Stephen Edgar has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent being History of the Day (Black Pepper Publishing), which was awarded the William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for 2009. “The Fifth Element”, from which three sections appear in this issue of Mascara Literary Review, is one of three interlinked narrative poems at the heart of his next book, Eldershaw.
Photograph by Vicki Frerer
The Fifth Element
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
December 1945. Isabel. Earth
Her tread, light as it is, disturbs a floorboard
And sends the footnote of a seismic shiver
Up through the kitchen table, registered
By a faint tinkling of the beads that weight
The doily on the milk jug she left out.
It’s probably gone off. Those words of his
Set up their tremor too among her thoughts,
The faintest ringing, practically too low
To be recorded in her consciousness,
At least until the day’s competing noises
Had quietened and left her clear. The moon,
As big, it seems, as earlier the sun
Which weighted down the sky’s opposing quarter,
Sheds the revers of that illumination,
As though she looked again at the same scene
The other way, as though the sky turned round
And showed her from behind its silver stitching.
She’s left him sleeping—Isabel assumes
That Evan’s sleeping—and slips quietly
Away through this interstice of the dark
To think it out. One more reversal, this,
It now occurs to her: four years ago,
She’d slipped out briefly on their wedding night
To say goodnight (at that hour?) to her mother,
Though really, if the truth were told, to pause
A little longer in that strained abeyance
Before the feared requirement of the flesh
That she must answer. Was it a mistake?
Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Not
The least of this war’s fateful dislocations
Was speeding sweethearts to the marriage bed
Who might have thought again, given more time.
But who can unsay love? And she would not
Have seen him off into that conflagration
From which he very well might come no more
With nothing but the memory of a wish
For what had never been to set beside
His everlasting absence. She at least
Could call herself his widow, no small thing
To salvage from the ruins of the world.
But there. He had survived. He did come back.
And she had met him at the Quay to end
The long hiatus between consummation
And married life, and they had come down here
To have a few days’ quietness alone,
The two of them, before their lives should start.
And maybe he had died in any case.
He seemed a body uninhabited.
Late in the afternoon on the veranda
They’d sat out looking at the gentle hills.
A little way below, where the land sloped down,
A stand of gum trees gathered to itself
Such greens as summer nourished, while, beyond,
The paddocks muzzily laid out their grasses,
Parched in the faded memory of colour
The heat had left them, shifting separately
And different ways as you looked here and there.
The air seemed thick with powder, not a dust,
But some particulation of the light
Applied across, or rather through the miles
Between here and the faint blue hazy sky,
In which the sun, a smouldering orange disc
Behind a screen, was sinking gradually
As though the air resisted its decline.
How beautiful she thought it. “I don’t know,”
He said at last, “it all looks dead to me.”
December 1978. Luke
The lassitude of Christmas makes a dull
And heavy progress through him like a drug.
Is it the season or the humid weight
Of air, or their perverse coincidence
That always settles on him when he visits?
Or is it that? His simply visiting,
Which, like the signal that a hypnotist
Implants, brings forth at once its cued behaviour?
“You can’t go home again.” Well, yes, and no.
He thinks of yesterday’s transparent rage
That Isabel and Evan stared straight through,
Oblivious. When Isabel recounted
How round at Angela’s Craig slapped their son
For some slight naughtiness not worth the notice—
More than one slap, and hard, which left him howling—
Evan, all indignation, had exploded
And called Craig all the names under the sun
For such brutal reproof. Jesus, Luke thought,
Look who is talking. He remembers well,
If Evan can’t, being summoned by his voice
Out to the dark street of a Sunday night
When, under television’s new enchantment,
He stayed too long a few doors down the road.
He stood beneath a street light, friendly-seeming,
And when Luke reached him, up his right hand rose
And down the strap flashed, curling like a whip
Around his legs—imagined more than seen,
Felt more than both—again, again, again,
To send him screaming home, where there was more
Considered application. Called to the bathroom
To have the red welts on his backside soothed
With ointment, in his terror he believed
More strokes were yet to come. Nor was that night
Uniquely memorable. Such violent
And such incontinent fury, where did they
Break out from when they took him? Who was he?
“What are you looking so self-righteous for?”
Evan barked savagely at Isabel
On one occasion when she glanced at him
Her pale unspeakable reproach. Those words,
They’re scored like strap marks in Luke’s memory.
To know all, as the old saw glibly has it,
Is to forgive all. Who can know so much?
Blocked by such banked-up anger and resentment,
Luke bit his tongue and let the moment pass.
Later he wanders up to the garage
Where Evan’s pottering. A peaceful and
Companionable mood rises between them
In idle conversation, punctuated
By silences that almost seem like touching
And say as much as words, especially
Since both of them know perfectly what subjects
May not be spoken of. “Here, hold this, mate.”
Luke grips the fishing rod and keeps it steady
While Evan winds the twine, eyelet by eyelet,
With single-minded care, one of those tasks
Of shared participation which enlarge
But don’t drag out the moment that they make.
Evan sings snatches of old prewar love songs—
Who can know so much?—in his expressive,
Beautiful and untutored baritone.
April 1945. Evan. Fire.
At some point in the flight, inevitably,
The Oxford would begin to sputter and stall,
No matter how precise were his instructions,
How clearly and methodically delivered,
How dire the consequences, should they not
Be followed faithfully. Up here in August,
The sky an excerpt from a pastoral
In watercolours, soft blue smudged with clouds,
And spread below, all stitched and hemmed with hedges,
And here and there the crocheted clumps of woodland,
Those meadows of unrealistic green,
So concentrated a viridian
You’d think that it would wash out in the rain
Like dye and stain the footpaths—floating here,
You wouldn’t know there was a war at all,
Not, certainly, a war that you were in
And might well die of, not so far away.
Amazing, with a little altitude,
How far his vision went—the width of England
All the way from the Wash to the Bristol Channel.
Too bad he could see across but not ahead.
And now the nose had dipped and down it went
In whining plummet, the white-faced trainee
In panic trying to regain control
Before that field, impossibly remote
From here, you’d think, reached up and through the glass.
Evan, who’d seen all this—oh, he’d lost count—
Dozens of times, was perfectly relaxed
And in good spirits. He secretly enjoyed
This part the best and usually turned,
As now, to tweak the trainee’s fear a notch,
And looked back ruefully with shaking head
At those exalted heights they’d fallen from,
Or down towards the cruel end that loomed
Below them. Judging to a nicety
The last safe moment, Evan snatched control
And pulled the plane up from its fatal dive.
That pastoral was over. In the war’s
Last months he does what until now he’s only
Been training others, and himself, to do.
What hand of destiny had chosen Bonn,
His favourite composer’s natal city,
For his first bombing mission? “Thus fate knocks
At the door,” Beethoven said of those four chords.
He played that mighty music in his head.
Hannover. Magdeburg. Each time a friend
Or more would disappear. Wiesbaden. Mainz.
At first you steel yourself not to return.
Eventually, though you don’t lose your fear,
You step aside, you step outside of it
And move in some dimension parallel
To life and sense and self. Each one of them
Was both unique and interchangeable,
Each death was every death. Stuttgart. Mannheim.
How tempting to persuade yourself that you
Are destined to survive. Don’t think of it.
Then fearful March. Berlin. Bremen. Erfurt.
Berlin. Berlin. Berlin. Berlin. Berlin.
The cold cramped cockpit and the juddering frame,
The searchlights calling you to come to them,
Scouring the sky for you, the rising fire
That seems to climb as high, the abrupt thud
Of guns that shake you sideways, and the fighters
That, thank Christ, a Mosquito can outrun.
And down there Germany, a starlit sky
As though the Milky Way has come to earth.
Each chosen city angry as a star
Burning with energy enough to make
Whole worlds. He doesn’t know, or cannot now
Allow himself to think, as one more night,
Delivered of his sole four-thousand-pounder,
He flies away, how that pure stellar heat
Is melting lives from bone and boiling blood,
Volatilizing screams from a thousand mouths,
Setting the corpses of Vesuvius
In charred arthritic postures underneath
The buildings burst around them—if they’re not
Calcined from history—sucking out the air
From cellars where the people cower, their lungs
Emptied and burnt out by the vanished breath.