World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2023, 87pp.
Stephen Edgar’s new book relates to the new poems in his Selected – significantly called The Strangest Place – by a process of extension. If those slightly earlier poems seemed obsessed by the weirdness of the world of appearances, the poems of Ghosts of Paradise could be said to be preoccupied by the nature of the organism that perceives that strangeness. Perhaps it’s true that our minds are weirder than the world they spend their limited life interacting with but at any rate it is the mind, consciousness itself, that comes to the surface as the overriding theme of these poems. And it is the idea of ghosts – chimera produced by the mind – that is the main vehicle for this theme.
The first poem of the book (which provides its title) is marked by a fascinatingly oblique approach to the issue of mind and consciousness. It begins by meditating on what happens as the past fades increasingly into memory then story and then fable (this process can be seen in reverse in the work of ancient historians like Herodotus where what is fable suddenly clicks into a sharp and reasonable historical narrative a few generations before the author so that the miraculous birth and improbable early life of Cyrus, for example, get replaced by genuine exploratory history by the time of his death.) At this point you realise that the standpoint of the poem is not the present but the far future and that we, in our present, are the far and fabulous past that our evolved organism is thinking about. And this evolved version of ourselves probably has replaced a lot of flesh with digital and mechanical developments that would make flesh and bone creatures such as ourselves us seem faintly silly or at least embarrassing:
. . . . . Such ancestors. Who would acknowledge them? A rattlebag of bones that staggered upright, Wrapped in a flimsy envelope of skin, Seething with unknown reasons, wanting more, Looking through the world they were looking at - Those swimmers rising through the wave, the dash Of parrots frisking in a rain-washed tree, The bedside vigil shocked in the window light - And seeing things, until the picture ceased. Who would acknowledge forebears that would die, Tainting the future like a damaged gene? . . .
In conception, this rather recalls John Boorman’s 1974 film, Zardoz. It’s also, in a sense, a corrective to the error that evolutionary scientists complain about: that we are inclined to see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation because we only ever look backwards. But in a subtler away it is an introduction to the book’s main obsession: the nature of consciousness. And this comes through the title. Our descendants will have ghosts of us – their humble rattlebags of bones – appearing at times in their conscious minds. They may even call them “ghosts of paradise” since the world of immersion, perception of nature, grieving, etc, could be seen as a kind of golden age – a primitive paradise. But the phrase recalls Ryle’s “Ghost in the Machine” that he used in his critique of the approach to consciousness which sees a non-physical mind inhabiting a corporeal body: a ghost inside a machine. And so, even in this first marvellous poem, we can see the introduction of the issue of an individual’s meditations about what mind is: we finish up as ghosts in a machine version of ourselves.
The subject of consciousness is made overt in the second poem, “Identity Parade”, which begins by outlining the “old enigma” – “is my body me, / Or simply where I live”. In a sense this is the obverse of “The Ghosts of Paradise” since it is sensitive to the intuition that, just as the body develops by shedding and replacing cells regularly so the thinking self may be equally susceptible to change. Of course the idea of an unstable ego is a truism of post-war literary, psychological and sociological theory but the subject is approached differently here through the idea, established in the first poem, of older versions of the self, leaving behind ghosts which can flicker on the edges of consciousness:
. . . . . Sometimes, performing in this film of light, Midway through some mundane And daily purpose, pausing as I write A shopping list, or tie A shoe, I’ll sense and fleetingly detain, Out of the corner of my eye, Like a faint watermark, or warp of air, Some presence sliding free From the mind still tethered to this frame we share - A neural glitch, I’d dare To guess – hinting that who I am may be Beyond me, and not my affair.
The evolutionary approach to consciousness is explored in poems like the sequence, “Ape or Angel” which is prefaced by Disraeli’s question, “Is man an ape or an angel?”. The three poems explore magical interactions between apes and humans: in the first a group of female orangutans watch, with evident empathy, a woman breastfeeding,; in the second a gorilla gives birth and in the third a chimpanzee is released into the wild. Done badly, these might be nothing more than examples of a new poetic genre, “Terrific Things I Saw on YouTube”, but Edgar’s approach is both more rigorously forensic and more alert than that. He is interested in the moments of connection which are, after all, a kind of ghost-sighting:
. . . . . Females they must all be, through a glass sheet So many aeons thick, their eyes intent, Anxious to meet Her eyes, and offer their acknowledgement, The light of recognition in their faces For such a blood-deep bond and the tiny shape That she embraces, A wonder unforeseen from the Naked Ape. . .
That last line has an intriguing turn of phrase since The Naked Ape is the title of a book by Desmond Morris that was very popular in the seventies. There humans are looked at from a zoologist’s point of view: we are the naked apes for the purposes of the book whereas in Edgar’s poem the naked apes are the orangutans. To connect it with the book’s first poem, it is as if some few humans – the “rattlebags of bones that staggered upright” – had survived somewhere and were now on display in a museum/zoo being stared at by semi-automatons who are perhaps barely recognisable as “human” but with whom there might be a flicker of “the light of recognition”.
Two poems of Ghosts of Paradise announce the connection of ghosts and machines in their titles. “The Ghost and the Machine”, the third-last poem of the book’s first section, deals with experimentation on human cadavers, designed, presumably, to assist forensic examinations of violent deaths. But as a poem, it is about an aging poet’s relationship with his own body – Yeats’s “tattered coat upon a stick”:
. . . . . Lying in darkness, though, I stray, a sort of mental parasite, Impatient to let go The sightless body that has been my host, All ghost and no machine, or dreaming so.
And then there is “The Ghost in the Machine”, the title slightly different but still appearing in third-last position, here at the end of the book’s third and final, section. Here the ghost is a perceived self, built of our memories of ourself, which seems to co-inhabit our bodies as a “constant companion boasting to be you”.
The science of the nature of consciousness was developed when dealing with people whose consciousnesses were deeply flawed, an example of the way in which sciences like anatomy, psychology and linguistics made strides by studying the non-perfect rather than the perfect. In “Mind out of Matter”, inmates of what one assumes is an asylum, spend a “rationed hour” in a garden built on the roof of the building in which they spend their lives. The poem worries about the way an “accident // Of tissue in / The skull”, a purely physical phenomenon, can damage an entire self. The inmates themselves, however, don’t worry about this: their response is to the strange and beautiful p[lace they have suddenly found themselves in:
. . . . . While all of this Unfolds behind their eyes, emergent from These rooftop elements, Light, shadow, leaf, the fluent idiom Of water, and their metamorphosis, Alive to sense.
It’s hard not to think at this point about the relationship between analysis of issues like the mind and body on the one hand, and on the other a response to and description of, the magical mysteries of the natural world which are available to most of us almost continuously. It’s no accident that the first half of “Mind out of Matter” which might have described the way the inmates are led to the roof, actually describes the splendours of the garden itself – “clouds wandering beyond / The edge, and trailing foliage, a stream / Of unfolding matter”. It’s something Edgar is especially sensitive to and there are plenty of examples of it in the book. Sometimes the natural world is serene – as it is in “World Within” or “The Creek Flows Out”. The latter enacts a kind of transaction with the stream where it moves from being an external phenomenon to one that actually generates us:
. . . . . This flickering of shade and gleam Takes in the mind the day is flowing through, As though you’re lying in the stream As it flows over you, Till you become the gleam and shade, And all but the flux of nothing is undone, This current out of which you’re made, Painless in the sun.
But the natural world isn’t always serene. In “Second Circle”, poet and partner tramp through a howling gale on Diamond Beach. The wind is allegorised as the blown scraps of memories and events but the ghost in this poem is Francesca from the fifth canto of the Inferno, blown on the allegorical winds of lust.
To return, for a moment, to the idea of pyschic damage as a site in which to learn about mind and matter, “Haunted Dwelling” is a poem about dementia – another contemporary poetic genre. It has a particularly potent structure, moving from what seems like a rhapsodic description of light-filled space, sustained by a “ghostly presence” to a cold and bathetic ending:
. . . . . Filling my study where, on the windowsill, Is propped the sun-drained face of one now dead, Who long before she died Was stricken from her living will, To linger and subside, Ghost of herself, self-disinherited.
This poem is, I suppose, a comparison between two kinds of ghosts but I’m most taken by that shape that spirals downwards in tone to its bleak conclusion. I’m reminded of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” – Yeats, a great believer in ghosts, figures often and in various ways in this book and many of his poems are famous for their high-powered rhetorical conclusions rather than the down-beat one of “Leda and the Swan”. But there are also poems in the Western corpus like Catullus’s farewell to Lesbia in the wonderful poem XI, and even Dransfield’s “Epiderm” which, like the Catullus, moves from ecstatic expansiveness to a bleak conclusion.
Finally, in this catalogue of kinds of ghosts, there is “Spectre at the Feast” a relaxed piece describing attending an open-air party. The analytical part of the poet’s mind is fascinated by the complexity of human interactions – “this incessant chatter and good cheer, / So effortlessly practiced with an art / that seems so artless and sincere” – and this fascination makes him an outsider/observer rather like, as he says, “a spectre at a feast”:
. . . . . Some element Of mind looks back on the unfolding show As though it’s past, or like that pageant called From the thin air by Prospero. But that is me, it’s evident, The spectre at the feast, slightly appalled To undergo This weird abstraction . . .
The final poem of Ghosts of Paradise returns to the world of “the strangest place”. It describes that strange experience of driving between Hay and Balranald where you feel that you are moving over a huge upturned saucer. In this poem, the entire natural world looks like a full-scale museum representation of the place. It’s not so much a description of a strange place as a place where a certain weirdness is apparent and which might lead one to suspect that this weirdness lies behind (or alongside) other places, perhaps all other places. And then we would be nothing, as the last words of the book say, but “late / Additions to its catalogue raisonné”.
Starting this review, I’d set myself the task of, for once, not commenting on Edgar’s weirdly old-fashioned poetics where complex meditation is worked out through strict rhyme schemes that would have pleased a medieval troubadour. But the success of the poems in this fine book is so dependent on the distinctive movement of the ideas in the verse – the tension between syntax and the imposed discipline of rhyming end words and enjambments, often across stanza breaks – that it’s simply not possible to avoid the issue. We often (as editors, perhaps, rather than critics) speak of poets’ finding their own voice and the brilliance of Edgar’s work establishes that this poetic method is absolutely right for him – the poems we have would be pale shadows of themselves if they were done as free-flowing “poetic” meditations in a more contemporary manner.