Exhibits of the Sun by Stephen Edgar reviewed by David Gilbey
Exhibits of the Sun
by Stephen Edgar
ISBN 978 1 876044 88 6
Reviewed by DAVID GILBEY
‘… the sinople eye of a butterfly wing …’ Sarah Howe
Edgar’s poetry is like that – detailed, deceptive, minutely crafted, significant and changing – implicating both the watcher and the watched. In Sarah Howe’s ‘Two Systems’ lecture at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute last year, speaking of her own poetry’s slippage between different cultural and historical referents, she cited Heather McHugh’s dictum ‘All poetry is fragment … shaped by its breakages at every turn.’ Edgar’s is like that too: shardish, provisional, ‘hispid’ (to poach one of his clever, obscure words).
In the Old Century, and before it became unfashionable, we might call his poetry metaphysical – for its blend of complex thought, vivid imagery and iconoclasm. I can imagine Samuel Johnson complaining ruefully that Mr Edgar ‘… doth tempt … not with the softnesses of love but … with nice speculations of philosophy’ as well as Helen Gardner’s (and Yeats’) praise for his poetry’s ‘passionate intensity’ – though maybe Edgar’s steady iambics regulate passion to an intellectual pace …
And there are other voices in/behind Edgar’s finely-wrought surfaces too: Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hope, Slessor, Stewart. So Edgar’s poetry is steeped in literary echoes, producing a richness of reference and tone belied by the elegance and lightness of his touch.
There are, simply, so many terrific poems in Exhibits of the Sun – this is ‘great’ poetry in that traditional sense of grand in scope, significant in thematic preoccupations, supply-artificed and multiply-perspectived. In the first section alone ‘Off the Chart’’s playful Australian metaphysics (a rotary hoist mirroring the planetary cycles) is framed by ‘The Representation of Reality in Western Art’ (playfully interrogating Proust and Magritte) and ‘Steppe’ (a virtuoso poetic essay in tercets conjuring a universal figure in a landscape as an image for poetry’s sublime possibilities). These poems hold and play with the reader’s mind and imagination – telescopically and microscopically.
One of Edgar’s persistent concerns is how poetry can see and know. Take ‘Morandi and the Hard Problem’ with which Edgar begins his third, and final, section in Exhibits: focussing on the objects, planes, arrangement and light in Morandi’s paintings, Edgar writes:
Nothing’s more abstract than reality,
These surfaces propped up against the day
To hold the light.
This is the paradoxical heart of Edgar’s poems – a koan becoming a conceit. The ‘hard problem’ is what we might call the ‘sentience of objects’: ‘what process could endow / Mere matter with the power to wake and feel.’ (p.49) The poem plays ekphrastically with Morandi’s paintings, displacing the human viewer as the centre of perception in favour of the objects’ capacities
… to see behind
The facile complications of event
… and view
What lies below the shining incident.
The poet/perceiver is a product/victim of his experiences and watches the sun’s power to ‘[shift its] abstractions once again’.
Edgar’s poetry echoes Coleridge’s thinking styles, especially the Conversation Poems (on the Imagination and Pantheism). There are echoes of Coleridge’s phrasing (‘esemplastic’, ‘pictures / shine in those walls’ etc) time and time again in Exhibits and there are pervasive hints of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ as well as the thinking and feeling of The Prelude. And we are held by the imagery, the cadences of the verse – this is poetry that persistently claims, implicates and apostrophises the reader.
‘The Trance’ begins with a dramatic, sustained conceit of a ‘gale kept feeding through the canopies / Like timber through a mill’ (p.21), becoming more like a conversation poem as it links this to a remembered childhood experience which is then framed ‘organically’ by the mother’s death. ‘Euroka’ too – camping near Glenbrook – repositions a Wordsworthian sense of place:
… the trees
Which reeve the boulders to the sky, the wide,
Light-dusted river that’s about to stall,
So slow its downstream glide:
You’re spellbound by inaudibilities.
Edgar’s (Miltonic) scope and tones can be seen admirably in ‘The Angel of History’ for example, with which he begins his second group of poems. An extensive prefatory note (thankfully) directs us both to Walter Benjamin and Klee’s Angelus Novus so we can get the picture/references as we need. The poem opens with an epic sense of physical and spiritual stress: ‘agape’, ‘mingled fascination and alarm’, of being in the middle of an ‘impending’ and harmful dilemma: ‘He reaches out as he is forced away’ (p.25) – the iambics enforce the paradoxical weight of the problem. The angel sees all humanity’s particular and collective histories
strewn out – achieved or botched, or incomplete –
Along the road’s
Unravelled pageant …
Like Himalayas hurled before his feet.
– the scope of the simile is impressive. There is a sense (again, Miltonic) of the regret the angel might feel in surveying the scene but he is compelled, ‘swept’ (by the imminent problems in Paradise) to leave – his back to the future, facing the past, ‘his task and vice, / But to record, not to restore, the toll’ (p.25) – a kind of allegory, reprising the traditional debate articulated by (amongst others) Sir Phillip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie about the essential conservatism and limitations of history (in contrast to both philosophy and poetry).
By contrast, the final poem in this section, ‘Pictures in the Water’ (is ‘this interlude and idyll’ a painting or a memory?) antiphonally focuses on a particular moment that might have been seen by the Angel of History. Reminiscent of Slessor’s yachts/harbour, the poem, echoing the preceding ‘Vantage Point’ and ‘Saccade’ (‘Its constant sense being constantly unmade’, p.43) proposes the frail significance of the micro against the inevitability of the macro.
Edgar’s opening poem is the justly praised 2011 Dorothy Porter Prize joint-winner ‘All Eyes’ – a clever, conceptually enthralling and linguistically transforming poem. The image of Saturn as a ‘ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space’ is arresting enough but the subsequent lines ‘with all its shattered rings of icy lace / Exquisitely beyond repair’ (p.3) accrete and multiply understanding, giving what FR Leavis might have called a ‘felt’ seriousness. The brilliance of this poem is partly in positioning the reader with Saturn’s moon Titan, as a both close and distant perspective (the terms stretch to almost meaninglessness in a ‘felt’ sense) from which to (try to) contemplate what can’t actually be seen in deep space:
Who knows what sown and pullulating planet
Has come and gone, an ark of evidence
Interminably circling where it cannot
Be salvaged by the optic nerve?
Edgar’s resonant and charged adjectives in the first line above give way to a jostle between science and religion, resolved by a Miltonic sense of a lost paradise which cannot be physically perceived. This is a poem full of seeing (Saturn is juxtaposed with fossils found in shale/slime and sunflowers whose ‘yellow is the synonym for Look’) and brings the reader back to a fallible, challenged anthropocentrism (‘Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?’) displaced by a valuing of the intricacy of a ‘moth’s wing’ and ‘the fleck of matter in the nucleus’ which, in a dextrous twist, Edgar turns into a metaphysical compliment: ‘Your face which never fails / To show me what I cannot know’. (p.4)
In ‘Moonlight Sculptures’ Edgar contemplates another Saturn, apostrophising his partner asleep in their stifling moonlit bed: she is exhibited as an object seen from different perspectives – disembodied and fractured ‘intermittent anaglyphs’ – so at times she is a ‘swathed mummy’ or an avatar of Eve, or (affectionately and voyeuristically) ‘The world’s unspoken origin, / So openly depicted by Courbet’ (p.5). The poem becomes an aubade praising the different selves of his love, produced in a night of exhaustion for/by the moon, now eclipsed by its living creation.
‘Man in a Boat’ continues Edgar’s flickering essay on epistemology, focusing on the hyper-reality of the acclaimed Ron Mueck sculpture and, similarly to the Morandi poem, is concerned with the impermeability of the objectified (or painted) other. Edgar explores the defiance of art/image and the corresponding impotence of the beholder, an ongoing tension in Exhibits. The poem compels us to acknowledge the poet’s anxiety and recognition of his essential passivity – like the Angel of History, he can only record, not change, though perhaps, by another Coleridgean trope, the poet as Aeolian harp can hauntingly express what he imagines and constructs.
‘Paris’ too is about representation and its impossibilities – comprised of three quite separate stanza fragments, under Daniel Dennett’s whimsical epigraph ‘a film can be about Paris but Paris is not about anything’. Beginning with an exploration of Beraud’s Entrance to the Universal Exhibition, 1889, Edgar’s images cascade through the lines to arrive at
“…What’s it all about?”
Come on. No Jokes. Don’t say: “It’s about to snow.”
Don’t tell me it’s about three forty-five.
There is such pleasure in the playfulness of language and his own poetics. Stanza two recalls Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation lecture on Romanticism and Beethoven’s music:
… outcrop of dark rock
Juts minimally, intermittently
From masses of sea swell …
The final stanza begins ‘Across a fissured butte in Arizona / A wingèd shadow glides’: another Angel of History (or ‘Haunted Pane’) – something presaging harm? In this instance Edgar’s agnostic optimism is modernist rather than Romantic.
‘The Transaction’ and ‘Clues’ focus particularly on the different (masculine and feminine) nuances in comprehending past encounters and relationships. In both poems, Edgar is pointing to barely noticeable signs of trauma ‘Like an infection floating on a cough / Or swimming on the lip gloss of a kiss’ (p.33). ‘They found in her their metamorphosis’ sounds like the two understandings correspond but ‘she’ is an anarchic signifier pointing to the inevitably irreconcilable versions/views. His memory is sexual:
Still hidden like the blue tattoo
Of a hummingbird that flutters underneath
Her restless skirt.
Hers is of violation: ‘Knowing that rogue survives to gloat’. ‘The Transaction’ ends with a troublingly ambiguous image of masculinity.
Almost as a comment, ‘Peony’ explores the difficulty/impossibility of making sense of memories (and perceptions) ‘You have no sense that they make sense’ but its final image is of the peony’s generative power:
… in a garden bed
More wounding than a work of art,
The peony’s packed, swollen buds, which hold
Whole galaxies of red
And forces too immense to be controlled
Wait quietly to tear the day apart.
Many of Edgar’s poems play with the ways words create, fracture, problematize and reposition perception. ‘Grand Canyon’ (p.61f) and ‘Cinéma Vérité’ (p.66f) play masterfully with perspective. The watcher is watched. The poet is an ‘Ibis trying to prise apart a tub / of salad’ (p.66).
And I must not forget the butterflies – eg. in ‘A Scene from Proust’ (also ‘Govett’s Leap’) – Edgar’s miniaturist and imagist subtleties propose (echoing Douglas Stewart?) a minute signifier which the ‘whole of history has unravelled’ (p.65). Like Fuyue Anzai’s famous one-line modernist poem (a haiku without the line breaks?), 1929: ‘A single butterfly passed over the Tartar Strait’, Edgar has managed to grasp the world in fists of words.
Occasionally there are grandiloquent awkwardnesses such as ‘self-unfolding zone of plenitude’ and ‘thrumming potencies of un-ness’, both in ‘Exclusion Zone’ (p.51) but for the most part, these ‘exhibits’ are absorbing, subtle, beautifully crafted conversations.
In the final poem, ‘Rembrandt with Seagulls’, the last lines celebrate stillness, beauty and the (Brennanesque? Slessorian?) eye of the beholder:
Luminous and remote
Under the strobe-lit passage of the day,
The circling seagulls float
Somewhere that you can only see from here.
Exhibits of the Sun is poetry of glittering fragments and multivalent complexity, its fissuring and layering conjured up and held by Edgar in his ‘artist’s isolating eye’.
DAVID GILBEY is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, and President of Booranga Writers’ Centre . His most recent collection of poems is Pachinko Sunset (2016, Island Press).