Stephen Edgar: Eldershaw

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2013, 109pp.

The title poem of Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw is a three-part verse narrative which, nearly eighty pages long, makes up more than two-thirds of the book. The final twenty-five pages is a collection of poems described, on the back cover, as being “in Edgar’s more characteristic manner”. The narrative, “Eldershaw”, is a brilliant piece of “uncanny” fiction focussed on the Tasmanian home of the grandparents of the central character, Helen. She and her husband – a successful lawyer – rebuy it in the mid-fifties and, almost immediately, become prey to disturbing events the most affecting of which is finding their two little daughters dancing naked in the backyard singing, mysteriously, “Dep-pites! a-Darra-dan!”. Both partners end up behaving badly (certainly madly) and divorce messily. Helen later takes up with the much younger Luke whose family history forms the basis of the second part. Luke’s father is one of those victims of war (he flew Mosquitoes in raids over Germany) whose later life is a process of denial and almost self-willed deadness interspersed by eruptions of traumatic memory. The final section of “Eldershaw” deals with Luke’s responses to Helen’s death and records instances of the way her presence asserts itself: he finds a tape on which she had, unwittingly, recorded herself while drunk; he reads her extensive diaries; clearing out her things he finds, among her make-up, a tissue imprinted with her lipstick kiss; and, most importantly, wakes in the night with a clear vision of her sleeping alongside him only to find that she disappears the moment he tries to touch her.

Described like this, “Eldershaw” seems not much more than a melange of topoi from the genre of uncanny fiction, even down to alluding to the sinister and equivocal children of The Turn of the Screw and having a central character (in this case, Luke) who is resistant to any suggestion of the occult. But the whole poem works alarmingly well. Unlike a conventional genre piece, it is alive and convincing at every point, crackling with engagement and intensity. Working out why this should be the case is a tricky critical issue.

It can’t be put down to superlative narrative skills on Edgar’s part since there isn’t much in his seven earlier collections to prepare us for this movement into narrative. True, there is an early “Bluebeard’s Castle” and there is also “King Pepi’s Treasure” from the 1995 volume, Corrupted Treasures. Written in the same brisk blank verse as “Eldershaw”, this latter poem also visits the familiar landscapes of the uncanny in that it is a search for a missing text – in this case a Victorian short story referred to in the footnote of a scholarly book. The “rules of the labyrinth” apply: the harder the narrator searches using correct bibliographic procedures, the more the book in which the story appears recedes – even the British Library has mislaid it. Eventually, when all desire to find it has been leached away, the narrator stumbles on it in a secondhand bookshop in London only to find that the short story has been physically cut from the volume. Like much of the uncanny it can be read as an allegory of the search for textual meaning: so much is promised ultimately to be endlessly deferred, the text continually slipping out of reach. And there is much about “King Pepi’s Treasure” which is obsessed by text: the narrator as a child is fascinated by his first experience of cursive script – “the ‘running writing’ he could never catch” – and fills pages with imitation scripts which he hopes will, one day, have a meaning. After his father’s death, he reads, in a late letter, not an act of communication from the father but a textual substitute for emotions:

An offering of uninformative,
Embarrassed platitudes which gestured at
Some more remote sense of what might be said,
For which the act of writing in itself
Would have to be the formal substitute,
So touching, so profoundly not himself.
Just like the face presented by his coffin,
Expressionless, uncoloured . . .

If “King Pepi’s Treasure” could be about deferred textual meanings, we also learn enough about the central character’s love-life to see that desire, too, is about receding and ultimately unreachable goals: touching his lover’s body he is visited by the image of a babushka doll hiding ever smaller dolls within:

Continually deferring the embrace,
Continually receding from his hold
Towards the central space in the final doll
Still moulded by its absence in her shape.

There are other related readings as well. Perhaps this is not so much about text generally as about poetic text. Perhaps, even, bearing in mind the sceptical protagonist of “Eldershaw”, it is about the occult (or any religion which harnesses the miraculous) which continually leads would-be adepts on with promises of revelation only to present them in the end, when the curtains are finally whisked aside, with an empty temple.

Another reason for approaching “Eldershaw” by this roundabout path is that “King Pepi’s Treasure” connects with “The Secret Life of Books”, a “more characteristic” poem which immediately precedes it. It is a poem which turns text from being a controlled human tool into a dimension with its own agenda:

. . . . .
         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.

I dwell on this at length because it encapsulates in a small ambit what might be one way of approaching Edgar’s work as a whole. In other words, there is an entire corpus of poems in Edgar’s previous books which stand in the same relationship to “Eldershaw” that “The Secret Life of Books” might be said to have to “King Pepi’s Treasure”.

We have met Luke’s father, for example, as early as Edgar’s first book, Queuing for the Mudd Club, published in 1985. “Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures” is an early example of a characteristic shift in Edgar whereby reality is frozen or illuminated into art: that is – land becomes landscape. But the landscape here is an expressionist one, encapsulating the deadness of the relationship between father and son in an imagined painting of “Grey road and river, grey / Sky gumming the interstices of trees, / The buildings pasted flatly like screens . . .” When we are told:

                              Those fingers now are fused
Beyond prising. He’ll not be reached through them.
The rigours that made him are emptied and set
By. That expression is closed to appeal
And the closed eyes are focussed in a different
. . . . .

I’m not absolutely sure whether this is because the father is emotionally dead inside or actually, physically dead, but the fact that “Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures” is followed immediately by “Patrimony: Four Poems on my Father’s Death” suggests that it may well be the latter. The first poem of Edgar’s second book, Ancient Music (1988) dwells on his father’s old 78s, accumulated before the war but never played after: “All secrets were quite safe / In our technology of silence”, it says, “He couldn’t speak to me, nor I / To him.”

Above all we have met Helen continually throughout Edgar’s poetry and a great number of the events of “Eldershaw” have found their way into earlier lyric expression. She is clearly based on Edgar’s late former partner, Ann Jennings, known to all readers of Australian poetry from Gwen Harwood’s much-loved “An Impromptu for Ann Jennings”. She is the dedicatee of the first book and the posthumous dedicatee of Edgar’s fifth book, Lost in the Foreground, published the year after her death in 2002. The first poems of the first book, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Boobook Owl” and “Home Comforts”, might well be about their life together but after 2002 she becomes increasingly the focus – at least the emotional focus – of Edgar’s poetry moving it from a set of elegantly formal meditations about art, life, time, the future, our genes (and so on) into a poetry which seems – to me at least – to be trying to deal with an oppressive and disturbing subject that continually demands consideration, rather like the house’s protests in “Eldershaw”. Lost in the Foreground concludes with a comparatively conventional elegy, “Elemental”:

The body’s graces which you graced
Are irretrievably effaced,
And all you were that now is not,
And will no more, resolves to what
These gathered memories can make
From shreds of pleasure and heartache.
The lines around your eyes and lips,
The gestures of your fingertips,
Those limbs that love moved and desire
Are disembodied now like fire.
 . . . . .

By the time of Other Summers (2006) she (or, more precisely, her absence) is a major recurring theme. There is an extended suite of ten disparate poems, “Consume My Heart Away”, which seems likely to derive from the same experience. At any rate, it is devoted to getting to grips with loss from different angles. It carries as an epigraph Francesca’s famous comment that there is nothing so bleak as recalling times of happiness in a time of woe, coupled with a comment from Durrell’s Justine: “I saw that pain itself was the only food for memory”. Two of these poems are especially fine. “History of the House” – again the title specifically recalls “Eldershaw” – deals with ghostly presences and the way that while the central character needs to be free of them in general (“Switch off the radio, / Enough of ghosts . . .”) he cannot be free of her, specifically (“She will not be denied. / The ghost of her is too much to ignore, / More stubborn to remain since she is gone”). “Man on the Moon” is a magnificent piece of poetic indirection where the sight of the moon recalls the experience of seeing the moon landing which itself moves, with the obsessive logic of love, to thinking about the way the lover was “in the world then and alive” and how love makes an accidental crossing of paths seem a destined meeting. The conclusion:

The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe

That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.

brings us back to Dante, I think, in recalling the circle of the moon in Paradiso. And there is also a wonderful ambiguity in that “Don’t smile” which might, in its defence, be addressed to the reader but, as we all know, is really addressed to the dead lover (since we never stop speaking to those we have truly loved) and thus is a neat and wry contradiction of the last line.

Visitations and memories continue. In “Her Smile” (from later in Other Summers) an old video is recovered showing her in “the years before you met / When you were not alive to her, / Nor she to you”, a story retold in “Eldershaw”. “2.00” from History of the Day (2009) tells the story of awaking to the sensation that she is lying next to him, the “visitation” with which “Eldershaw” concludes, and “Nocturnal” from the same book is based on the experience of hearing her voice accidentally recorded on tape. It also includes the story of Jenning’s being disturbed by a sinister presence not long after buying the house. This poem is thickened by the fact that the tape itself is a recording of Gwen Harwood, a dead friend of both Jennings and Edgar, reciting “Suburban Sonnet”. In other words it has a frame that doubles the experience of being visited by the voice of the dead. It’s the closest that these more conventional poems get to the world of “Eldershaw”:

. . . . . 
Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
          Those who are not, who once had been?
          At that old station on North Head
                    Inmates still tread the boards,
Or something does; 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. And that would not faze you
Who always claimed events could not escape
          Their scenes, recorded as on tape
          In matter and played back anew
                    To anyone attuned
To that stored energy, that psychic wound.
You said you heard the presence which oppugned
Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion
In your lost house. I scarcely need persuasion,

So simple is this case. 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.

What does all this mean? It is hard to resist the conclusion that this life/love experience is so powerful that it has, cumulatively, put a lot of strain on Edgar’s usual poetic methods. In other words “Eldershaw” is not merely a successful narrative which mines personal experience to lift it above being a mere genre piece. Nor is it a sort of roman a  clef – the kind of fiction that gets its drive from coded references to a known story that is, in itself, for various reasons, unsayable. “Eldershaw” is, I think, an attempt to deal with a profound experience by exploiting poetry’s protean possibilities and constructing a verse narrative to both air and attempt to control the material. I think it is more successful than the “lyric/dramatic” poems – like “Nocturnal” – largely because it is a mode where complexity of expository detail, far from being the awkward drag it can be in a lyric poem (for how can any poet calculate how much contextual detail is necessary before an innocent reader can make sense of such a central and repeatedly visited experience?) forms the substance of the text. The main question about “Eldershaw” – which a reader cannot answer – is whether this is a final, freeingly successful engagement with this intense material or simply another approach, admittedly successful, from a new angle. Time – as they so often say will tell.

The advantage of having quoted “The Secret Life of Books” and “Nocturnal” at some length is that they give readers new to Edgar’s poetry some idea of what makes up his “characteristic manner”, a mode that dates back to the first poems of his first book. It is almost always stanzaic, usually intricately rhymed, and exploits a truly prodigious technique to make long sentences articulate themselves within the stanzas. There is rarely any end-stopping and the rhymes are almost always half-rhymes (I usually find myself rereading the first stanza with an eye to working out its rhyme scheme before I go on with an Edgar poem). Those who dislike it will claim that it is stodgy and old-fashioned but it seems to have served Edgar well and choices in poetry should be judged by the extent to which they enable a poet to do what he or she wants and needs to do, rather than by any abstract standard such as whether they are “in keeping with recent developments”. And getting the syntax of longish sentences into a predesigned stanzaic shape produces a distinctive quality of voice: the three stanzas I have quoted from “Nocturnal” will give some idea of how brilliantly Edgar does this. Another component of this voice is the presence of lexical density – there are quite a few words beyond most people’s competence. “Streeling”, “obtunded” and “stravaiging” occur within a few pages of each other in Edgar’s first book and “planish” turns up in one of the last poems of Eldershaw. Odd lexical items can create different effects. On the crudest level they can just be there to raise the level of the style so that the poem establishes and sustains a slightly hieratic quality. But they also have an estranging effect and in Edgar’s style they sometimes seem like (to risk mixing metaphors) little knots in the stately, brahmsian flow of the verse.

Apart from the fact that it isn’t in one of Edgar’s favoured six or eight line stanzas and is, rather, in syllable-counted couplets, the first poem of the sixteen that fill out Eldershaw, “Nothing But”, is in touch with Edgar obsessions that go back to some of his earliest poems. It begins with the sun illuminating a domestic coastal scene:

Like wind and spray, the first sun hits the coast
And paints it into being, strikes the face

Of the sleeper who awakes, in character,
Convinced she is herself and yesterday

Woke also in this room, who, rising, gazes
At waves like travellers in time which bring

Reports back from tomorrow. Even so,
How frail an artifice the pigface seems,

Streaming in purple down the quarry wall;
The empty laundromat, this Monday morning,

Its window like an exercise to render
Transparency from plain day, a collage

Of this and that . . . . .

The work of art which the woman sees through the laundromat window is one in which the objects of the day are revealed for what they are – “Nothing but this, nothing if not this” – rather as components of a painted scene with a predetermined meaning.

But this transmutation of reality into one kind of artwork or another is a theme (if that is the correct word) that seems to recur so commonly in Edgar’s earlier poetry that it is almost an obsession. Just as the poems of Gwen Harwood – another poet who moved to Tasmania – often touch base with the poetic equivalent of a primal scene (wandering at sunset on the edge of water, receptive to the otherworld of dream etc) so a scenario peculiar to Edgar is often repeated in which the poet is looking at the landscape of estuary and hills through a window. Probably there is a gull flying, either at random or pursuing goals quite different to the rest of the landscape. Some event of light then transmutes this scene into art with the window acting as a plane. “Ulysses Burning” (another Dante allusion) from Corrupted Treasures, expresses this perfectly:

This room is the darkened theatre. Through the glass
The white veranda frames the stage
Like a proscenium. Garden, street and beach,
River and mountain, layer on layer, reach
Out to the backdrop of the sky
Before which all must pass that has to pass.

The river with its diamond-crusted gloss;
A Petri dish of gel in which
A culture of the sun is flourishing.
On the mountain, which aspires to Monet, cling
Veiled glares, some squeegee smears of cloud.
. . . . .

And so on. In its own way it is a mode full of possibilities especially for dealing with endless variations on the opposition of life and art. (In “Nothing But” and another poem from Eldershaw, “Auspices”, you have the feeling that the later Edgar wants the result to be an art that will be more about things-in-themselves rather than, say, interpretable allegories.) But it is also a mode that suits Edgar’s style perfectly because this steady progression of sentences through stanzas has an oddly viscous effect which mimics the transitions that the poems deal with. It is a case of an odd music finding its theme perfectly. If I had to locate a word within the poetry that might act as a totem, I would choose “frieze” (with its homophonic second meaning as well).

“Nothing But” also recalls – in its notion that the waves bring reports from tomorrow – those earlier poems interested in the future. One of these, “In Search of Time to Come”, belongs to that large poetic genre devoted to how we can suddenly be exposed to other dimensions either by the destruction of what another early Edgar poem calls “that golden stock / Of certainties” or by being exposed to other orders of existence, such as animal consciousness. “In Search of Time to Come” describes an imagined prehistoric community in a cave, turned inward – “Always back / On itself” – rehearsing familiar tasks. Outside the sun is setting and the threat of the external dark is beginning to loom. The individuals feel that someone is out there but, as the poem concludes, what is out there is us, their genetic and cultural future.

Given time one could also write a great deal about the way that the past is dealt with. Often it emerges in poems that are about genetic determinism and this colours many of the poems about the father like, for example, “His Father’s Voice” from Where the Trees Were and those about the family. In fact poems about the family form an interesting counterpoint to the poems of loss about which I’ve spoken. In Other Summers there are three different versions of a poem called “Im Sommerwind” in which late adolescence is revisited. In each poem the scene is, essentially, frozen but the three versions look like three different snapshots. In the same book there is a wonderful piece, perhaps my favourite Edgar poem, “Eighth Heaven”, in which the poet wanders through a frozen image of his family home:

. . . . .
                              And there is my father

Standing in the lounge room, half-turned away.
I summon up some greeting and can feel
The words unbodied, though not a sound disturbs

The house’s depth. I walk in and am baffled
To find, however much I move about him,
That that one aspect is still turned to me,

Unmoving, a one-sided hologram.
. . . . .

I’m sure that much of the magic of this poem lies in the fact that so many of the Edgar themes are focussed in this bizarre scenario. The family is frozen in time in the same way that it is in memory and in photographs but it is a benevolent freezing into an enabling art rather than into the horrors of the later cantos of Inferno where the lack of movement symbolises a moral deadness. One of the most significant moments in “Eldershaw” occurs when Luke’s father, returned from the war, goes with his new wife on a delayed honeymoon in the country:

But some particulation of the light
Applied across, or rather through the miles
Between here and the faint blue hazy sky,
In which the sun, a smouldering orange disc
Behind a screen, was sinking gradually
As though the air resisted its decline.
How beautiful she thought it. “I don’t know,”
He said at last, “it all looks dead to me.”

What we get here – in compressed form – are the two different results of freezing (or “friezing”): the enabling beauties of art or deadness.

Many of the other poems at the end of Eldershaw reflect on the painful material that the long narrative deals with and are thus a part of the dynamic of how Edgar’s poetry is to deal with this issue. We are left with the book’s final poem, “Lost World”, which describes how a Tasmanian bushfire burns down a shed which contains a lover’s photograph in a gardener’s old jacket. The picture is lost but in a sense, the poem reminds us, much more was lost since the picture only captured one instant out of many instants:

A little earlier, or in a while,
And a quite other face or pose
Might have been taken than this shadowed smile,
Which no one may have seen except
These two, the nameless and the dead, or kept
The curling memory of. And now, who knows? . . .

All life is loss, even (or especially) life frozen into art. Narrative may be a solution but it, despite its commitment to a fuller depiction of process and change, is also only a sketch of reality. “Lost World” concludes with the hope that everything on earth (crushed fossils, drowned Minoan combs, experiences of love at its most intense) survives somewhere as a “print in space . . . coded like a chromosome / With lost millennia and multitudes” – but, at best, it’s a desperate and very faint hope.