Kevin Hart reviews The Strangest Place by Stephen Edgar
The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems
Reviewed by KEVIN HART
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.