The Strangest Place : Stephen Edgar

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Review by Kevin Hart Mascara

Australian Book Review

Quadrant Review


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
302 pgs
$29.00 Australia
$39.00 International

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Book Sample

From Background Noise : New Poems


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

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
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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As poetry seems to lose rhyme and reason, Edgar masters technique,
complexity and vibrancy GUY RUNDLE, CORRESPONDENT-AT-LARGE

The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems. Stephen Edgar
The first thing that occurs to any reader who sticks their head into Australian
poetry — by browsing, say, an issue of Cordite, or one of the just-surviving
little magazines — is how bloody raucous it is.

Anger, testament and incitement has become the dominant aesthetic for a
whole section of the form, inevitably occupied largely by non-male, non-white
writers, though that is not the only thing all of them do.

Some of it is worked and paradoxical, some of it deliberately artless and
insistent. Most of it will age and is ageing badly, not because the sentiments
decay but because the particular concepts and language of oppression and
liberation shift, being nothing more than the technical language of politics
rather than the more persistent language of things — hence why so much of
the stuff from the ’60s sounds like something dredged up for a Saturday Night
Live sketch about the ’60s.
At the other end of the room, a lot of the work is simply incomprehensible at
first, and later, glance — a product of several genres of poetry, one known
confusingly as L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E, whose object is to make it impossible, via
discontinuous phrases, broken syntax etc, for the poem to be in any way
summarised or abstracted to a prose sketch of its subject or arguments.
And in between, there is a stretch, a vast stretch, of the standard issue stuff
— free verse, unrhymed, semi-scanned poetry, irregular stanzas going where
it will, following its fairly clear exposition of holidays in Italy, childhood in the
country, a sepia photo of your great aunt, the taste of cumquats, and on and
on and on.

The ascent, really in the 1960s, of first unrhymed and then unpatterned free
verse becoming the standard thing that poetry was liberated reader and writer
from a lot of bad plinky-plinky verse (for which see the Literary Review‘s
traditional poetry competition, run regularly in the ’80s and ’90s; designed to
defend rhyme and scansion, it helped near-kill it with kitsch). But in doing so it
created a disjuncture between the poet’s desire to express and the genre’s
demand that such be done artfully.

In doing so, the commonplace thoughts of poets on death, love, the old mill,
the beach near Esk, etc, were now the poem’s only driver, and the journals
and sites filled up with unworked notes for poems presented as the final thing.
This has been a problem everywhere, but in Australia, my God, it’s the
cultural equivalent of the mouse plague. You beat these things flat and they
get up again. The situation is absurd. We have no high culture to speak of,
and yet we have all these poets — some of them quite distinguished within
the art — who write nothing but “i reckon” poetry, a sort of “i’m sitting on the
cliff and looking at the rock out there in the sea and the rock is death. i
reckon” type of thing.

This wash of poetry is a product in part of our lack of high culture; in our left
cultural nationalist period from the ’60s to the ’90s, we thought we would
make one of a scale beyond the small and self-knowing network of artists
prior to.

When we abandoned that, and relaxed into the arms of globalisation, we left
the machine on — in the form of creative writing courses, designed to mop up
the exploding numbers of arts students that the ’80s-’90s Dawkins revolution
had not anticipated. This seems to be the cause of this disjuncture — as if we
had started hundreds of coopering courses, and our cities were now filling up
with thousands of poorly-made, unwanted barrels.

Stop making barrels, make fewer better barrels, we’d say. But no, they go on
piling up. There are many poets, some with several collections to their name,
who should simply just stop, They should go outside and kick a ball around.
Amidst all this, the tradition of formal verse in Australia died away more
rapidly and completely than elsewhere. Our poetry’s rather thin roster of
figures, with even the slightest international reputation, were, until the 1960s,
all formalists, chief amongst them A.D. Hope. After that, rhyme went out the
window, and scansion and stanza form were the pursuit of a minority. It’s
telling that the big hitter — Fat Les — worked in both modes.
But it’s also telling that Britain’s two greatest post-war poets — Philip Larkin
and then Don Paterson — lean heavily towards formalism, with a manner and
a facility that does not emerge, en masse, from Australia.

So the figure of Stephen Edgar, who has just won the prime minister’s prize
for poetry, is an extraordinary one; not only an Australian formalist, but
perhaps the most accomplished such poet in the English language today.
No, “accomplished” doesn’t do it. Edgar is a mind-blowing poet, producing the
most extraordinary transformations of the natural world, the cosmos and
memory, from within seemingly impossibly tight rhyme/scan schemas. The
effect is like very little going on in poetry today, joining the full range of
modern expression to the inherited formal tradition. The... well, cue tape:

The river surface, restless as a child
Keeps shifting around its iridescent blues
In shirrs and stretch marks, quiltings which are styled
For nothing, or for what we choose to choose
-“Observations of an attendant”

If that isn’t your sort of thing, you may want to meet the rest of us back at the
ratings report. For the rest, Stephen Edgar deserves an introduction and a

Born in Sydney in 1951, a Sydney tech graduate, Edgar did the London
sojourn in the early ’70s and then returned to Tasmania, where he spent three
decades before returning to Sydney.

Aside from “The Dancer”, a record of a post nervy-b psych ward stay (as
much a part of poetic life then as hotdesking at The Wheeler Centre is now),
his short poems (20-200 lines; few under 50) relate no striking life events
(“Eldershaw”, an autobiographical set of three long poems, a small amount
excerpted here, is more forthcoming).

Instead, over several hundred poems across 10 volumes, Edgar’s poems are
overwhelmingly concerned with small moments of life, from a few minutes to
a few days long. These are often small observed processes such as a coastal
A single sail
Transluscent apricot
Drifts like a poppy’s petal on a frail
Breeze that is not
A baby’s breath
Of air sparingly strewn
And eked out by the estuary’s width
All afternoon
-“the sail and the gannet”

or a few minutes in sexual afterglow:

Too hot and humid to do more than drowse
And slip — who knows how brief the interims? —
Into a chafed unconsciousness
And rouse
Too clammy for the slur and press
Of fabric or each other on our limbs
We slide apart across a moon-slicked sheet
And all the intermittent anaglyphs
The moon is working to
I see each time I wake and view
Your light shaped body as it stirs and shifts….
-“Moonlight sculptures”

Or the simple capture of being, being:

Sitting in a room, say, when a pause
In conversation, or alone
In stray attention prises a wide space
And over on the wall the late day draws
A sliding pain of light on which the trees
In miniature and detailed monotone
Project, like memories
An imaginary time and place
-“Letters of the Law”

What is common to hundreds of poems of variant matter is the absolute
mastery of technique which is put to the service of such particularity. His
commitment to a tight, demanding classical form is there right from the start,
with “Nasturtiums”, written, his introduction tells us, in 1976:

In this plot, only nasturtiums
Are charmed to a snakelike survival
All else winces in a wind stiff with salt
Dies back or waits stock still

(Was this the poem Patrick Cook was thinking of in his “Australian poets”
cartoon, which depicts a desperate man hovering over a typewriter and
pointing a gun at a vase of flowers and yelling “Rhyme, you bastards!”?)
The Hopkinsian touch would depart relatively early, yielding to straight,
subtler rhyme, though for the first half of his career, Edgar is as interested in
the full palette of the English vocabulary as he is in depicting the lessmediated
real, as in “reef”, an interior scene:

It is night. The spectrum has been cancelled
From the glossary of possibles. And here
Its lettered spines a texture of the wall
The library is restful as a morgue

It’s only later that the language becomes plainer, and the objects emerge, a
gesture towards letting things speak for themselves. That sleight-of-hand
gives such poems their uncanny air, redolent of French symbolism, but with a
capacity to flip reality that seems unmatched by, well, anyone.
All this is done within the wider frame-demand of strict rhyme and scansion,
worn so lightly that it sometimes seems to be free verse. Larkin could do this,
George Barker and a few others. But when one looks around today, one sees
no-one doing it (worried that I was simply missing whole genres, I did a quick
tour of the Pulitzers and other prizes going back a decade — no, nothing
much like this that I can see).

This isn’t the only way to do great poetry, of course. But it’s worth asking why
so much of the other way of doing it — loose unrhymed lines, parsimonious
metaphor and imagery, lack of rhyme and demanding form — is so much
more common. One can’t help but conclude that it probably takes a lot less
work, and that Edgar’s poems take a lotta lotta carpentry to get right.
The suspicion might be that poetry once had a (small) “middle” audience, who
would read poets like, say, Auden or MacNeice, without being of the poetry
world themselves.

That audience has almost wholly vanished, poets are alone with themselves,
and one wonders whether, in several quarters, the difficulties of craft-art have
been abandoned for shouty self-expression — or for the relatively
undemanding randomness of L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E-type operations. The greatest
danger for high culture today is that no one really believes in it anymore, even
as they do it, like Roman pantheon priests used to fall into giggles as they
invoked the gods. Charlatanism is eating away at art forms that gained their
authority as a succession from religion, and are now losing it to season three
of Succession.

Stephen Edgar is someone who clearly still believes in the calling — and as a
consequence, so many of his poems rise from a simple and direct
observation towards cosmic heights, at a dizzying speed, or down into the
very interstices of being, moments captured in their mote-filled, sunlit

He’s not someone I would read in large hits; two to three poems at a time,
because they demand slow reading and attention. Taking them altogether
would be like eating a whole profiterole tower. OK, bad example, because I’ve
eaten a whole profiterole tower, but the point remains.

Complexity for its own sake is not the value I’m pushing — especially as
much of the current poetic avant-garde proposes a complexity that simply
celebrates open-ended interconnection, in which anything can connect to
anything else. This makes the style another mirror expression of the
neoliberal era, in which capital proposes that anything can be anything else,
and is a reason why such movements run out of energy and purpose.
Edgar’s complexity imposes order, the poems’ meanings a product of the
interconnections of rhyme running crosswise to the main narrative or
argument, avoiding kitsch or cuteness. Most poets renounce rhyme because
they can’t avoid kitsch. Edgar’s skills, honed over decades, give him access
to that extra dimension.

These poems shimmer and vibrate as you read them; they grow and change.
They’re an Escher picture, they’re fractals, they’re a fungal colony spread
over hectares, they are liquid mirrors of the real. Edgar has had prizes and
nominations before; the prime minister’s prize should be the start of a new
stage in his public life. With all due credit to Black Pepper — a mainstay of
Melbourne publishing for decades, airing hundreds of writers and a halfdozen
major talents — we need a uniform edition of Edgar, gathering his
scattered books together, some impossible to obtain. Indeed, there’s a dozen
contemporary poets we need that for.

Lacking our own Faber and Faber, we need a government subsidy for one or
several publishers to take it up — the cost would be nothing, a fraction of a
Melbourne writers’ festival dead pets church. As a nation, we dun pretty good
on poetry, punched well above our weight. It would be good to celebrate that,
and to start with Stephen Edgar, who may well eventually be seen as the
national oeuvre‘s new Hope. And hope.

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
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.

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

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
  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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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.

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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