Jal Nicholl reviews The Red Sea by Stephen Edgar
by Stephen Edgar
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
Playing a Polonaise by Chopin
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”:
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.