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DAVID KELLY    :     Reviews

 

Poems of still, profound and multi-layered moments . . . 
James Charlton : So Much Light [Pardalote Press] $23.95
Stephen Edgar : History of the Day [Black Pepper Press]  $24.95

Readers who are unfamiliar with the work of James Charlton and Stephen Edgar can
find examples at a website the-write-stuff.com which showcases many Tasmanian poets
and Stephen Edgar has his own excellent site. 

Both can write profoundly thoughtful poetry, exquisitely powerful poems of the
single moment where awareness is both focused on a particular aspect and also
heightened to embrace the total surroundings.  

James Charlton's second book of poetry has three sections. The first, of around
forty pages, has new poems.  The second, of around twenty pages, has poems selected
from an earlier book, Luminous Bodies.   A third section has an essay from the
publisher assessing the work.   This essay acknowledges at one point the didacticism
in some of the poems but urges their acceptance despite that.  

In his best work Charlton creates extremely fine and delicate imagery.  For instance
in Return of the Whales:

Crows swirl by;
pincer beaks

grind out the sound of chains
upon gravel.  Hulks risen
from the arrow years,
cow and calf

roll boldly
in a fleet
of white
flags.

I'd also like to quote in full the poem Lesser Long-eared Bat

Crinkly and frail as a fresh scab
on an old man's knuckle,
this tiny bat which flew in the door

and flitted over the candle lit room
has hung her cape of curled suede
on the hat rack.

Turning the crushed violet of her head
to face me, she eyes me close up
from very far away.

I've in fact printed it out and stuck it on the wall near my desk.   It has
lightness; it has dance; and the final two lines just profoundly glow.  Make no
mistake the best poems in this book are excellent - inventive, visual, aural,
precise, suggestive, well formed and memorable. 

However the best poems seem to come from the older section, the poems reprinted from
Luminous Bodies.  While many of the poems from the current work also display those
qualities, somewhere along the way a spiritual philosopher lecturer has elbowed his
way in and pushed aside the poet!  Too often he's there telling us what it's all
about instead of letting the poet do it. For instance the first poem in the book
starts with an intriguing and appealing description of a resting snake but then the
philosopher jumps in and tells us - One thing is necessary; / awareness of presence.
/  No longer us here and snake there,  / but a simple abiding, / beyond the sinewy
slippage of language.  I suspect that Mr Charlton cares deeply for his message but
is striving too hard to 'lecture' us on it.  It is a message well worth hearing and
one that's hard to argue with - although apparently people spend much time in
universities doing just that!

The title poem So Much Light is one where he melds the poetic and the philosophical
successfully.  The final lines perhaps summing up succinctly his attitude:  I am one
with the in-/ hale and exhale of all./ I crouch before things/ of which my head/
knows nothing/ but my heart/ senses/ to be here. 

The title poem from the earlier book, Luminous Bodies, is certainly, as Tim Thorne
notes in an earlier review, an extremely tender love poem.  The opening image is a
mind-blower:  Her old VW / mows the dirt road / to my shack,  A curiosity about it
is the lack of detail of who the two people are.  Easy to presume adult lovers, but
there is nothing in the poem to really indicate that.  It could be a sister going to
meet a brother; a mother to a son; a daughter to a father; or non-passionate
friends.  While there are suggestions of the sexual in the poem it could be read as
suppression - a need to suppress. So the poem, while most likely expressing the
sexual, can also be read as an expression of the universal need of connection and
comfort.  It appeals at many levels.

You may find it difficult to obtain So Much Light beyond Tasmania but it is well
worth pestering your dealer for.  Despite some misgivings about the didacticism (I
think a jury of reasonable people would find him guilty) and some of the shorter
pieces of spiritual advice being a little too obvious there is a great deal of the
real thing in this book and much thoughtful pleasure to be had.



Many more readers will be familiar with Stephen Edgar's manner of writing as he has
now had six books published, accumulated a few prizes and a solid reputation for
concentrating on rhymed metrical verse.  Many readers will admire his ability to
force words into  complex formal patterns and I suspect that few contemporary
Australian poets would have the skill to do what he does.  

But there is a down side to the Edgar style.  Take this opening sentence from a poem
called Interior with Interiors:

The table's metal legs, exposed beneath them,
Present the bosom, waist and generous hips
In outline of a dressmaker's blank model,
The cinctured contour of an hourglass, though
The moment of this privileged reflection
For all that it's bare and boundless, doesn't sift
Like sand but stalls in Keatsian suspension.

Read and compare to the more contemporary light and dancing words of the Lesser
Long-eared Bat.  See the difference?  Isn't there something free and uncluttered and
bright about the style of the Bat poem compared to the over-loaded sentence above.
Have you figured out who 'them' are?  What on Earth is going on in the last three
lines?  (I have never met either poet and am not trying to instigate a stanzas at
twenty paces situation.)

The 'them' in the opening line refers to two people, a man and a woman, featured in
the rest of the poem. The poem continues:  

                            The coffee pot
The milk jug and the vase, like practices
In painterly display and mastery,
Call down tangential vagaries of light
To ravishing assembly, all unnoticed,
Like servants liveried to be ignored.

Perhaps a more contemporary styled poem would exchange the 'tangential vagaries of
light' for 'random dusty kebab skewers of light', if you get my drift.

Stephen Edgar does address contemporary issues.  One excellent idea for a poem
happens in The Calls when searchers at a train wreck are tormented by hearing mobile
phones ringing in the wreckage; phones that are not answered.  Unfortunately it
remains an excellent idea.  Somehow the poem doesn't do justice to the immense
feelings and irony of the situation.

Still, there are several truly fine poems in the book where his style and his
message marry well; his ghost and his machine become one.  Such a poem is Her Gift.
The message is beautiful and warm; the rhymes fall bang into place as if just spoken
that way; there are references that bespeak a kind of cultured quality of the two
people - lapis lazuli, Tara, bodhisattva, The Lark Ascending - and I see nothing
wrong with being a little cultured. 

Another excellent poem at the higher end of the scale is simply titled 2.00.  It
concerns a middle of the night visitation from a deceased lover.      The title is
the title of a painting which is reproduced on the front cover.  Curious about the
rhyme scheme I despoiled my copy of the book and found out that it was a b c b a c c
in every stanza except the middle one.  However a curious point emerged on further
looking.  In the middle stanza, at the pivot of the poem the rhyme scheme changes to
a b c a b c c right on the word 'undo'.  The lines are:

Your body's form unthreatened and content
As in the life, till waking should undo
What sleep persuaded in my eyes.

At the exact point where he wakes from the dream the word 'undo' is out of whack in
the rhyme scheme and it is the exact middle line of the poem.  Just chance?
Couldn't get the rhyme right that time?  Or deliberately set there for some subtle
effect that most people would never notice.  I guess we'll never know.

Stephen Edgar's poetry is modest, well structured, and, if you like, polite.  It has
a quiet attitude of - if you don't like it that's OK, this is what I do.  However my
subjective response is that there is something about its old-fashionedness that
dampens my enthusiasm for it.  Even the layout with capital letters to start each
line is uncontemporary.   It is hard to make some judgements without causing offence
but I derive greater enjoyment and stimulation from reading poetry where the poet
has put energy into trying to push the artform forward rather than attempting to do
it the way it used to be done. 


David Kelly's poems have appeared widely in literary magazines. He won the 2008 Shoalhaven FAW poetry prize. He published OzMuze in the early 90s and worked for several years at the Sydney-based Poets Union where he initiated the magazine Five Bells.