates. Coupled with this, he has a mastery of poetic technique and form. Sometimes, though, there’s a danger that the technical ingenuity and constraints of a rigid rhyme scheme can overshadow the felt experience: his exacting emphasis on formal excellence occasionally elevates form above content. In ‘The Sounds of Summer’, potent and ambivalent images are subsequently diluted through contrived language and constraining rhyme: ‘Indoors The Sounds of Summertaints the immense / And daily hours. Lost to its usual crew, / The radio / Can’t bring to bear this stridulant pretence.’ This is even more evident in the poem, ‘War and Peace’, where rhyme almost results in bathos: ‘...while a barn / Burns and its full bushels bake / Until the air becomes confused / With the aroma of a cake.’                          I

Such criticisms serve only to heighten the enduring qualities of most of this collection in four sections, unified by the three poems entitled ‘Im Sommerwind’, which recur like motifs, as symphonic variations on a theme. Behind the entire collection is an aura of mirage, like shadow play where illusion becomes more real than reality. Edgar casts a dazzling sensual spell, transporting us to languid days of shimmering heat and half-lights, indolent summers which contain within them a heightened awareness of mortality; in the midst of summer ease, there’s a dread, an undercurrent, a ‘smudge ...in the summer sky’. This paradox is nowhere more apparent than in the poem ‘Summer’, set in a sterile hospital ward, casting unreality on the summer’s day outside.

Edgar seems equally at ease with a variety of forms: the villanelle is superbly controlled in ‘Unsunned’ and in the final version of ‘Im Sommerwind’; he masters the Italian sonnet, for example, in ‘Promises, Promises’ and again, with a witty, darkly contemporary twist, in ‘Sonnets in Silicon’. There is great versatility in his tercets and quatrains, with their variety of metrical effects and half rhymes. Possibly the jewel of this collection is the sequence ‘Consume My Heart Away’ - the allusion to a line in Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. In this sequence, Edgar explores the many faces of desire, engaging a delightful blend of rationalism, wit and romanticism. It contains poems which are celebratory, caustic, self-deprecating, ironic - a brilliantly poignant depiction of male yearning and the rejection of unrequited love through a very sharp lens.

Throughout the volume, the tensions and complexities create strength and ambiguity: summers are frozen in the frame and then dissolved, always with an undercurrent of our ‘tangent temporality’ (‘Stilts’).

Fittingly, the collection ends on a typical Sydney summer’s day with post-Christmas bargain-shoppers, people strolling in parks, beach­combers and body-boarders and, when we least expect it, on the way home:

Just down these steps, along where that car turned,
The ranks of roses, the grass floor,
The notices that show

The times, even the names of those concerned:

‘Diversionary Tactics’

Clarity and mastery

Gregory Kratzmann
Australian Book Review, No. 287, December 2006-January 2007

Commendations from celebrities and authorities have become a standard feature of cover designs for books of poetry: sometimes one wonders whether the writers have actually read what they puff so assiduously. How refreshing it is, then, to find Clive James and August Kleinzahler recommending Stephen Edgar’s latest volume so perceptively. Kleinzahler’s phrase ‘voluptuous elegance’ goes to the heart of Edgar’s way with words. James’s comment will strike a chord with anyone who takes the time (and time is needed - these are not poems to skim through) to engage with Other Summers:

...perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all is that under the enchanted lyricism, the technical intricacy and the dazzling vocabulary there is always the bedrock of good, plain, conversational speech.

Not surprisingly, the opinions of one poet about the work of another surpass or at least precede the evaluations of academic critics. Years ago, Edgar’s close friend Gwen Harwood took me to task for not knowing more about Edgar’s work than I did. ‘Read that!’ she said, presenting me with Queuing for the Mudd Club (1985) - ‘everyone should know about Stephen!’ Until recently, Edgar’s poems were not well known, except to other poets. He has not been someone to put himself about at literary festivals and readings, at least not outside Hobart, where he lived for thirty years until his recent move to Sydney. Edgar’s seclusion may have nurtured his great gifts, but one hopes that soon his work will reach the wide audience it deserves. Like Harwood, he is a wonderful reader/interpreter of his own work: that ‘bedrock of good, plain, conversational speech’ was strikingly present in the readings he gave at this year’s Mildura Writers’ Festival, where he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

The language of the poems in Other Summers is striking in its range, from colloquial plainness (as in ‘English as a Foreign Language’), as the speaker tells of teaching his lover to say ‘‘I love you’ in Russian’:

A lover’s commonplace avowal,
But rather difficult to sound
In Russian; it can be a trial
To get your tongue around.

But she repeated those words over
And over till she had them pat.
In English, though - well, she could never
Quite manage to say that.

Only an exhibitionist or an artist firmly confident of both his medium and audience would dare to use words such as ‘proprioception’, ‘anfractious’, ‘embowment’ and ‘stridulent’. But Edgar is no exhibitionist. The movements into the register of such polysyllabic arcane diction have the effect of jolting the reader into thought, making us ponder the strange materiality of these words in their poetic contexts. How many of us have forgotten the peculiar delight of encountering a new and strange word, going to the dictionary to check its meaning and etymology, and then committing it (or not) to memory? Such language is sparingly and economically invoked; many of the poems reflect their creator’s erudition, but the effect is never intimidating, because of the seductiveness of the voice and the sheer power of Edgar’s vision.

‘Proprioception’, which introduces the second of the volume’s four sequences, is a case in point. The word is used only for the title, but knowing what it means adds a dimension to the poem’s layered meditation on the subjectivities of balance. It moves from an exquisitely precise and witty picturing of ‘kids on skateboards’

as they careen,
Curvet and caracole
A wheeled mock dressage through, between,
Among pedestrians and keep their hold -
Or sprawl in a four-letter wreck and roll,

to the self-abandoning moment of rapture when the speaker looks up to experience the aerodynamic mystery of a wheeling crane, and thence downward and inward, to his reflection on the dynamics of grief and loss: ‘Still at the empty table you make space / For where she sat and tread the kitchen’s bounds / As though two wrote that choreography...’ This elegiac voice is the dominant one in Other Summers. Characteristically, the sense of a striving for detachment is heightened by the use of the second person, where we might have expected ‘I’. It is difficult to be certain, sometimes, whether those ghostly presences, which are more real to their creator than his sense of self-identity, are actually or figuratively dead to him. Does it matter? That the reader wishes to know something that is withheld is testimony to the way these poems embody the absent lover, whether through the loving observation of the known body in ‘The Immortals’,

Look, on her hand’s back are the clues to grief,
Whatever she may think - those patches like
The remnants of a suntan, veins as blue
As any sky could wish...

or the finely tuned eroticism of ‘The Kiss’:

And that first night you slid the purple shift
Over her shoulders and
Peeled gently downwards, leaving her to stand
In Aphrodite’s gift,
And sinking with her garment to the floor,
Made moist the shining fold you knelt before.

This is one of a suite of ten poems called ‘Consume My Heart Away’; at a first reading, I did not appreciate the intricate patterns of theme and image which run through the whole. The human inhabitants of this summerworld sometimes appear almost incidentally, as in ‘The Sounds of Summer’, which begins with a bravura piece of synaesthetic description. This way of embodying the natural world in all its sensuous particularity seems to owe something to Harwood’s exploration of the language of nature in ‘Carnal Knowledge’ and in her late Pastorals.

Edgar’s work shows a Romantic fascination with colour, shade and light, and with the challenge of recreating them through language. I almost missed the moving tribute to Harwood, in ‘Living Colour’ (‘Just as the poet said she’d thought her home, / The blessed city, till she was born to bless it...’). This remarkable poem explores the idea of colour as a way of lifting fascism out of a monochrome past into the technicolour present, where its power is seen in all its sinister immediacy.

This is some of the finest lyric poetry to have been written anywhere in recent times. Through sound and structure, Edgar’s work reflects lessons learnt from music as well as from poetry: there are echoes of a range of singing masters, from Dante to Donne, from Larkin to Hope and Harwood. Perhaps the first thing which strikes the reader is his sheer delight in form, structure and rhyme.

Old-fashioned? Surely not, for in most of these poems form exists in delicate equipoise with a passionate and highly individual vision of the world. The range of this vision is impressively wide, from the elegies for lost lovers to gentle tributes to parents, from political and social satire to gazes into the realm of nightmare. The poems from ‘The Labyrinth’ invert the experience of quotidian space and time, re-seeing the familiar and the known as though from another dimension, envisaging the horror of disintegration. Here, as elsewhere in this volume, the irruption of an arcane word into the line of plain speech jolts the reader’s sense of security in the reading process, drawing him into the experience of the speaker:

An empty flask, a ragged coat laid by,

A notebook or a mobile telephone.
At some point all apparently surrendered
To the anfractuous fallacy and turned

Leftwards or right to seek the fabled zone...

Stephen Edgar’s writing is analogous to the activity of the photographer in ‘Photography for Beginners’: both have the ability to fix and freeze the apparently ordinary moment, to subject it to a gaze which renders it strange, and so impels the viewer/reader to ponder the contingency and fragility of the very act of recording. The difference, of course, lies in the humane clarity of the poet’s vision, and in his mastery of an art of multiple perspective.

Other Summers

Stephen Lawrence
Wet Ink, Issue 5, Summer 2006

Those of us who thought that Stephen Edgar had already reached a kind of perfection must now face the daunting possibility that he is only just getting into his stride.

Despite his execrable self-promotion at 2004 Writers’ Week, I’d be happy for Clive James to provide the cover hyperbole for my next book.

Yes, Edgar’s poetry is perfect stuff. ‘The sound of summer’ sways the reader along at its own careful pace. And ‘Living colour’ is astonishing from beginning to end:

Try the opening lines of the collection:
A breeze fills up the manna gum’s huge lung,
That hologram of bronchioles. It sways there
Tethered and shifting like a hot-air balloon
Preparing for some fresh and doomed attempt
To circle the great globe.

‘The Immortals’

But where to from there? When your start is as good as it gets, one of the only options left is to disappear into the empyrean. And a number of Edgar’s poems conclude by vanishing into ‘the swept sky’: ‘The sky makes history in the clouds’ (‘Pictures of love’). The poet’s eye ‘Watches the fine smudge rise in the summer sky’ (‘Diversionary tactics’), and the architecture of the firmament - clouds, rain, wind - are regularly and intensely observed:

Buildings ail
And fade behind the fog’s immantlements
This whiter deadlight in the day’s white veil...


When it comes to the human landscape, Edgar is less convincing. There are many surges at eroticism - and he creeps up on it, or tries to build furnace heat in the course of a full poem - but the outcome is ultimately wintry and passive: ‘frauds, / A cold waxwork attraction / Shown at Madame Tussaud’s’ (‘Pictures of love’).

His affinity with form estranges him from the heat of engagement (The kiss’), and he seems more comfortable peering through distancing frames of windows, dreams, mirrors and camera lenses.

A certain anatomical repellence also stifles his passions. Feeling both ‘love and disgust’ at women’s ‘plumbing,’ his impeccable style wilts and purple rhetoric emerges: ‘The primal tissue of desire... expectant bliss... sleeping heroine / Lies deeply bedded’ (‘Look at you now’). (For the sake of his idiom, he should avoid ladies’ underwear aisles: ‘swimwear, lingerie that sings / The body and its moistening promises’ (‘Diversionary tactics’).) Edgar is aware of his words’ multiple effect, but irony and light mockery serve only to distance the reader further and highlight his confliction: ‘Candour and lewdness mated in one guise’ (The jewels’).

There is also a moral/artistic reason for the muffled sexuality presented in Other Summers. He quotes Lawrence Durrell in his bust-up sequence ‘Consume my heart away’: ‘I saw that pain itself was the only food of memory: for pleasure ends in itself’. All the more worth recording, I would have thought.

There are enough moments when form and emotion masterfully converge:

One leaf slides past her skirt, that hand, and where

It passes, like a drop of water loosed
On paint, dissolves all colour.

‘Im Sommerwind’

This and other exquisite, meditative images are plentiful and beautiful enough to aver that Stephen Edgar’s new collection is a splendid poetic achievement.

Other Summers

Geoff Page
Radio National’s The Book Show, 26 September 2006

Out of Herr Feierabend’s private vault
A stock of long lost film has finally come
To light, from that last summer before the War -
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,
And his gang, all braid
And frogging, leather-bound and medal-rich,
Sit large as life, benign
As the broad daylight, to accept like praise
The weather and the crowd and the parade.

Why should this hit me like a culture shock?
Just as the poet said she’d thought her home,
The blessed city, till she was born to bless it,
Had not known colour,
But lingered in prenatal monochrome,
So is the Nazis’ stock
Portrayal, when the mind turns to address it,
All black and white, the greys of death and dolour.

The goose-step chorus line kicking at nothing,
With heads ricked to one side, where he looks on,
Torch-haunted rallies conjuring the tribe,
The pavements lined
With adoration’s awful unison;
And the corpses piled like clothing,
Those gates that Dante thought to superscribe
Long since: all drained of colour in the mind.

But here in garish dress coat Goering draws
His decorations up to execute
Some greeting; there’s Streicher smiling in the lens
Flushed and appalling;
And Hitler’s there, giving his strange salute,
That stop sign to applause
Which calls up more. And as the arm unbends,
We see his pink cold fingers curl in falling.

Now past they flow, the floats and staged effects,
The gilded eagles, banners, fancy dress,
Teutonic warriors and virgins with
Blond streaming hair
(Who seem to tempt the heart to acquiesce
In what judgement rejects),
Like something spawned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,
A figment spun from myth
Alive and beating in the gas-blue air.

‘Living Colour’

That poem, ‘Living Colour’, is one of the most memorable in Stephen Edgar’s new collection, Other Summers. It has many of his trademarks but not all of them. We have the elaborate rhyme scheme, not always apparent at first glance (abcdbacd, to be exact). We have the elaborate description, partly generated by the rhyme scheme. We also have some striking visuals, such as ‘prenatal monochrome’ and ‘party-coloured kitsch’, - but this time the scene is far less innocent than the gently descriptive pieces that open and close the book.

In ‘Living Colour’ we are in what the Germans thought of at the time as ‘Hitler weather’, ‘the flawless blue / of mid-July in nineteen thirty-nine.’ Having watched newsreels from this period many times, we tend to view it as Edgar describes it: ‘All black and white, the greys of death and dolour’. That, however, is not how the Nazi enthusiasts were experiencing it at the time. After the humiliation of the Versailles treaty and the hyper-inflation of 1920s, they were infatuated with ‘The gilded eagles, banners, fancy dress, / Teutonic warriors and virgins with / Blond streaming hair...’ Unlike us, with our later knowledge, they were unaware (or chose to be unaware) of ‘the corpses piled like clothing’ and ‘the gas-blue air’ that waited in the near future.

Now, with his sixth book, Stephen Edgar has emerged as one of the most accomplished Australian poets of his generation. To judge from the imprimaturs on the back of Other Summers, he also has considerable support in the UK and the US as well. His work is now good enough to start forcing one to comparisons which may or may not be unfair. In his love for widely-varied stanza forms (and the tone in some of his love poetry) Edgar reminds one of John Donne. In his leisurely, closely-rhymed-and-metred considerations of modern life he prompts comparison with Philip Larkin. With his erudition, his love of the pentameter - and his familiarity with classical myth etc, he suggests A.D. Hope. These are heady names to play with but it's a reflection of Edgar's skill that one feels compelled to raise them.

And defer them perhaps. Better to look at the way Edgar’s poems actually work - and perhaps the pluses and minuses of rhyme as used in the vast majority of poems here. There has been something of a return to rhyme in Australian poetry in the past decade or two and Stephen Edgar, along with Peter Kocan, Jamie Grant and the late Philip Hodgins, has been at its forefront. As used by Edgar, the elaborate rhyme schemes (demonstrated in ‘Living Colour’, for instance) tend to slow the pace, encourage imaginative elaboration of material, set up a complex music throughout - and, quite often, hold the reader at a certain distance. Sometimes the emotions dealt with by the poet were felt, we suspect, quite viscerally - but with the rhyme and complicated stanza forms being so important, the impact of these emotions on the reader can sometimes be muted.

This is not a problem where the material, as in ‘Living Colours’, is inherently emotional. Nor is it a problem with Edgar’s fine collection of love poems in the sequence called ‘Consume My Heart Away’. These are pretty much as good as anything in the 800 year-old history of love poetry in English. They are beautifully poised, extraordinarily well-crafted and yet able to suggest the intensity of the human being who enjoyed and endured the experiences. A couple of stanzas from ‘Another Country’ might help to give the flavour:

She said she loved being a woman.
Her skin pressed mine, my face her hair.
And I a man? Just being human
Can sometimes be too much to bear:

The hands remember what they held,
The tongue recalls the salt-sweet skin.
Who was it said that ‘her hair smelled
Like a country I could be happy in?’

Something of these same qualities emerges in ‘Pictures of Love’, another love sequence towards the end of the book.

As might be expected from someone who uses rhyme and metre so fluently, there is a considerable elegaic flavour to Edgar’s book. Even the love poems deal with the ‘ghost’ of the lover, as it were. Many other poems deal with lost moments in time - in childhood or in earlier relationships, including those with his parents, it would seem, as in the poems ‘The Shadowboard’ and ‘Im Sommerwind’ (version 3 - there are three poems in the book with this title).

The elegaic mood is the one which suits Edgar best. There are certainly moments of humour, irony and social satire, e.g. in ‘Permaculture’, but they don’t last long. More typically, the irony is subsumed within the descriptive process, adding to the overall tone and, in effect, holding the reader a little further off. A good sense of this can be felt perhaps in the first stanza of ‘The Sounds of Summer’:

The cicadas, as though never here, are gone.
A silence that was always immanent
Slides back. The wide bay
Aches with heat. Remote yachts balance on
This fashioning of motion which the water,
Insensible as yesterday,
Makes of its swashy foibles while, remoter,
A sheen rides mantled on its vanishment.

That last line is particularly typical of Edgar: a perfect iambic pentameter; an unusual word, ‘vanishment’, to rhyme with another unusual word, ‘immanent’ - and an almost-polished visual effect, as suggested by the word ‘sheen’. One feels too how the rhyme scheme (abcadcdb) contributed to the elaboration of the whole stanza, without quite forcing the poet to say anything he didn't really want to say - even though, at one level, Edgar seems to be talking about not much more than that the cicadas have gone and the boats are out on sunlit water.

So, to return to those earlier comparisons with Donne, Larkin and Hope. Maybe it’s a bit early to be making them. Certainly there is something of Donne’s metaphysical playfulness in Edgar’s work, his love of elaboration almost for its own sake. Edgar’s social and spiritual vision is not nearly as bleak as Larkin’s but certainly sad-enough and well-made-enough to remind you of it.

As for the Hope comparison, it may be sufficient to say that Edgar is probably the first Australian poet since Hope to get from the iambic pentameter the sonorous authority Hope always achieved in his best poems, the sense that we need not be hurried here and that poets should employ the full range of their learning and vocabulary - not sell themselves or their readers short.

For those who like their poetry well-metred and well-rhymed Other Summers is an essential book. So is it too, however, for those who argue that rhyme has no place in modern poetry. They need to see how eloquently they have lost the argument.

Guest Poet: Stephen Edgar

Clive James
From clivejames.com [2007]

Stephen Edgar stands out among recent Australian poets for the perfection of his craft, a limitless wealth of cultural reference, and an unmatched ability to make science a living subject for lyrical verse. In 2004 he won the coveted Australian Book Review prize for poetry. His collection of 2004, Lost in the Foreground (Duffy and Snellgrove), attracted wide attention, which became wider still with Other Summers (Black Pepper), his collection of 2006: a daunting demonstration of what he could do in a mere two years to bring an already fully developed range of expressiveness to a new level of refinement. The ten poems here were chosen by the author from work not yet published in book form, or from his previous collections. The quickest way of summing up my appreciation of his mastery would be to say that if he were a jazz musician, he would be the kind who, when playing after hours, leads all the others to pack up their instruments and listen.

ASAL Awards 2007

The Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) nominated Other Summers as one of its four shortlisted works for the 2007 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal

From the judges’ report:

The poems gathered in this collection are both graceful and language-wise: intensely crafted, inward yet widely referential, inventive, formal and candidly eloquent. Edgar uses precise diction and musical forms to carve nuance out of vast emotional spaces. His poems show great and mature accomplishment through their tender openness to emotions of love and loss.