Jal Nicholl reviews The Red Sea by Stephen Edgar

 The Red Sea

 by Stephen Edgar

Baskerville Pub­lish­ing

 ISBN 978-1-880909-78-2

Reviewed by JAL NICHOLL


What a pecu­liar thing the med­i­ta­tive lyric is. How dif­fer­ent in spirit from Basho’s instruc­tion to poets: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bam­boo if you want to learn about the bam­boo. And in doing so you must leave your sub­jec­tive pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with your­self. Oth­er­wise you impose your­self on the object and do not learn.” Of course, West­ern art has gen­er­ally been prac­ticed in a more “Faus­t­ian” spirit. And as it hap­pens, Stephen Edgar’s col­lec­tion has a poem which takes Oswald Spen­gler for its speaker:

The ani­mal­cule in a drop of dew—
           And so diminu­tive
That if the human eye should look clear through
That globe there would be noth­ing there to see—
Although it only has a blink to live,
          Yet in the face of this is free;
The oak, in whose vast foliage this dot
          Hangs from a sin­gle leaf, is not. 

Although the speaker usu­ally resem­bles Edgar him­self (or some­one of his gen­er­a­tion and nation­al­ity), the Spen­gler poem is typ­i­cal in that many poems here have as their explicit occa­sion or premise a scene which is mute in itself – a quiet seascape, as in the title poem – on which the poet projects his recur­rent themes.

Lulled in a nook of North West Bay,
The water swells against the sand, 

“The Red Sea” begins, before end­ing, once more, with sunset:

And sunset’s dye begins to spread
[…] As though hop­ing to dis­own
The blood of all the inno­cents he’d shed
Mac­beth incar­nate or his grisly clone
Had stooped on some far shore to rinse his hand

The­mat­i­cally, time and death are every­where in this col­lec­tion. Edgar is a poet unafraid to hit the the­matic nail on the head: an atti­tude which, par­al­lel to a use of form that most con­tem­po­rary poets would rather be gagged and bound than emu­late, is what pre-eminently marks Edgar’s style as classical.

Edgar’s syn­tax forces one to read intel­lec­tu­ally. His for­mal­ism, often remarked on, is the most obvi­ously dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of his verse. But on a deeper level he is dis­tin­guished by his dis­cur­sive­ness: there are no songs in this book; every poem is a meditation.

 The dom­i­nant mood in this vol­ume is of nos­tal­gia – and for more than the just the lost time of per­sonal his­tory but for a “West­ern” civil­i­sa­tion that now, in the twenty-first cen­tury, exists ambigu­ously between a life and death of its own. We live in a time that is expe­ri­enced as pecu­liarly atem­po­ral in the con­flu­ence of images medi­ated by tech­nol­ogy. Indeed, the rep­re­sen­ta­tional power of tech­nol­ogy is a theme in more than one poem here. “Man on the Moon,” for exam­ple,  tele­vi­su­ally recalls Plato’s para­ble of the Cave:

Crouch­ing in Mr Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class hud­dled round the TV screen.

 “Liv­ing Colour”, sim­i­larly, deals with

Torch-haunted ral­lies con­jur­ing the tribe,
The pave­ments lined
With adoration’s awful uni­son;
And the corpses piled like clothing, 

a mere four lines fully dis­clos­ing the deter­min­is­tic medi­a­tion that was already lurk­ing in the final line of the first stanza:

This Munich, under­neath the flaw­less blue

The poem is hereby located self-knowingly within a genre of cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion in which Steven Spiel­berg out­shines Anthony Hecht.

Through­out The Red Sea the reader is stuck by the extent to which Edgar’s lan­guage and style, despite their uni­ver­sal­is­tic for­mal­ity, can be cul­tur­ally spe­cific to the point of par­ody. In “The House of Time,” for exam­ple, a door opens in some quaint manse of the mind, and we meet

           his aunt
Play­ing a Polon­aise by Chopin
Badly. “Lenore,
We know you think you can, dear, but you can’t.” 

Behind an image, a reg­is­ter and a rhythm (in what is a psy­cho­log­i­cal, rather than an his­tor­i­cal poem) it is pos­si­ble to high­light a potent, though self-effacing cul­tural speci­ficity of which Edgar, as a late rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an Anglophillic poetic tra­di­tion stretch­ing back through Peter Porter, and A.D. Hope, is per­haps unaware.

Asso­ci­ated with mem­ber­ship of an eth­nic group in decline within a given ter­ri­tory goes, under­stand­ably, a sense of unease in respect to those on the advance: 

Among the sub­urbs sum­mer has its way
And for­eign scripts on once habit­ual
Shopfronts flash to remind
The jog­ging pas­sen­ger that still today
Con­tin­ues the old rit­ual
With a new but unde­flec­table endeav­our,
For all that child­hood has resigned

Grant­ing that Edgar is a clas­si­cal poet, child­hood here must sig­nify inno­cence in the sense of bliss­ful igno­rance (as opposed to its roman­tic sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of lim­it­less pos­si­bil­ity). His use of the polit­i­cally incor­rect “for­eign” sig­nals a stoic alien­ation before the chang­ing cityscape—and what are we to make of “endeavour”?!

In an Aus­tralian poetry scene to which Ouyang Yu con­tributes his “Invad­ing Aus­tralia” sequence, Edgar’s WASP-ish pro­pri­ety, his escha­to­log­i­cal themes and his per­sis­tent tone of alien­ation and melan­choly are surely just as inter­est­ing, from an ethno-poetic view­point, as minor­ity or immi­grant perspectives.

But it may be that the ironies and impli­ca­tions to which I have just pointed are more in the nature of com­plic­i­ties. Edgar is, after all, a kind of lit­er­ary Velasquez, whose Las Meni­nas is the sub­ject of “Diver­sions of a Painter”:

But art begins here to bam­boo­zle.
What seemed a por­trait on the wall
At first glance is, on close perusal
Really a mir­ror after all.

In the same way, Edgar’s are always flow­ers that have the look of flow­ers that are looked at. Take, for exam­ple, this char­ac­ter­is­tic liken­ing of the nat­ural to the arti­fi­cial, the real to the representation:

You stood beside your gloved and hat­ted mother,
An unde­ci­phered pic­togram
You’d almost take to be another
Ghost­ing the grainy footage.

The end of this insid­i­ous process, in which, per­haps, Spengler’s phi­los­o­phy of tech­nics plays a sup­port­ing role, is that –

You’re caught between
Quo­ta­tion marks, your heart’s beat an allusion. 

By descrip­tion after descrip­tion the human sub­ject recedes, as though ren­dered obso­lete by tech­no­log­i­cal advance, and the clas­si­cal reserve of Edgar’s style threat­ens, at least in prin­ci­ple, to morph into some­thing as de trop as Ashbery’s “Self Por­trait in a Con­vex Mirror”:

From “Midas”:

And truly it was out of him they came—
Too soon not at his bid­ding, pre­cisely where
And when and how he wished each one to tease
The nerve of his delight, but ever more
Autonomous, unchecked, incontinent. 

A poem like “Midas” pos­sesses as much auton­omy as, per­haps, it is pos­si­ble for a lin­guis­tic arti­fact to do; one prob­a­bly wouldn’t describe it as unchecked or incon­ti­nent, however!

Alan Watts, in The Wis­dom of Inse­cu­rity,  speaks of ‘the con­fu­sion of Ouroboros, the mixed-up snake, who does not know that his tail belongs with his head.’ This con­di­tion, Watts sug­gests, is char­ac­ter­is­tic of civilised human­ity as such. Edgar makes ref­er­ence to many myths and myth­i­cal beings in The Red Sea, and though the autophagous snake is not among them, ‘Midas’ quoted above, may have a sim­i­lar point. What it is, I will not be so earnest as to make explicit, except to say that Edgar is a civilised man – and he knows it. As for his clas­si­cism, Edgar doesn’t make what is dif­fi­cult look easy; his strength is to make it look exactly as hard as it is.


JAL NICHOLL is a poet whose work has appeared in The Age, Cordite, Mas­cara and else­where. He lives in Mel­bourne and dreams of escape.

 The edi­tor notes a review of  Stephen Edgar’s poet­ics, which does not empha­sise an ethno-poetic read­ing, appears in issue six.