Stephen Edgar has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent being History of the Day, published by Black Pepper Publishing in May 2009. His book Lost in the Foreground won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and William Baylebridge Memorial Prize for 2003. He won the inaugural Australian Book Review Poetry Prize in 2005 for his poem “Man on the Moon” and in 2006 was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. Edgar was born in Sydney in 1951 and grew up and was educated there. In the early seventies he lived in London and, on returning to Australia in 1974, moved to Hobart where he lived until late 2005. He currently lives in Sydney again. He attended the University of Tasmania, studying Classics and English. For many years he worked in libraries but for the past twenty years has made his living mostly from editing, indexing and proofreading.
(Photograph by Vicki Frerer)
Like gazing at some other family
In a fogged window pane,
Or in a mottled mirror that has lost
Flakes of its silver tain:
The four boys head and tail in the one bed,
Their breath turning the room’s
Frigid midwinter to a dreaming kitchen,
With its fug of steam and fumes.
Does such a place exist? Where might it be?
How get to here from there?
But there they are, there we are, clambering down
The bank, our thin legs bare,
Barefoot (it’s hard to credit) in that cold.
My sook-soft soles revealed,
I’m piggybacked by one of my cousins over
The thorns that mine the field,
Till we reach the dingy creek to fish up yabbies
On strings of sodden meat,
And lug back home our squirming bucketful—
Which of course no one will eat.
Over it goes, then, in the yard; we watch
Them spill and clatter away
Through grass and fence and blackberries, back to
Their soupy deep. One day
We ranged the paddocks—to the quarry (was it?)
Across the railway line,
And tightropewalked the daring empty tracks,
Or, listening for a sign,
We’d place an ear down on the sun-cold metal
And think we heard the humming,
That charged vibration borne from far away
Of what was coming.
How formal and polite,
How grave they look, burdened with earnest thoughts,
In all these set-up sepia stills,
Almost as if, embarrassed and contrite
To be caught practising their fatal skills,
They’d stepped aside from slaughter for these other shots.
The American Civil War,
The first war captured by the photograph
In real time. Even the dead
Seem somehow decorous, less to deplore
The sump of blood to which their duty bled
Than to apologize, humbled, in our behalf.
We know how otherwise
It was. They knew it then. The gauche onset
Of murderously clumsy troops,
Dismemberment by cannon, the blown cries
Through powder smoke, mayhem of scattered groups
In close engagement’s pointblank aim and bayonet.
How far from then we’ve come.
The beauties of the Baghdad night still stun
Me: a blue screen where guns and jets
Unloose the lightnings of imperium—
Intense enough to challenge a minaret’s
Aquamarine mosaic in the blinded sun
At noon—and smart bombs fall
Through walls to wipe the city street by street.
Morning, and in the camera’s light
The formal corpses ripen. Who can recall
By day precisely what they watched last night?
Or find the unknown soldier in a field of wheat?
Being surplus, like the killed,
Millions of those old plates were simply dumped.
And in a modern version of ‘swords
To ploughshares’, many were reused to build
Greenhouses, ranged and set in place as wards
Above the rife tomatoes as they blushed and plumped,
While, through the daily sun’s
Pictorial walls and roofs, the long, desired,
Leaf-fattening light fell down, to pore
Upon the portraits of these veterans
Until their ordered histories of the war
Were wiped to just clear glass and what the crops transpired.
(These poems appeared in Lost In The Foreground, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003)
You can’t see it from here,
But caught up in its business to begem
Some ripple-silvered bay or the crests of trees,
Or just a golf course with its dewed veneer,
The day unfolds its golden auguries
On a charmed sky. A secular congregation
Is out already to revere
The lit east with a helpless expectation.
It’s like a Hopper painting:
A row of figures sitting mute in the sun,
Which by a plantlike, heliotropic action
Their faces and their thoughts are orienting
Towards, almost as one.
And, gazing on that source of benefaction,
They contemplate and inwardly affirm
What lies in store for their acquainting
At the expiration of a certain term.
And even as they stare,
Appraising what the morning rays appoint,
The light that photocopies her crow’s-feet,
The grey encroachments in his thinning hair,
That stiffening hip joint,
Has swept past as though history were complete.
Back in the bedrooms of this white hotel
Their things, wiser than they, declare
No contest in these fancies. Where it fell
An empty shirtsleeve throws
A purely formal gesture of despair
Across a bed, while nothing will arouse
From lank indifference the pantihose
Haunting a sidelong chair,
The disembodied presence of slip and blouse.
Those traveller’s cheques, laid out in a fat wad,
Half signed away, only propose
Their outlays for the briefest period.
The day’s lucid ascent
Has charmed its way in here, it’s true, but lacks
Suspension of disbelief that those outside
Contribute, their frank willingness to invent.
On their reclining backs
They count up the instalments, smile squint-eyed
Into a rushing solar past their sight
Will never stay, far too intent
On what’s to come to see it for the light.
English as a Foreign Language
One day in bed I read Cavafy
In Greek—her favourite: “Ithaca”—
And in return I won the trophy
Of her admiring Ah!
And I was flattered to astonish
That way. It wasn’t much to do.
She put in a request for Spanish
Bedtime recitals too,
Hoping that she might thereby sharpen
Her skills in the language she loved best.
In the event it didn’t happen,
Like most things she’d suggest.
And Pushkin too, a modest portion,
But that was pushing it too far,
Though I taught her “I love you” in Russian:
That’s ya lyublyú tebyá,
A lover’s commonplace avowal,
But rather difficult to sound
In Russian; it can be a trial
To get your tongue around.
But she repeated those words over
And over till she had them pat.
In English, though—well, she could never
Quite manage to say that.
(These poems appeared in Other Summers, Black Pepper, 2006)
I think of you on whom
Shifting between the light and gloom,
Displays in some far room
Its hollow globe.
Small metal worlds are these,
And independent gravities,
Attracting as they please,
Or so you feel,
With their grey weight and sheen.
Were hers. But she, oh she has been
And will no more be seen
By night or day.
They were long lost inside
Of an old jewel box, denied
Adorning: to be eyed,
To be enjoyed.
They had no hooks or rings,
Eyelets: unpolished, useless things
With dormant glimmerings
To be awoken.
I give them then to you.
And yours: all ownings in these two
Now mended spheres accrue,
Blend and combine;
All of the properties,
Pleasure, desires and memories
That nothing will appease,
Inhere in these brief globes,
Rocking, dependent from your lobes,
A gravity which probes
Darkness and light.
Playing to the Gallery
The last scene, and the two protagonists
Go through their studied pantomime in the park,
Obeying all the script’s instructions, playing
For time as though time hung upon it, playing
To that gallery of sun-bedevilled windows
Warping along a wall across the street:
Site of their judges—none of whom, they know,
Is really there. All the performances
Assume an audience—even of one—
To applaud, to laugh, to weep, or silently
Observe with admiration what they share
By faith alone. The scene inside the church,
The bedroom scene, the labour ward, and the other,
Later scenes, in which that chill locale
Will bring to bear the comprehensive weight
Of its resources. Or the scene beneath
The acid drops of starlight and the moon’s
Bland irony. Wait; listen, when they cease,
For what succeeds their final pause.
Far inland, bulks of stone well-versed in sunset
Perform their purple passages on cue;
The ponderous Pacific solemnly
Repeats its monologue on rock; wind, wind,
Playing for time, recites impartially
Leaves, grasses, patterns on the random water
Across the bay, or the daily rubbish, lofting
Like a kite above the telegraph wires
A solitary delinquent plastic bag,
As though it pleased some connoisseur of light,
As though it changed the history of this day.
In the open gallery which adjoins
The station, the installed art of the sun
Projects each day’s obsessive stripes and bars
Of light and shadow over the parked cars,
Each pattern as it’s done undone,
Highlighting and obscuring a few coins
Beside this gearshift; on that dash
An almost empty pack of gum; the Ruth
Rendell abandoned on a passenger seat,
Curling beneath the calculus of heat
And time, a comb with one bent tooth
For bookmark; here an ashtray stuffed with ash
And lip-kissed butts of cigarettes;
The mud-caked boots and other walking gear
Jumbled in the back of a four-wheel drive.
Although each morning many cars arrive
Which every evening disappear,
On these few each day’s sun rises and sets.
Elsewhere a list is being compiled
By the grey process of officialdom,
Phonecalls are tallied and the absentees
Accounted for, the tracked-down families,
For whom photographers will come,
Summoned by sobs, bruised eyes, a blank-faced child.
Elsewhere the helicopter sways,
Casting its shadow over what remains,
Like a raptor idling in its famished weight.
Like scavengers small figures investigate
What residue the wreck retains
Of those who have gone home by other ways.
Those Hours Which Grew to Be Years
(The lynching of Frank Embree, 22 July 1899)
Take him away,
Airbrush him out,
And all these men who stand about
In the clean light of day,
Seem called by duty and with pride
To some urgent address,
Some clear appeal
And honest citizen could not
Refuse to hear and feel.
Who hold their pose,
They fix unflinching eyes in rows
On the unflinching lens.
But there he stands,
His body stripped
And scored with the judicial script
Of whips, his handcuffed hands
Held to conceal
The private place,
His face upheld, composed to face
The lens, and all that’s real.
[ 2: Meridian
It may be nothing but the tree’s
Rubbing against itself below,
But through the leaves
There is a creaking in the breeze,
A bulk that briefly jerks and heaves
To and fro.]
And still they do not look at him
Where he hangs high
Suspended from a maple limb,
But eye to eye
About his blanket-covered thighs
And their raw stripes,
Rehearse, recount, particularize
With lighted pipes.
And nor will he take note of them,
Looks up beyond the hanging stem
As to inspect
Some far-off singularity
Posed in the sky’s
Flecked blue, if such were there to see,
And with his eyes.
The Grand Hotel
for Les Murray
Apart from that, though, I recall
Something you said about the place:
That you could never see it all,
It seems to propagate with space;
Always another stair to climb,
Always another corridor
With other rooms to count like time,
The end of which is always more;
A sort of Tardis made immense
That somehow manages to flout
The laws of sense and common sense
By being larger in than out,
The three dimensions’ mean constriction
Opened, unfolded and unpacked:
A building out of science fiction.
Or, come to think of it, science fact.
For don’t they say if we could shatter
Their shackled forces we should find
Dimensions at the heart of matter,
Immensities wound up, that mind
Cannot conceive? That’s some hotel,
And just the place to take to heart
And contemplate the parallel
World that this world is made by art,
Whose finite limits charge and prime
The senses they unpack, and store
Dimensions beyond space and time,
The end of which is always more.
(These poems appear in History Of The Day, Black Pepper, 2009)
Let Me Forget
You run your eyes across the glossy
Lithography of paradise: the sand’s
White gold, the opaline transparent blue
You’ll soon be lolling in, a sky unmarred
And constant to the limits of the view—
All in your hands.
You take the tickets, pass your credit card.
Behind that door, like Cavaradossi,
If you could hear above your heart’s content,
Blindfold and bound,
A stranger fastened to an implement
Appeals for mercy with the world’s worst sound.
Your wife has bought the extra virgin
Inflected with a subtle trace of lime,
The milk-fed veal, as tender as herself,
The chicken livers, the King Island cream—
It seems a pity to omit a shelf—
The chives, the thyme;
And there’s her shopping voucher to redeem.
Behind that door, it is no surgeon
Who makes the live incision, or instils
Into the eyes
Of some mute animal the caustic mils,
Or monitors its functions as it dies.
So home you both go, your attention
Diverted now towards the holiday
In prospect, now the meal tonight, your friends,
Problems with Chloe, and the arbitrage
Absorbing you at work, on which depends
The tax you’ll pay.
You park the Merc before the locked garage.
Behind that door, past comprehension,
Beyond imagining, the universe;
The laws upon
Whose unknown code the selves that you rehearse
From day to day are based; oblivion.
So much you’ve failed to see or mention.
But you’ve no guilt to own to or dispel.
Each day you take
This anaesthetic and it keeps you well
To face the day you could not face awake.