As with an ear for music, an ear for the rhymes and rhythms of language is hardwired into the human brain; the deeper structures of poetry, in other words, are inscribed in our DNA. Like music, their evolutionary purpose is, in part, mnemonic: to help us to remember the knowledge of the tribe in pre-literate times. Hence we remember every nursery rhyme we ever heard. Hence, the lyrics of every second song. Hence, a hard-to-forget stanza like this, in an earlier, justly celebrated poem of Stephen Edgar’s:
Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the paring of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.
Nail-clipping moon metaphors are a dime a dozen in literature, but what a rejuvenation this is: imagism with a Robert Gray or Galway Kinnell quality of freshness. Or refreshment. And with style nicely fused with substance: a formal pentameter and abab rhyme sings subtly beneath the images. No surprises there: although Edgar is a superb imagist, it is not through that particular poetic ‘ism’ that he has made his name: he is known first and foremost as a formalist.
There are few as accomplished in the English-speaking world, or with as large a command of forms. He can turn the music on and off at will: beat it like a drum; allow it to whisper sotto voce; or loosen the shackles into easy-flowing, conversational blank verse. Even when using a standard form – a sonnet, say – he is seldom predictable. He especially likes to invent his own end-rhyme schemes. One favourite trick is to rhyme the last lines of his preferred six- or seven-line stanzas (sestets or septets) with, say, the second line – an end-rhyme so delayed that it is a half-forgotten echo. Auden pioneered this kind of musical suspense in early poems, such as the famous ‘Lullaby’; Edgar stretches our rhyme attention span even further. Which is not to say he isn’t perfectly capable of finishing things off with the clashed cymbals of a rhyming couplet:
The sun displays its gorgeous jewellery
Across the spread
Of harbour, as it heartlessly arranges
Over the bluffs and bays of Middle Head
The silken trance it’s spun and shed.
Edgar wears his influences plainly: Auden, yes, and Larkin, Frost and Hardy, with the towering figure of John Donne whispering to us over their heads from several centuries before. Donne’s influence is seen not just in the form of the poems, but also in their content. Edgar’s Metaphysical streak jumps out from the first page of his latest book Exhibits of the Sun. ‘All Eyes’ begins at the rim of the solar system, seen through the proxy eyes of the Voyager probe:
Look, look, it says, and peels away the night
As it flies on. And there,
A ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space,
Saturn comes looming at the satellite
With all its shattered rings of icy lace
Exquisitely beyond repair.
The regularly varying line-lengths of this poem’s sestets owe something to Donne’s spirit of formal experiment, but its evolving argument owes even more to the Metaphysical conceits of Donne’s love poetry. After speculating what might lie further out in space, Edgar reverses his telescope, pulling the focus sharply back in, via a joke at the expense of William Blake, and ending in a final knight’s-move, or perhaps a warp-jump, to a lover’s face:
The fossil in the paginated book
Of shale that once was slime
Falls open and cries, Look! And these sunflowers –
Their yellow is the synonym for Look,
Though they’ve no word for weary or the hours
The sun has summoned them to climb.
Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?
To look and make it so?
The moth wing’s intricately subtle scales,
The fleck of matter in the nucleus,
As light as light, your face which never fails
To show me what I can never know.
Sexual love is more central in the second poem in the book, ‘Moonlit sculptures’, which is also written in sestets, and with the same personalised rhyme scheme – abcacb – but with the variation of a two syllable-length breather, like a musical fermata, in the fourth line of every stanza.
Too hot and humid to do more than drowse
And slip – who knows how brief the interims? –
Into a chafed consciousness,
Too clammy for the slur and press
Of fabric or each other on our limbs …
All night the poet watches his lover turn and thrash through various sleeping positions and stanzas (sextets might be the better term than sestets, given their sensuality) until:
Morning approaches and the moon is swamped
With day. All of those figures, though, survive
In you, it’s you that they comprise,
Your mind to waken, and your eyes,
And you to turn, now sunlit and alive.
No pining away with desire for this little sunflower. Edgar’s meditations can spring from love, or from the natural world, but they can equally spring from art or cinema or literature: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in the next poem; Proust in two superb later poems. The first of these, ‘The Representation of Reality in Western Art’, qualifies as a typical Metaphysical conceit as the poet, reading Proust in a library, decides to step into the book as a character:
After reading Chapter Two of The Guermantes Way
He thought ‘Why Not?’ and wandered in himself
To that immense hall which the drawing room
Gave access to.
The progress of the day could now resume
And someone cleared the book from where it lay
And put it back in order on the shelf.
Meanwhile he casually sauntered through
The hall, surprised by his command of French …
And by his new French friends, until our time traveller finds himself standing before a framed streetscape by Magritte, and steps out of frame again. Having come full-circle, he is now back in the library before he had opened Guermantes Way to begin with:
So browsing for a book
He paused and thought ‘Why Not Give Proust a try?’
And sat and opened it and stretched his toes.
And presumably steps back into the book, searching for lost time ad infinitum. My advice? Open a book by Borges next.
Unlike Blake’s sunflower, Edgar is never weary of time. In fact, he is a little obsessed by it. As he is by space. And consciousness. And light. And love. And landscape. But time, ‘the fifth element’, ticks along beneath all his work, present both in its rhythms and its ideas. In some parallel world, Edgar is probably a physicist, writing equally formal and beautiful equations. On our slow-ticking, sunlit world his algebra is rhyme-schemes, and the solution he found for the Proust poem is abcdcab, with that apparently lost and isolated ‘d’ (‘to’ at the end of the half-line in the first stanza) finding a delayed echo in the first line of the next stanza: ‘through’.
Edgar uses seven-lined stanzas more than any other poet since the Middle Ages – but unlike, say, Chaucer, he runs endless musical variations on the basic template. Chaucer’s standard Royal Rhyme has seven-lines of regular iambic pentameter in ababbcc. Edgar is having none of that; he is having anything but that. The nerd-taxonomist in me wants to classify his Mozartian profusion: let’s call this a K.7(a).
The next poem in Exhibits of the Sun, ‘Off the Chart’, also in septets, runs abcbcab. K.7(b)? From a meditation on Proust and time, we now meditate upon a suburban clothes hoist and space. The direction of the ‘Look’ (a word to remember with Edgar) of this poem is the reverse of the opening Voyager poem: from near focus, to far. It begins with the gentle oscillation of hung clothes turning in a breeze, which in itself seems to be a memory of rotary motion on an even smaller scale:
An action to compare
With the white machine that they were packed
And swirling in not half an hour ago,
As though they were aware
Or held a memory of that loose,
I like to think that the this-goes-with-that tricks of the poetry trade – analogies, similes, metaphors – are a form of rhyme themselves. Conceptual rhymes, perhaps. This concept snowballs (to pick an obvious metaphor) as our gaze widens:
So the hoist relays
Its agitation to the trees …
And ever onwards and upwards, until ‘the obsessive to and fro’ spreads to affect the oscillations of the planets themselves:
… you sense,
The planets and the star-slung zodiac
Swung out to some immense
Imagined limit, forth and back,
Impelled by these few things hung out to dry –
An astral influence
Unknown to chart and almanac.
These growing Russian doll rinse-cycles are the ultimate anti-Copernican joke, in a way. A Hills Hoist as the centre of the turning universe? In fact, the consciousness that can make such a joke is the true centre, as it is in most of Edgar’s work. Nothing we can put into words (or into maths or PET-scanned brain images or AI analogues for that matter) gets closer to capturing the weirdness of consciousness than poetry. The next poem, ‘Steppe’, takes up this theme. The poet has a lot of fun, in a serious way, about the world-in-itself and our perception of it.
‘Steppe’ is written in blank verse tercets – K.3(c) perhaps. One of the great advantages of writing within formal constraints is the paradoxical freedom they provide. Yes, sense has to be squeezed into a straightjacket, but that straightjacket can, oddly, provoke a bit of useful madness. That is, it can dislocate natural logic, and force fresher and stranger connections on the poet. With luck, and hard work, a differently received wisdom can emerge. And the disadvantages? The occasional need for padding to make ends meet, literally.
So far I have been mainly talking mainly about Edgar’s ear. What of his eye? Exhibits of the Sun is well-named; the poems are all sunflowers of a kind, drenched in light, or seeking it. For a Metaphysical Poet, Edgar has a surprisingly painterly eye. He especially loves the way light rebuilds the world – or the consciousness that perceives it – in the light of morning. It is a leitmotif, somewhat in the manner of Eugenio Montale’s great short poem, ‘Perhaps One Morning Walking’.
And so the sun inscribes the invented east
With its jawline of light …
‘Song Without Words’:
Light of the nursery invades
The morning ward and its uncoloured walls,
And like a white sheet on his adult brain
Settles opaquely where it falls,
And will remain
All day, as day assembles and degrades.
Like wind and spray, the first sun hits the coast
And paints it into being …
Edgar uses all kinds of lighting effects, sometimes turning the daylight on, blindingly, in the middle of a poem, as if in some close encounter of the floodlit kind, and then just as abruptly turning it off. More often, his preference as a painter with words is for Turner-like dawns and sunsets, clouds and seas:
Four years hence and she
Would lie with Martin here as day went down,
Although it seemed that time forgot its way
In them as they embraced and saw the sun
Incarnadine the clouds, and the sky rise
In blended and aspiring zones of peach
And luminous mauve and violet, while gold,
Too heavy for such heights, was poured away
Extravagantly over the eastern shore.
Edgar is extravagant with his palette. The ‘she’ in this poem is Helen, the central character in a group of linked poems in Eldershaw. The title poem, and its two loosely associated sequences, ‘The Fifth Element’ (what else?) and ‘The Pool’, form not so much a discontinuous narrative, as a shuffled narrative. Another major heave: there isn’t a rhyme in sight. The whole verse ‘novella’ is in deft, subtly shifting blank verse, pentametric, but with endless iambic and non-iambic variations played upon its five-stopped flute.
Time is again central – but, as befits a verse novella, so is human character. Character is destiny? Time, at least, is the stage on which character will out itself – literally, in the case of Helen’s husband Martin. Their Bruny Island home Eldershaw is the other main stage: a Chekhovian country house, with ghosts. Even the light in its bush glades is a little spooky:
The clouds muster their shadows on the hills
Of Bruny. Mist among the foliage
And hallways of the footpaths trapped the light,
Like gas ignited in a jar, and glowed
As though the radiance were self-sustained
Within the vapour.
Most of Edgar’s obsessions ravel together in Eldershaw, as we examine the joys and savagery of the marriage of Helen and Martin and its long aftermath, often tangentially, through a range of variously unreliable consciousnesses. The ghosts of the past are always present, but equally often, rhetorically, ghosts from the future appear, as we time-jump back and forth in clairvoyant asides. Here is Martin, photographing his naked wife in the sea in a moment of honeymoon bliss:
… calf-deep in the bubbling swirl,
Struggling for balance with the camera,
And taking snap of Aphrodite
Anadyomene, who was his wife.
The Representation of Reality in Tasmanian Photography? Not quite. In the midst of life we are also in the darker future:
Perplexing to bethink that decades hence
Such shots as these alone might verify
The life that they were now inaugurating,
Such scenes, empty of all but life and joy,
Whereas what lay in store, dense with event,
Unwitnessed, unrecorded, unportrayed
In publishable dramas, would prolong
Its parallel being in the dark
Of memory and bitterness. Memory?
A lie perhaps even to call it that,
Considering how unreliable
It proves to be, each instant of recall
Subtly rewriting, under influence
Of mood and circumstance and subsequent
Occasion, its each detail till the whole
Might no more hold the substance of the day
It claimed to represent than the body does
When seven years of supervening cells
Have re-embodied it.
Yes, memory lies as much as a Box Brownie – but what, ironically, should we make of Edgar’s witnessed, recorded, portrayed and published drama, Eldershaw, which we are reading now on a third parallel time-track? The narrative retrospectoscope is always at work. Describing Martin’s ‘meteoric’ law career Edgar writes:
Though meteors, they might well have remembered,
In fact don’t rise but fall.
The entire book is a Fall, of a kind: an exile from the lost Tasmanian paradise, and the various misadventures, seductions and cruelties that punctuate Helen’s attempts to return to a state of grace. Perhaps Edgar is closer to Milton here than to Donne. A later Helen stands on a cliff overlooking a Bronze Age Greek dig, and the meltemi – the powerful north wind that washes the Aegean – blows:
Down there she stood
On that flat promontory, buffeted
And shuddered by the gale. As mud-caked stone
Is washed clean in a stream, she felt the current
Of air pour through her, carrying away
All she was clogged and matted with.
And blow her back to Sparta, and Menelaus, perhaps. The very next section time-travels back two years, and we are plunged into a marital cruelty-as-usual story for which there can be no forgiveness.
The final, stunning sequence, ‘The Pool’, ends with a later lover of Helen’s, the much younger Luke, grieving for her in Eldershaw. Photos of her life – including of the honeymoon Aphrodite – are arrayed on a shelf. Helen is dead, but …
That night he woke and saw her lying there
Asleep beside him in the midnight glow
Of streetlights …
Another ghost, but Luke reaches out to touch her:
… and in that instant broke the spell.
Like a magician’s cape that settles over
The volunteer, then emptily subsides
On no one to the floor, the quilt gave way,
Relinquishing her substance, and her head
And wavy hair were reabsorbed by shadow.
And then? Well, the Montale effect, with a less pleasant twist:
The first sun strikes his face and he awakes,
In character. He can’t escape himself.
What remains besides Helen’s photographs and journals? Another ghost is a lipstick-printed tissue which
Presented to his gaze the perfect form
Of her pursed lips in pink, on which, he knew,
A few forensic cells of her still clung.
Eldershaw is a collection of forensic cells, which we try to piece together. Luke’s memory of his first sexual encounter with Helen is one of them, as she leads him down a passageway to her bed for their first time:
A lesson and conundrum from new physics
About our abject inability
To grasp the simplest principles of time,
That corridor, with every step he took
Towards his life to come, was drawing him
Back to her past and what was living there.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?
The final, separate section of Eldershaw contains sixteen of Edgar’s more typical shorter poems. All the musical variations on old forms are here, including Donne-like shortenings, enjambs and fermate. Voyager also makes an early appearance, before it passes beyond the rings of Saturn in the next book and lights out for the really deep territory. But as in the later book, there are far more richnesses than I can hope to compass here. Some last honourable mentions, perhaps: the Audenesque (think ‘The Shield of Achilles’) ‘Lest Me Forget’ with its alternating stanzas of domestic holiday bliss and scenes of torture. Some poems fascinated by the representation of reality in film – ‘Continuous Screening’, ‘Cinéma Vérité’ – or the nature of consciousness – ‘Saccade’, ‘Song Without Words’, ‘Sight-reading’. Some typically intricate (obsessive?) explorations of history and personal memory – ‘The Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’, ‘Pictures in the Water’, ‘The Trance’ – or of consciousness and memory – ‘A Scene From Proust’, ‘Future Perfect’, and especially ‘Pictures in the Water’, with its lovely central metaphor of a couple rowing a boat, seated, as we are when we row, with their backs to the future, facing their wake. And so we beat on.
Stephen Edgar is a modest man, somewhat of an oddity in the world of poetry, where the gradual shrinking of the environmental niche seems at times to demand a Darwinian survival struggle for readership. That’s not a poem, this is a poem! Or, conversely, it inspires minimalists: mine is smaller than yours!
Edgar’s extravagance is at a tangent to all this. One of his early poems, ‘All Will Be Revealed’, is set in a nudist camp. The problem is:
In the nudist camp identity is lost
See, over all the fashions of the self,
They’re slipping on identical pink suits
Which sets our latter-day John Donne up riffingly, until the poem ends:
In such a place
One might devise a nightclub for dress-tease
Where they could face,
To whistles, randy cries of ‘Get it on!’
Themselves as lewd
Performers who would strut and bump and grind,
Discarding part by part their bare accord,
Till they finessed
The erotic climax of true self-display
One reading of this poem is as a parody that works the narcissisms of both sides of the room: the naked and the dressed. But here I choose to read it as a parable of the clothes that Edgar’s body of work wears. His poems are fully dressed in every sense: musically, intellectually, visually. They are erudite, but also down-to-earth; Proust is never far from the Hills Hoist. They are drenched with painterly light, and can freeze landscapes and moments in a satisfying frame of words, but they are also philosophically restless and unsatisfied, banging at the bars of their cage. At times, an unnecessary word or two might be roped in to fill a metric line, but what we write always seems at some level to be either too little or too much. Formal rhythm and rhyme might be a little out of fashion these days, but fashions come and go. Certainly, despite Edgar’s modest personal qualities, his unique achievements are slowly and deservedly emerging into – what else? – the light.