The Strangest Place : Stephen Edgar











Rest of the World






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Book Description
Book Sample
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Review by Kevin Hart Mascara


Australian Book Review

Quadrant Review





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ook Description


They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts

The strangest place, this world of fact and figment we astonishingly find ourselves inhabiting, is the territory that Stephen Edgar’s poetry has been probing and framing for over four decades now, looking out on the evanescent representations of light and inwards on the mind and “the gyre of its own consciousness”, feeling “toward the labyrinth just behind Creation’s serene surface”, as Alan Gould described it, and “trying to keep faith poetically with that strangeness of the world”, in the words of Peter Steele.

The Strangest Place offers a retrospective on Edgar’s career, with selections from each of his previous ten books. Opening the collection is a book-length section of new poems, Background Noise, which continues and extends the range of his meditations, with characteristic technical mastery, interspersed with the title’s leitmotiv, whether the notes of lorikeets in the morning trees, echoing voices in an abandoned railway tunnel, the mind’s running commentary or the cosmic hum beyond the death of the stars.


Cover Image: Judith Nangala Crispin
Anika lifting to her ancestors, on a spider-string, over
Mt Cooroora, in Kabi-Kabi country - Lumachrome glass print 


ISBN 9780648038740
2020
302 pgs
$29.00 Australia
$39.00 International

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Book Sample

From Background Noise : New Poems

Apprehensions


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

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

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

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

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



From Corrupted Treasures

The Secret Life of Books

They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts.

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

Need you. The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look, already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph

Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.

They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.


From Transparencies

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

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

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

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

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

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






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REVIEW

Reviewed by KEVIN HART
October 6, 2021 / mascara

Poetry always involves a delicate negotiation between craft and art. Craft can easily be misunderstood as a set of skills completely external to what is being written. Yet a poet shows craft by moving confidently within the work developing on the page. Often, when one looks at an intricately rhymed stanza, perhaps one with five, six or seven lines of varying length, such as Stephen Edgar favors, one might be tempted to think that the work has been composed, even revised, in the poet’s mind and then set down on the page. There are such compositions, some of them admirable, and examples can be found in volumes of minor seventeenth-century verse. The effect is known as “Ciceronian”: the style is marked by balance, antitheses, and repetition; it was developed to a high pitch in prose, not verse. Nothing could be further from Edgar’s characteristic way of writing, which is usually “Anti-Ciceronian.” Here sentences unfold naturally rather than exhibit a resolved formal beauty, and often the style is marked by asymmetric constructions. The poem shows a mind thinking as it progresses from stanza to stanza.

Too little is said, then, when critics say Edgar is a formalist, or range him against some of the better American “new formalists.” Like theirs, his poetry is often plain spoken; unlike theirs, it tends more surely to the baroque. With respect to contemporary poetry, “baroque” need not connote stylistic excess, invention or ornament. Nor need it prompt us to admire the deft use of elaborate poetic forms. In fact, Edgar has no deep investment in received poetic forms. Baroque poetry nowadays is more concerned with the presentation and contemplation of compound phenomena. Edgar’s poetry is baroque in this manner and is also remarkable for its fine sense of timing. In many of his most impressive poems he is concerned to investigate complex situations, sometimes unstable ones, which often involve fragility and loss: his consciousness becomes divided, or he encounters problems in constituting the world, or he quickly passes from one attitude to another (perception, belief, half-belief, fantasy, anticipation, recollection, and so on). “Timing” in poetry is not only a matter of pacing one’s speech, spacing out metaphors and similes, and seeking closure at the right moment. It is also the difficult practice of using enjambment, rhyme, varying line lengths, and metrical substitutions in order to place a word or a phrase. The proper timing of a word, a phrase, a figure, does not merely follow formal rules; it must also release thought and feeling at the right time and to the right degree. To read an engaging poem well is partly to be aware of the confidence and agility, of the poet as he or she writes, and to notice those moments, given only to very fine poets, when craft leads one to think of the phrasing as inevitable. Such reading perceives that in a poet as good as Philip Larkin craft and art become almost indistinguishable, and something similar may be said of Edgar.

The Strangest Place is a selection from ten previous volumes of poetry. “Nasturtiums” (81) was written in 1976 and the most recent poems, in the opening section entitled “Background Noise,” were completed in 2020. So the book distills forty-four years of practice as a poet. I should say “achievement as a poet,” and it would be a lapse of responsibility not to observe that Edgar’s work has only recently been read with anything like the attention and thankfulness it deserves. Quite simply, Edgar is one of the most rewarding poets currently writing in English. Poems in this volume are likely to survive when many of his contemporaries are remembered only in footnotes. At the moment, though, it is sad to testify how difficult it is to obtain any of his earlier books. I have repeatedly tried to purchase Eldershaw (2014), only excerpted in this selection. Nor can any library in the United States supply me with a copy. One can only hope that individual volumes will be brought back into print once the accomplishment of this selection has been duly acknowledged. 

Edgar is chiefly a contemplative poet. Not that, like the Romans, he looks into a templum to discern the will of the gods or has even the faintest streak of religious faith. When he listens to Thomas Tallis he says, “Not one word or wound, / One shred / Of their doxology can sway / Me to belief” (173). His templum is his mind, which is utterly modern, entranced more by physics than theology, and emotions and thoughts cross it, sometimes alone and sometimes together. For readers, though, each of his poems is a templum. What do we discover when we gaze at them? Many things, no doubt, but chiefly his imagination works in eschatological terms: everything points eventually to nothingness. He entertains the idea of “a posthumous, / Unpeopled world, a plot / That has no further use for us” (55) and he meditates on the aftermath of war: an empty town left to “the chaos of // Abandoned use” (134). More generally, he is haunted by the “black and empty corridor” which “lies in store” for all of us (283). The same imagination is entranced by divisions of the self, as when he identifies the inner voice that is forever murmuring in our heads: “always there is that accompanist, // Not caught on film or sound, who’s guaranteed / Each moment to intone / A running commentary” (29). In another poem, set in a restaurant, he sees his own reflection in a wall mirror behind where his friend sits: “I catch odd glimpses of it watching him, / And eyeing me / Askance, as he shifts and sways from side to side” (61). Always, Edgar is aware of the fragility of existence, human and non-human alike. Sitting in a house during a strong wind, he observes, “The house is brittle as an hourglass” (80). Often enough, it is an interruption of ordinary life that prompts a revealing change of mental attitude and gives an insight into the frailty of things: too many clocks in a house (20-21) or the recognition that books really write us (116). 

Edgar’s great theme, though, is the relation of mind and world. Sometimes, like Tolstoy and Montale, he is beset by the apprehension that the visible world might be an illusion. We spend our days, he says, “clearly reciting / The myth of an outer world” (196). In “Parallax” he recalls “a droll / Advertisement that had the Martians hoist / Before a rover’s lens screen after screen, / Across which it would scroll, / Filming a fake red desert, while unseen / Their high-rise city quietly rejoiced” (5). It leads him to ponder that something similar happens while “Walking the crafted streetscape” of Sydney: “A suite of flimsy panels” is perhaps sliding beside him, “screening who knows what?” (5). One approach to this theme comes by way of what Edgar calls “the conjuror” (12), and indeed worldly beauty is much like a magic show for him, both in what it offers us (“The silken trance it’s spun and shed” (246)) and in the chilling dénouement that awaits us. No wonder that we think of Schopenhauer when we read lines such as these: “The world cannot pretend / And with the end / Of the masquerade throws down its great disguise, / Like a magician’s cape whose folds / Descend / About an object which then disappears / Before unseeing eyes” (125). At other times, it is reading in physics that disturbs the otherwise unquestioned relation between mind and world. Handling a snow dome, he reflects that in a world of two dimensions, the third dimension would be “just a dream that quantum tricks produce” (32). Then panic sets in: “Put down that ornament and look around, / And breathe, for fear / The virtual world that some propound / Is ours, here, now, a program that supreme, / Conjectured beings engineer, / Where we imagine we are all we seem” (32). 

In Mauvaises pensées et autres (1943), Paul Valéry has a piercing aphorism entitled “Ex nihilo”: Dieu a tout fait de rien. Mais le rien perce [“God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing comes through”]. It is no wonder that Edgar is attracted to this line of Valéry’s — it forms the epigraph to the splendid conceptual lyric “The Menger Sponge” (148) — for the Australian and the French poets inhabit overlapping worlds. In this imbrication, poetry, music, science and a cool skepticism about religion live in rich harmony. Unlike Valéry, however, Edgar has no temptation to be all mind (as with Monsieur Teste), and he has no abiding interest in theorizing about the creative process. Only very obliquely does he offer us an ars poetica in “Feather Weight” (44). Nor is there anything like Mon Faust in his work: he is one of our most discreet poets. Not that one should thereby think, as some people do, that Edgar has little blood passion. The excepts from Eldershaw (2013) testify otherwise. Nonetheless, to read Edgar well is to learn to let the feeling in the verse display itself in its own good time; it will not overwhelm the reader on a first or second reading, neither by way of intense metaphors (which Edgar avoids) nor by way of ardent declarations (which he would most likely think to be in bad taste). 

Consider “Nocturnal” from History of the Day (2002). The opening stanza shows Edgar’s confidence handling a difficult stanza, nine lines, ranging from trimeter to pentameter, rhyming abbacccdd. Quite by chance, the speaker discovers an old cassette with a recording of his distressed partner talking years ago:

It’s midnight now and sounds like midnight then,
The words like distant stars that faintly grace
    The all-pervading dark of space,
    But not meant for the world of men.
It’s not what we forget
But what was never known we most regret
Discovery of. Checking one last cassette
Among my old unlabelled discards, few
Of which reward the playing, I find you. (202)

Many of Edgar’s qualities are tightly coiled in these lines: elegance and lightness of touch, to be sure, but also plain speech, and, more, the relish of drawing an apt distinction. Notice the timing of the lines, how the drama of hearing the lover’s voice, now she is long dead, in the final word of the stanza, is embodied in the rhyme “few” – “you.” It is characteristic of Edgar that the discovery does not lead to confession or a registration of immediate grief but that a contemplation begins, one that leads us first to that wonderful poet Gwen Harwood (1920-95). Long ago, the lovers were jolted by hearing their friend’s voice on the radio reading “Suburban Sonnet.” Technology exhumes the dead with ease, and with them it brings our loss immediately before us. 

Again, characteristic of Edgar, the contemplation continues, passing now to the North Head Quarantine Station, near Manly, where people who were feared to harbor contagious diseases were kept until they were considered safe to enter Sydney. Many died there, and stories abound that the place is haunted: “equipment there records / The voices in the dormitories and wards, / Although it’s years abandoned. Undeleted, / What happened is embedded and repeated, // Or so they say” (202). The skeptical reflection, delayed until the beginning of the new stanza, is nicely placed. Edgar’s former lover was not mistrustful of the dead’s power to cling to the world, however: “You said you heard the presence which oppugned / Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion / In your lost house.” (“Oppugned”? Yes, Edgar has an extensive vocabulary and is not afraid to use it.) But the poet himself can accommodate the belief only by way of technology. The final stanza runs:

            Here in the dark
I listen, tensing in distress, to each
    Uncertain fragment of your speech,
    Each desolate, half-drunk remark
        You uttered unaware
That this cassette was running and would share
Far in the useless future your despair
With one who can do nothing but avow
You spoke from midnight, and it’s midnight now. (203)

The word “midnight” in the last line is no longer the simple temporal marker that we encountered in the first line of the poem; it is also a dark emotional state shared across decades by the two lovers, though not in the same way or for the same reasons. Among the many things to admire in this stanza, not the least is the careful choice of the almost retiring adjective “useless.” What was to be the future for the woman can have no effect on her now, and the speaker’s present gives him no way of comforting either her or himself.  

Stephen Edgar, now seventy years of age, has assembled a body of work that is as durable as any poetry written in his generation. If we read it steadily from Queuing for the Mudd Clubb (1985) to Background Noise (2020), we encounter a poet who apparently knew from the beginning what he wanted to do. His gifts were already fully apparent, and the decades have only helped him to refine and extend them. The Strangest Place is a book to read and re-read; it invites us to choose the poems that most pierce us and to get them by heart. Robert Schumann famously reviewed Chopin’s “Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’” in 1831. In that piece, he imagined his character Eusebius entering his room where he was sitting at the piano with his friend Florestan. Pointing to Chopin’s score in his hand, Eusebius declared, Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie [“Hats off, gentlemen, a Genius”]. We don’t say such things these days, not wearing hats, not being so dramatic, and having rather exalted ideas of genius, but had he been around today Eusebius might have been just as enthusiastic had he brought into a room a copy of Edgar’s new book. 

 

KEVIN HART is internationally recognised as a poet, critic, philosopher and theologian. Born in England, he grew up in Brisbane, and taught Philosophy and English at the University of Melbourne. He has recently taken up a position at the University of Virginia.



An assured place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subsisting in their realm of four o’clock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


POET’S VOICE

SARAH HOLLAND-BATT

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

Weekend Australian
REVIEW

DECEMBER 12-13, 2020

As free verse continues its reign well into the twenty-first century, formal poetry still finds itself in the minority. It’s been derided in some quarters for being elitist and conservative, clinging to outdated ideals—yet celebrated in others for bringing poetry closer to music, and for exhibiting a discipline and technical artistry that free verse supposedly lacks.

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

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

This week’s poet, Stephen Edgar, is doubtless Australia’s finest formalist writing today, and makes a persuasive case for the enduring power of formal poetry; his eleventh collection, The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems (Black Pepper) features extracts from the poet’s previous ten volumes, along with a book-length selection of new work, “Background Noise.”  

What is impressive about seeing thirty-five years’ worth of Edgar’s poetry together is its remarkable thematic and stylistic continuity, though the later poems feature slightly more linguistic embellishment and philosophical complication.

 His influences—chief among them, Auden, along with Richard Wilbur, Frost, Larkin, and others—remain constant touchstones.

 While Edgar has made the odd foray into the realm of narrative—most notably in his collection Eldershaw—he primarily writes introspective, metaphysical lyrics, focussing intently on transience and loss, memory, mortality, and the future.

His poems are seeded with repeated motifs of apertures - filmic and photographic lenses, windows, mirrors, reflections and other viewfinders proliferate—suggesting that Edgar sees the poem is an act of framing; there is also a strong emphasis on music and art. Often, Edgar’s poems arrive as tableaux, in which time is stilled as the poet unpacks a moment in slow-motion; their vistas are at times microscopic, and at others galactic, looking up into interstellar space.

Rather than writing in established forms, Edgar mostly devises his own metrical and stanzaic constraints. He favours sestets and septets (six and seven-line stanzas) which he arranges according to his own invented rhyme schemes.

Rather than using predictable envelope rhymes (an abba rhyme pattern) or alternating rhymes (abab), Edgar’s end-rhymes are often spaced further apart, so that they are felt less heavily. They are also almost continually enjambed, flowing gracefully over into the next line without the heavy pulse of a caesurae.

Take, for example, this stanza from the poem “Coming Up from Air,” which is fully rhymed, yet moves fluidly due to the continuous enjambment, and the postponed rhyme of “eyrie” and “theory”:

And there we went: that night,
Dinner with friends, perched in their top-floor eyrie,
Watching the sky recite
The sun’s late lessons in the clouds and preach
Its pyrotechnic theory
Over the revellers on Coogee Beach.

There are many established six-line stanzaic forms—from the sestet that rounds off the Petrarchan sonnet to the Venus and Adonis and Burns stanzas—but none use the same rhyme scheme Edgar uses here.

I can think of only a handful of poems that use this abacbc scheme: Elizabeth Bishop’s love poem “The Shampoo,” George Herbert’s “Peace,” and a section of W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle.

Edgar’s self-determined forms also give his poems a nice tension between familiar and unfamiliar patterning; it’s only after reading a few stanzas that you work out the rules he’s invented for himself.

His technical prowess lends his poems an ease that all formalists aspire to, but few achieve: while he adheres to rigid structures, he does so lightly and unobtrusively.

Although they are often cleverly camouflaged, I get the sense that Edgar’s rhymes are nonetheless the driving engine of his poetry. He is expert at finding original full rhymes—a tricky affair, given how shop-worn so many rhymes in English are.

There’s the perfect chime of encrypts and eucalypts in the poem “Apprehensions,” azalea and regalia in “The Peacock’s Response,” concertina and the Italian composer Palestrina in “Analogue,” and—my favourite— limousine and Anthropocene in “Mise en scene,” all of which deliver the jolt of pleasurable recognition that a well-executed rhyme should bring the reader.

And his poems are dotted with mosaic rhymes too—where rhymes span more than one word—as in drowse of sense and recompense in “All or Nothing.” At times, this garners the poet comic frisson, as in the chime between unnerve us and BBC World Service in the poem “Letters of the Law.”

This week’s poem, “The Shadow Line,” shows Edgar’s signature technical powers at full tilt. Prompted by a passage in Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, it contemplates a distant future in which the earth has been rendered inhabitable, and the record of human life inheres in a compacted “six-inch sooty layer” remaining on an otherwise-dead planet.

You’ll notice that the poem unfolds in septets, each slightly tapered at the beginning and end, written entirely in iambic meter: the first line in trimeter; the second, tetrameter; before the poem billows out into four lines of iambic pentameter; then contracts back to tetrameter again.

The rhyme scheme—abacbca—reflects a similar shape: the initial a rhyme returns one last, unexpected time on the seventh line, a belated third echo of a rhyme which has already been resolved.

It’s a form that teases a faint resemblance to the rhyme royal stanza—a septet of iambic pentameter with an ababbcc rhyme scheme—but Edgar only gears up into pentameter for four out of its seven lines, giving each stanza a looser feel as his line lengths vary.

We begin as the poet contemplates earth as a “final star” which has been “surpassed / and cancelled.” He juxtaposes human time—described metaphorically as both a “mayfly’s one transparent day in flight” and “nothing but a background hum”— against the vastness of interstellar time and space.

Swiftly, in a single stanza, human endeavours are collapsed into residue: “Plastics and pipes and wires and ticking meters, / The deathless works, the missiles on parade, The Sphinx, the Floating Taj Mahal, St Peter’s” become “half-lives haunting our bequest.”

As the poem draws to a close, the poet contemplates the possibility of a “mere grain, one molecule” residing in all that rubble that an interstellar traveller might find one day as evidence of the poet’s existence: “the wattle leaves whose shadows pool / On a desk this afternoon, and brush across / The hand that’s poised above this page.”

And as the poem closes, we’re gently reminded of the poet’s presence just beyond the poem’s expertly constructed frame.

Sarah Holland-Batt is a poet and an associate professor at the school of creative practice at the Queensland University of Technology. Poet’s Voice receives sponsorship from The Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. She can be contacted at sarah.hollandbatt@qut.edu.au.

 

  Shadow Line

 

And there it is at last,
The last one gone, the final star,
The term of its self-fuelled fire surpassed
And cancelled. Nothing but a background hum
And darkness stretching through the nebular
Detritus into spans of time to come
More incommensurably vast,

Next to the reign of light,
Than Earth’s deep ages set beside
A mayfly’s one transparent day in flight.
But hale those aeons back and see the face
Of the dead planet swept and scarified
By strobe-lit storm clouds and red gales that chase
The skyline as the days ignite.
 
Just a few feet below
The stripped and lifeless regolith,
A narrow, blackened band would put on show
The fruits of our endeavour, a footnote
To the grand tale we’d left to reckon with,
A six-inch sooty layer laid down to quote
From that portentous folio:
 
Interred there and compressed,
The residue of all we’ve made,
Roads, sewers, factories, vehicles, would attest,
Plastics and pipes and wires and ticking meters,
The deathless works, the missiles on parade,
The Sphinx, the floating Taj Mahal, St Peter’s,
The half-lives haunting our bequest.
 
And so one might presage
That a mere grain, one molecule
That some outrider from a distant age
Sifted from all that indeterminate dross,
Might be the wattle leaves whose shadows pool
On a desk this afternoon, and brush across
The hand that’s poised above this page.


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IVAN HEAD

The Rock in the Poet's Bag

Quadrant May 2021

The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems, is a formidable book of 284 pages. It embraces Stephen Edgar's lifetime of published poetry and reaches across forty-five years of publications and ten volumes of poems. Edgar, in his seventieth year, is a significant Australian poet at the apogee of a life of writing and publishing success. The intro­duction tells us  that after some  time in  London in the 1970s he moved to Hobart where he lived for some thirty years. He acknowledges the  help and influence of Clive James and Gwen Harwood amongst others, including  Judith Beveridge.  He  has lived for the last fifteen years in Sydney and is married to Judith Beveridge. Judith's review notes from Westerly grace the rear cover of the Adrienne Eberhard Volume.

The introduction should be read. It reminds us of the  hard-won  success  a  poet  might  earn  with a measure of inspiration and dedication to excel­ lence. Of the ten previous volumes mentioned, three achieved the status of shortlist for major awards or won a major award. Edgar won what is now the Peter Porter Prize in 2006, the inaugural Australian Catholic University Literature Prize in 2013,  and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. Having read Philip Hodgins's poetry, one knows how significant that memorial medal is. Edgar tells us that his first book was published in 1985, midpoint of his life to date, but the earliest poem in it ("Nasturtium") dates to 1976. That poem is included in this new book.

The latest poems are included in The Strangest Place as "Background Noise" and occupy the first seventy -five pages. I read and greatly liked the new poems. "Hoverfly" is masterly. Its fifteen two-li ne stanzas locate this brilliant, tiny, flying creature "stationed precisely in midair, / The hoverfly seems painted there". The end-rhyme  of  each  couplet adds to the  pleasure  of reading and flows  as eas­ ily as the creature seems to hover. The reader can read up and down the rhyming pillar on which the creature is set. The rhyme suggests vertical stabil­ ity. The same rhyming couplet pattern illuminates "Dragonfly", also a new poem. Again, I like_ the way that the steady- repetition of the rhyming couplets forms a column on the pages, as if a soft ladder, an easy support for the mind as the reader ascends the aural pattern. Perhaps this makes the  poem  a kind of verbal icon of the flesh-and-blood world. Edgar's poems seem to move very close to the tangible reali­ ties in the physical world they describe and are a delight to read. They seem to code the tangible.

It
is not only the selection of poems as prior, suc­ cessful and awarded books that make this collection worth having. The book is a hendecagon of delight as the new poems add to the long-established suc­ cess of the prior ten volumes from which selections are made.  

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