Form and Fashion in Stephen Edgar’s Verse: Michelle Cahill reviews “History Of The Day”
History Of The Day
by Stephen Edgar
Black Pepper Press, 2009
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
History of the Day is Stephen Edgar’s seventh collection. Acclaimed for his formal virtuosity, the painterly style of his images, and an objective, pondering engagement with his themes, his work stems from the modernist tradition for which temporal, aesthetic and moral categories are ordered into a wholeness: that which Stevens refers to as a “blessed rage for order,” and Adam Kirsch describes as “its unequivocally positive character.” But how relevant is Edgar’s quiet insistence on aesthetic and ethical authenticity in the discursive climate of postmodernity? His formal music might seem to be mannered, anachronistic, or elitist even, in its positioned detachment from the real. Reading History of the Day, might seem a foreign experience, rather like learning a new language, Edgar’s work being labyrinthine and at times recondite. His polished cognizance, his formally oblique and elaborate praise of things ordinary defies a trend in contemporary poetics. Seemingly removed from the lineage of Rimbaud, Lowell, Plath or indeed Adamson, his poetry is, if challenging, deeply satisfying for its clarity, its faithfulness to measured forms of language and thought.
History of The Day is a collection of modesty and harmony. An outward sign of its grace is reflected in the book’s structure. Each of three sections are inspired by the epigraph taken from Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar so that we move from poems which encounter the intimately personal, to the those of historical irony and philosophical inflection, followed by the last sequence, a miscellany, in which poems are addressed to other poets. Edgar’s acknowledged influences include WH Auden, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, as well as the Australian poets Gwen Harwood and Peter Porter, among others. His sensibilities are refined, at times overwrought; his preoccupations are with the relativity of time, space, destiny and history. A poem such as “Space” is a fine illustration of Edgar’s themes and style. Here, he takes a single image of a Treasury flag flapping in the breeze as an instance of the physicality of space as it exists in the mind’s eye. The images are visceral. They emphasise a perspective in which the flag is central: the way it “writhes” against the “muscled” breeze, the “distortions” of matter within “a moment’s frame”. The tangential observer, aware of time elapsing, journeys on towards the “day’s blue, contested edges.” Broken into stanzas the poem derives its form from the Italian or Petrachan sonnet, with some license exercised to the rhyme scheme in the octave. The beguiling simplicity of its subject, the elasticity of its iambic metre, and its refined contemplation are hallmarks of Edgar’s most impressive lyrics. It’s a poem that reconciles image, form and thought effortlessly, turning adroitly from minimalism to perceptual complexity.
Space-time distortions are a principal concern for the poet. In many of the poems Edgar takes a phenomenological interest in experience and how it is structured consciously. His attention to the detail of these processes enables him to amplify scenes, embellish their dimensions and surfaces, so that time is almost warped, slowed down to the shimmering speed of thought. We hear this echoed in the marvellously speculative poem “Dreaming At The Speed Of Light”:
And every thought would undergo
This rallentando, every word
Would grind down to a halt
Midsyllable, interminably heard,
But charged with full intention even so,
And purity of tone,
Quantum ironies resound within the poem’s weave of internal assonance and simple rhymes. Such poems exemplify the liberating and quirky possibilities of Edgar’s formal music.
The situations and figures are often more emblematic than realistic, creating the mildly disturbing effect of defamiliarisation, so that we are excluded from the engendering of illusion. The subject matter, however benign, is nuanced with a disenchantment that falls short of defeat. This kind of alienation is modernist in its impulse. There is an almost Brechtian distancing effect which along with the historical referencing of many of the poems, imbues them with complex ironies.
In “ Out of the Picture” Edgar dramatises the dual perspective of an Impressionist painting. On the one hand is the “unnoticed, unmissed” feminine figure who “saunters between/The poplars” out of the picture towards a forgotten ending. The last stanza suggests an alternate perspective of the painting’s observer, for whom it is
As pointless to depart as to delay:
In either course is folded the same space.
In Istanbul next year or here today:
The attention given to the placement of figures, and to the spectator perspective with its minimalist interaction emphasises divisions between the viewer’s world and the picture space or the scene depicted, whether it be through a photograph of lynching as in the powerful evocation“ Those Hours Which Grew To Be Years”, through a dream, as in “Dream Works” or through a camera lens, as in “The Swallows Of Baghdad.” As a war poem, one could argue that “The Swallows Of Baghdad” pursues its ethical argument tentatively, leaning towards a tactful, aestheticised vision of war’s brutality. The swallows with their “flickering wings,” who dart through a “ruined roof/To perch on dreadful engines,” are twice removed from the observer, being reminiscent of “a scene from Attenborough.” Edgar’s instincts are always on the side of aesthetics, though one feels the tension between this principle and what is being represented. Moreover the poem attempts to eschew complacency in its ending lines:
A camera reeling in that chamber follows
Their lit flight, where—too recently to show—
The cameras turned to darkness for their proof.
The framing of scenes and narratives is one aspect of the poet’s architectonic finesse but it’s also a lens through which history and memory can be purposeful; intensifying and correcting time. This is beautifully realised in the book’s opening poem “Golden Coast’, in which natures’s ravages are compared to those of love. Edgar’s diction juxtaposes the idyllic with the hideous, as overdeveloped skyscrapers “make their mark, /Their ulceration of the golden coast/ whose beauties they would sell, Under the settling sediment of dark.”
Metaphysical in its dialectic and reminiscent of Herbert or Donne, the poem illuminates how memory operates within a dimension that transcends time. The idyllic moment of love’s intensity is preserved :
This day unknown to time will be there when
The light drifts through the shallows like a ghost
And dies of hours, the skies
And earth fall down and chaos comes again.
How many contemporary poets would dare voice such painterly abstractions, such affirmation? A reader who might resist a title such as “Golden Coast,” is convinced by the thoughtful accuracy of Edgar’s diction, which describes how “lights as laggardly as sound/ Struggle to make the passage of the gloom.”
Like a Hopper painting, many of the poems play with a symbolic use of light and shade, and the careful placement of figures within a given scene. This attention to topographies and symmetry is distinctly metaphysical, an ordering principle pleasingly realised in “The Earrings”. The central conceit of a deceased lover’s earrings, gifted to a living spouse, play on the spherical as a symbol of nuptial unity, destiny, and the amatory universe. With adroitness the poet is able to reconcile loss with recovery, the ironic with the ardent, to unify
All of the properties,
Pleasures, desires, memories
That nothing will appease,
Chronological time does not correspond to memory, dream or to lived experience as the portals between past and present are traversed in language. Mystical encounters are celebrated: the dead speak, a doppelgänger contradicts himself, entering not a boardroom, but a museum “of lost antiquities”, the “mortared ghost of locomotion surges” in the sculptural form of a train. In the poem “Nocturnal,” Edgar’s prosody echoes a Keatsian ode in its iambic rhetoric:
Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
Those who are not, who once had been?
The reader is moved and surprised by the poet’s wit. The discrepancy between the recorded and real voice of the poet’s deceased partner is metonymic of the breach between memory and presence, an impasse into which the poem enters.
History of The Day is a book of Escheresque passages rendered by the effects of recollection, repetition and doubling: The past is “Undeleted,” Edgar writes, “What happened is embedded and repeated.” Speculative, ekphrastic or historical, the poems duplicate and tease semantic possibilities which we encounter in poems like “Parallel Worlds” or “Interior With Interiors”. This latter poem, inspired by a Ramon Casas painting depicts a scene where a woman and man are mutually abandoned to each other: she “self-absorbed”; he perhaps dreaming of bliss, a ‘total consummation” from which he might soon enough be dissatisfied, “wishing to be elsewhere.” The artefacts of realism: coffee pot, milk jug and vase become little more than props, or “servants liveried to be ignored,” as the text, painting or poem opens to the world of boundless interiors.
With idiosyncratic flair, Edgar probes the inner milieu. Yet a stronger dialectic between the individual and history than we have come to expect from him is voiced in this collection. The extrajudicial mob violence of white American supremacy is powerfully depicted in “Those Hours Which Grew To Be Years”. Here Edgar critiques the historical lens in his appalled response to photographs of Frank Embree’s and Rubin Stacey’s lynchings. The naked Embree is “stripped/And scored with the judicial script/Of whips,” but the poem returns a Christ-like dignity to his “composed face.”
Here, at his most outraged, Edgar turns poetic style to indictment. He scrambles the metres. Rarely do we see him mix the insistent accents of dactyl with the iambic and anapaest in his prosody:
Take him away
Airbrush him out,
And all these men who stand about
In the clean light of day,
In another poem from the sequence, a young white girl’s voyeurism is depicted with uncharacteristic and intended vulgarity:
Her hands crossed, mimicking his handcuffed hands,
On her frocked crotch, her naked face intense
And lit up with a half-embarrassed leer,
These are poems in which the observer’s perspective, regardless of his nationality, class or race exceeds that of witness. Edgar brings into focus the crisis between the social juggernauts of supremacy and a humanist conscience.
Whatever subject his poems address, no matter how grand or horrific, Stephen Edgar elegantly affirms an objective displacement, sometimes theatrical or emblematic, as moments of recollection, history, art and culture are revisited and referenced. This self-imposed distance renders him faithful to his aesthetic and ethical ideals. Repeatedly, in History Of The Day, what is beautiful is sustained by loss, to become the property of memory. The ravages of history are, at least partially, restored to dignity. Here is a work which dares, in a postmodern, Microsoft era, to entertain serious aesthetic contemplations. The speaker encounters notions of reality that are fragile, provisional and constructed within the infinite domains of space-time as he attempts to order
Dimensions at the heart of matter,
Immensities wound up, that mind
Adam Kirsch, The Modern Element, WW Norton, New York, 2008, p 10