Stephen Edgar, The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems (Black Pepper 2020)
This is a daunting book. It opens with 76 pages of new poems in a section titled ‘Background Noise’, enough for a respectable book on its own. But Stephen Edgar has had poetry published since 1976, so it was time for a retrospective, and more than 200 pages follow, a selection from his ten previous books. It’s a lot to take in if, like me, you’re new to his work.
Here’s part of what Clive James had to say about him:
Stephen Edgar stands out among recent Australian poets for the perfection of his craft, a limitless wealth of cultural reference, and an unmatched ability to make science a living subject for lyrical verse … The quickest way of summing up my appreciation of his mastery would be to say that if he were a jazz musician, he would be the kind who, when playing after hours, leads all the others to pack up their instruments and listen.From clivejames.com
James doesn’t mention Edgar’s commitment to rhyme (a commitment James shared). A typical poem in this book has a complex rhyme scheme with a strict metric count, a form that as far as I know is often invented by Edgar for the occasion. The poems adhere to these forms rigorously, rarely even using a half-rhyme or adding an extra syllable. This extraordinary, and deeply unfashionable formal constraint is a wonder to behold. James’s comparison to a jazz musician seems at first blush paradoxical or even perverse, but it makes sense if you think of the poem’s form as the basic melody, the regular rhythm, around which the syntax, ideas and images play wildly.
For me, it’s not jazz that comes to mind, but sculpture. Thoughts or observations on things mundane or evanescent, tiny or immense, uncanny or terrifying are worked into solid, well-defined shapes. There’s no chance that the reader will mistake the result for simple expression of emotion or anything other than an artifice, one charged with the tension between the fixed form and the mercurial play of mind. The range of subjects includes a Sydney summer day that ends with a Southerly Buster (‘Coming Up for Air’); a group of naked children walking on Hampstead Heath (‘Hampstead Incident’); a performer who builds a structure of feathers (‘Feather Weight’); a slo-mo film of mating finches (‘Song and Dance’); a woman plagued by voices (‘Voices Off’); the death of our planet (‘Shadow Line’); a glimpsed insect (‘Dragonfly’).
If the poems are sculptures, they are both sculptured shapes on the page, and sculptures in sound: these poems cry out to be read aloud.
After I’d written this far I read Martin Duwell’s excellent review of The Strangest Place at this link. Rather than write more about the poetry in general, I recommend that review.
To pick one poem, here’s ‘Out of This World’ (pages 50-51). You can click on the image to open it in a new tab at a more readable size:
See what I mean about strict formal qualities? Each of these stanzas has eight lines. Most of the lines are iambic pentameters (that is, they have five two-syllable feet each); the lines that differ – the first, sixth and eighth line of each stanza – have three, two and four feet respectively. The rhyme scheme is abcadbcd; it may help understand the play of rhyme if it’s written abca-dbcd.
Each of the first three stanzas is a step in an argument: a) a prediction and a proposal; b) detail on the prediction; c) detail on the proposal. The fourth stanza ricochets unexpectedly, and the fifth arrives at an unexpected resolution.
So, the great man predicts, The ruined body and robotic voice: A thousand years, at most, till humankind Exhausts the planet which it now afflicts With the works that cry our claim to fame. We'll have no choice, He says, but to abandon it and find Another one – and do the same?
The first two lines are mildly riddling: ‘the great man’ is of course Stephen Hawking. Shortly before he died in 2018, he predicted that our universe would eventually fade to darkness as the stars run out of energy, and he proposed that scientists might be able to find alternate universes. This stanza manages to evoke Hawking’s physical presence, put a version of his prediction and proposal into smooth verse (see above for what Clive James said about Edgar and science), and then challenge the proposal with a question that throws forward to the second stanza. It’s worth noting that, at least according to the report I linked to above, Hawking was talking about the end of the universe, whereas Edgar scales it back to the more imminent end of the planet, thereby introducing a moral element – the end of the planet is caused by the ‘works’ of humankind, whereas the end of the universe is due to inexorable processes. I guess that’s what my mother used to call poetic licence.
Which future will it be? The nightmare we've been dreaming since the War, The sunburst in which history will combust, The twisted shadows of our artistry Awash with ash? Or the Earth skinned As landscapes pour Their sunburnt pastures, continents of dust, Abroad to feed the scouring wind?
The opening question may seem to be posing a choice, but it’s not so. This is not a poem for activists, nor is it an update of Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice‘. The poem assumes that the prediction is correct, and catastrophe is assured; neither resistance nor preference comes into the question. There are two scenarios, nuclear holocaust and climate disaster, both of which have become more compelling in the actual world since the poem was published. Just as with Hawking in the first stanza, they are evoked by striking images rather than simply named. The effect is partly to draw attention to the poem as artifice, but also to invite an imaginative engagement with the predicted catastrophe(s).
What desperate voyagers, Suspended generations, will pursue Light's white retreating speed, and drift away, The keepers of a purpose that refers, Who knows, to nothing, while this sphere's Now curdled blue, Revolving slowly through its long decay, Dwindles far off and disappears?
This stanza, step three, spells out Hawking’s proposal, again taking a familiar concept – this time a science fiction trope – and working it into the fore-ordained stanza shape. ‘Suspended generations’ neatly evokes those stories of spaceships full of people in suspended animation; ‘curdled blue’ draws great power from the way it evokes popular lyricism about earth as a beautiful blue planet. Unlike Hawking, the poem is pessimistic about the fate of the ‘voyagers’ – their purpose may lead to nothing. For all the strength of these images, and those of the preceding stanza, the poem is still fairly cerebral. And then, whiplash:
My mother's final day. I sit with her in the grey sterile tide Of afternoon. Her shrivelled body strains Its sour breath. Her mouth gapes to convey Its dry mute aria. Over her The minutes slide With useless protocol. Nothing remains For them to do now but recur,
The focus shifts abruptly from the global to the intimate. The general ‘we’ in the first stanzas shrinks to ‘I’ and ‘her’. Where the strict adherence to form had a distancing effect in the previous stanzas, here not so much. There the effect is a kind of classicism – ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ Here, powerful emotion is recollected, if not in tranquillity, then some time after the event. ‘Her mouth gapes to convey / Its dry mute aria’ brings the terrible scene vividly alive.
Much of the power of poetry can lie in what isn’t said. In this case, the gap between the third and fourth stanzas cries out for attention. I can’t be the only one who, having just read an evocation of the end of the Earth, comes to the line ‘My mother’s final day’ and thinks of Mother Earth. Probably more idiosyncratically, I thought of A D Hope’s 1958 poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother‘, in which the mother is Earth, and the vaporising effect of nuclear war is imagined. I’m not saying that Edgar had Hope’s poem in mind, but in my admittedly patchy knowledge of Australian poetry, Hope is the poet Edgar most resembles, mainly for his adherence to rhyming forms, but also for his interest in matters scientific and his occasional venture into the erotic (Hope’s ventures there were more than occasional).
Back to the poem. It resists the gravitational pull of the mother / Earth metaphor. Instead, her ‘withdrawing mind’ is likened to the desperate voyagers of the third stanza, and to the possible nothing at the end of their voyage:
While her withdrawing mind,
Drifting, I fancy, like that future host
Beyond the reach of this blue globe, before
Day's end will leave the daylight dream behind,
Borne on the solar wind that sweeps
The icy coast
Of Pluto, pure dark energy once more
Bound for the interstellar deeps.
The two parts of the poem are brought together, and though it might be tempting to see one of them as a metaphor for the other, it’s not that simple. Abstract emotion about the end of the world and immediate personal grief each has its own powerful validity, and they illuminate each other. Climate grief becomes intensely personal; personal loss becomes cosmic. Much of the stanza refers equally to the dying woman and the survivors of earth’s destruction: ‘daylight’s dream’ means both an individual life (Isn’t there a mystical tradition somewhere that says our life is but a dream, and reality lies elsewhere? If not, there’s certainly a children’s song) and the aeons in the human race has lived by the light and energy of the sun. ‘The icy coast / Of Pluto’ refers to both the planet, beyond which the survivors must go, and the underworld of the ancient Romans beyond the shores (coast at a stretch) of Acheron. ‘I fancy’ in the second line, while working nicely into the alliteration that is so striking in this stanza, declares that the poem is an artifice, but that in no way detracts from the pathos of the final lines.