Stephen Edgar: The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2020, 284pp.

Stephen Edgar always seems to me to be one of the most unusual of major Australian poets. Half a century ago there was an important shift from poems that made their way in the world as objects structured by conventions of rhyme and metre to what is usually called free verse but is really a recognition of a poem’s right to be a piece of discourse as long as it fulfils the obligation of being an interesting piece of discourse in terms of its conception and its execution. Fifty years produces an awful lot of examples but an obvious one might be Les Murray’s “Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” which is, in a sense, a pastiche of an Aboriginal song cycle and whose challenge – successfully achieved, most readers would think – is to avoid any sense in its tone that it is mocking either Aboriginal singers or modern holiday-makers. When contemporary poets do use the old metrical/rhyming structures there is usually a touch of post-modernist flamboyance about it: “I don’t really believe in these archaic modes but I can do them perfectly well”. A sense of the attractions of formality always accompanies poetry no matter what phase it is in and contemporary poets are more likely to be attracted to the sort of arbitrary formal structures that the Oulipo group exercise themselves in generating.

In this environment it is odd to find a poet whose entire work (the poems selected here cover, by the author’s reckoning, forty-four years) is conceived in poems that work within complex rhyming patterns. There isn’t even a modest prose poem to be found slipped in among the eleven volumes. Part of the satisfaction of writing this way might derive from the sense of mastering very difficult techniques, of exercising a craft skill at a very high level. The objection, of course, would be that this is an obsolete craft skill – like establishing a boat’s position with a sextant rather than GPS, or learning how to plough with a team of Clydesdales – but it has plainly stood Edgar in good stead. There is an argument to be made that one of the crucial skills in English language poetry – independent of any contingent “state of the art” – is getting complex syntax smoothly into an existing, equally complex form. Clive James rated this technique highly and it is no accident that he found in Edgar a very sympathetic fellow-poet. Once we shift the issue away from rhyme and metre towards syntax and how clauses and phrases harmonise and create dissonances with line and stanza breaks, we perhaps move the debate to a more valuable level. From this perspective, as I’ve said in writing about Clive James’s work, Spenser is almost the originary poet of English: nobody before or since has so consistently and apparently effortlessly worked complex syntactic structures into an invented form. And the fact that poets from Milton to Keats and Tennyson recognised his genius in this respect shows that running through the long and complex history of form in English language poetry there is a belief in this as a foundational skill. Spenser, in this sense, has more to teach poets than his spectacular contemporary, Shakespeare.

One could look at the formal dimension of Edgar’s poetry at some length, and the passages I quote when talking about his thematic material will provide plenty of examples, but an initial sample might help. Here are the final stanzas of the last poem of the first section of new poems, “Childish Questions”:

. . . . .
In bed at night
All the old childish questions still
Persist, to which no answer can be right:
If time began, what came
Before? When it all ends at last, what will
Succeed that vacancy? And other trite
Futilities to frame,

And hold intact,
Concepts beyond them to conceive.
Dream-lit projections of the mind enact
A garbled masquerade
From laws so strange and shocking to believe,
While hinting at a mental tesseract,
Within which is displayed

Their intricate 
Array, dressed in simplicities,
Which some dream self may grasp and contemplate,
And, like the spaceman hurled
In Interstellar through interstices,
Of time to his own future, then relate
To this, the daylight world.

The verse pattern is a variant of a familiar one in Edgar’s work, in this case rhyming abacbac. The two “c” rhymes make a sense of closure – the last word of each stanza in (I think) all of Edgar’s rhymed poems picks up an earlier word, even though the pattern may be different to the one here. But two elements prevent it being the kind of deliberately bathetic closure that one often gets in quatrains (as in Eliot’s, “The lengthened shadow of a man / is history, said Emerson / Who had not seen the silhouette / Of Sweeney straddled in the sun”). Firstly there is an enjambment across stanzas which is an admission that in the combat between imposed form and syntax, the latter is being respected, indeed here it is being allowed to expand into a full and complex length. Secondly, the stanza form being seven lines, rather than a quatrain’s four, there is more opportunity to let the syntax breathe even while it is being firmly constrained by the rhymes. All in all, whatever one’s attitude to old-style forms in poetry is, this is an impressive technical achievement even if one of those necessary inversions – “to which no answer can be right” – does establish a slightly old-fashioned air.

But why do it? The poems of this new and selected give a clue to at least one possible answer. The obsessive interests lying behind the new poems are perfectly expressed in the title, The Strangest Place, for these poems are almost an anatomy of worldly weirdness, a catalogue of the different ways in which the reality of phenomena can’t really be trusted. At one pole there is the poem I have already quoted which imagines reality to be an ungraspable projection – a tesseract – of dimensions unavailable to us. At another pole – in tone as well as interest – is “Parallax”. Here, the author, processing through reality – in this case the scenes met on a humble daily walk – thinks of himself as a recording machine like the cameras on the Mars landers. This leads to a memory of an advertisement in which, rather like the notorious “Potemkin Villages”, a fake reality in the form of screens is held up before the camera so that the “real” Martians can get on with their lives undisturbed behind them. “Parallax” wears its worries about reality very lightly, finishing with nothing more than a downbeat “that dubious effect . . . screening who knows what”. So does “Hampstead Incident” where the setting is not the daily experience of walking but a memory, forty years old and thus dangerously untrustworthy. On a hot day in London, two women escort a group of naked children – one of the girls, at least, close to puberty – into the park:

. . . . .
All ages – young ones bringing up the rear;
Both sexes – and, most striking, at the head
A girl who would appear
To verge upon pubescence.
And when her glance met mine, did she profess
The uninhibited
Boldness of a child, or an adolescent’s
New knowingness?

A striking memory and one which, one can imagine, is the subject of a lot of recountings on the author’s part when social occasions lapse into the “strange things I have seen on my travels” mode. And, of course, this makes the memory more solidly set and at the same time less trustworthy. The poem concludes by considering what might have happened both in the memory and the reality:

We watched them part the morning to reveal
A wish-fulfilling glimpse of Eden, or
A page of the surreal,
That tempted us away.
Or would a barked instruction of “Take two!”
Betray the conjuror?
The crowd peeled back, and closed on them, and they
Were lost to view.

In other words, is the memory distorted by the desire to impose an image of Edenic purity on the scene or is it just a “weird” event? Or, metaphorically, might it have been part of staged reality for a film? In the latter case the film director – the conjuror – would, like the Martians erecting the screens, have been the creator of this particular reality. And this conjurer figure, the being who controls what it is we think we see in the real world, appears throughout these poems. Here he is a film director whereas in “Mise en Scene” he is a novelist grown bored of his fictions and who leaves the poet to loiter in a reality which is merely a fiction. In “Inside the Frame” the poet looks at one of those toys in which fine particles slide between two sheets of glass or plastic, forming, as they do so, patterns that suggest mountains. The poem begins by taking the illusion as reality:

How instantly those distances collapse:
The farther peaks
Glimpsed fadingly through serried gaps
Of scarp and bluff, the cirques, the valley floor.
A blizzard out of nowhere shrieks
Its coming and dimensions are no more.

The Alps? The Cairngorms? Or this ornament
Your two hands tilt . . .

The poem finishes with a more metaphysical suggestion about the controlling force behind these illusions and thus enters a tradition at least as old as the gnostics for whom reality was a ghastly mess created by an inferior god. The world, it says at the end, might be no more than a program engineered by “supreme, / Conjectured beings”. “Dream Run” uses a similarly long-established image for an untrustworthy reality. It recounts travelling at night by train from Paris to Geneva and, on the journey, dreaming of seeing the towns that the train passes and which are obscured by the dark, as clear as they would be in the day. In other words the dream creates or reflects the actual reality leading to the inevitable question of who is dreaming whom and which is the real.

Poetry, usually, doesn’t do well with such nakedly exposed metaphysics and works best when deploying suggestive metaphors. From this point of view, one of the book’s most interesting pieces is “Feather Weight” which describes one of those performances in which somebody (of bizarre talents) balances a series of objects on top of each other creating a unified, balanced, and, in a sense, working, object. It’s rather like the strange created world of the conjuror and just as fragile:

. . . . . 
And there it balances and oscillates
As though spellbound,
Like those who watch. On tiptoe then she plucks
The feather off that made it all cohere.
The structure instantly recalls
It’s weight’s
Disjointed elements and falls
In clattering disorder to the ground.

It’s not only an allegorical technique like this that prevents these poems being sterile and fanciful metaphysical speculation. There is also a sense of the poet’s stake in this view of reality. There is a lot in these poems which register an emotional unease as well as a metaphysical one. There are poems, for example, about women in the author’s life suffering dementia. The behaviour of such patients is, in itself, an example of the weirdness of the world but, more importantly, dementia produces a view of reality analogous to the one that the poems are worrying about and thus moves towards a question which is often propounded: Are the mad simply those who see reality as it actually is?

Balancing the psychic component of this uneasy view of the world is the author’s interest – almost, one might say, a drive – to get beyond or behind the flakey world of an untrustworthy reality; to get “outside the frame”, to be at least on speaking terms with “the conjuror”. A fine poem, “Time Was”, narrates the unsettling experience of passing by a demolition site on a regular walk. Though nobody is ever seen working, the house simply becomes gradually disassembled, like a film of its construction run in reverse. This leads, inevitably, to meditating on what would happen if the process continued, if it reached back into moments before the observer, a “reservoir / Of unrecovered time” so that as the “real” world moves forward in time, it also moves backwards. The poem finishes with the question, “And what if we stepped in?”, which is only partly a time-travel question since it is implicit in “Dream Run”, where we might ask what would happen if in the dream the narrator had seen himself dreaming in his wagon-lit bed.

The new poems of The Strangest Place are so consistent and so focussed that a couple of questions emerge. The first is whether this theme of strangeness has always been present in Edgar’s poetry and the second, more evaluative, one is whether these poems are weaker then those of the past because they show a narrowing of his approach to the world or whether they are stronger because they have a clarifying unity of focus. Since the poems are followed by a tightly pruned selection of earlier work, The Strangest Place carries with it the material that might enable these questions to be answered. Ideally – in Dante’s eighth heaven perhaps, where criticism is carried out with ethical and scholarly purity – one wouldn’t entirely trust the current selection – it might be influenced by recent interests – but reread all of Edgar’s published work. I have reread a good deal of it looking for answers to these questions but I haven’t been able to face up to the issue as well-prepared as I would like to be. But what can be said is that the uncanny, a response to the oddness of things is present in the poems from the first book, Queueing for the Mudd Club. “Friends” and “A Death in the Family” from that book certainly have the same tone as these recent poems, the first worrying about the degree to which friends and lovers are imaginary beings “you carry about selfishly inside” and who occasionally don’t match the person in reality so that they are “Like an imposter whose perfect act / Slips briefly and thereafter / Is suspect”. It’s rather as though the Martian screen had a hole in it which momentarily showed the real world beyond.

One of Edgar’s regular interests lies in observing the scene before him, especially when it involves water, as in, for example, “Ulysses Burning”. The interest is really in transformation, the strange effects of time – the sun’s setting perhaps – on the visual appearance of the world. And often these scenes are framed. A memorable early poem, “In Search of Time to Come” imagines early man, within the safety of a cave looking out and seeing the cave mouth as, significantly, a screen. It’s tempting to read this as a kind of counter-poem to “Time Was” since the direction of time is the opposite. The family in the cave look for a reality which they can comprehend but, like people in the present, they have to live not having the power to look beyond the screen:

. . . . .
Only the cave mouth, that changeable screen,
Opens a gap
In the circumference; and when the light
Is gone, they have no words by which to trap,
Or the notions by which words could mean,
What that black window’s showing for them to detect,
As they look, perplexed, into the night
And stare,
Then turn towards each other’s bodies to tap
Their comfort. Someone, they suspect,
Is out there; and they’re right. We are out there.

There is also the issue of time frozen, or at least distorted. One of the new poems, “Song and Dance” is about how the courting songs of two blue-capped finches are so quick that a listener cannot take them in. When they are slowed down to the point where they make sense, they are transformed into something like whale-song. In keeping with the themes of the book, this is a case of the weirdness of the world revealing itself with a little fiddling with time and that is taken to an extreme when, in “Eighth Heaven”, time is frozen completely. This is one of Edgar’s great poems and in it he visits his parents by entering a frozen image of them, in the past, in their own home, moving through their world, observing things but unable to interact with them because they are like “a one-sided hologram”. The newer poems add some perspective to the conclusion of this poem because it invokes that great moment when Dante looks down to the little threshing floor of our sublunary world. He is looking down from the perspective of the heavens but he is also in a position “outside the frame” in the perspective which enables a traveller on Mars to look down from on high and see both sides of the screens which are being erected for the astronauts. Something related occurs in “Dreaming at the Speed of Light” from History of the Day. And then there are the narratives involving uncanny elements, especially Eldershaw; the uncanny being, in this perspective, a little temporary eruption of a true, hidden reality into what is considered to be a “normal” one.

These observations about the thematic material of the new poems in The Strangest Place and their relation to the earlier work, are only a rough description of what is there but they form an interesting connection with the formal, rather old-fashioned, poetic style that I described at the beginning of this review. It’s very hard to resist the temptation to say that if reality is both perceived and felt as an untrustworthy, shifting thing – a Martian’s screen or novelist’s fantasy – then there must be a sense of balance in getting these perceptions into strongly-built, stable, well-braced verse-forms. If you convey such perceptions in an equally unsubstantial poetic mode, there is a possibility that the result is merely smoke and mirrors – a situation, many would say, that perfectly describes nineteenth century French Symbolist poetry. Everybody needs at least one anchor in an unstable world. For some it is the self, for others it is others – that is, relationships. I think that for Edgar it is the world in which propositions emerge as syntax which is then, with great skill, worked into existing rhyme patterns. Perhaps the poem becomes a world in which the poet is the conjuror/film director/novelist and the world he creates is not only one in which he is “outside the frame” but it is also one in which he can trust the world that the poem contains.