Review: Stephen Edgar's poetry collection 'Where the Trees Were'
Ginninderra Press, 1999, 67pp, rrp $16.00
Stephen Edgar's new book is thoughtful and formally structured, perhaps unfashionably so. Edgar is not, and never has been, a follower. The poems in Where the Trees Were don't bounce or brag or bop around. They are packed with words in an age which eschews words outside a certain limited vocabulary. Their mostly long lines inhabit the whole page and so demand attention, for their observant beauty and their wit. They do not regurgitate platitudes, however conservative or hip. Perhaps this is why Edgar is more neglected than most Australian poets who have a few good books to their name. For Where the Trees Were is Edgar's fourth book - the others being Queuing for the Mudd Club, Ancient Music and Corrupted Treasures.
This fourth book is crafted, unsettling, philosophical, critical, observant, and sensual. It is full of portents and omens; the evening sun, the sails of boats, and birds feature frequently. But this isn't a tenebrous world - any shadows are themselves as clear as the light in Edgar's hands. The book as a whole has a sense of landscapes or rooms not so much lacking human players, as enacting the space or time when the humans are not there. They are about spaces that have been left and which will be filled again by humans but, in the meantime are filled by inference, by possibility. However, the poems also present a loneliness or, at least, forms of the solitary. There's also an apocalyptic tone, thankfully tactfully described rather than presented in an overheated or melodramatic manner. It's the sense that things are not as they seem, that something ultimate is about to happen, that we are merely pawns in a larger game. The book could just as easily be called "Where the People Were".
To diverge for a moment: there is an exhibition on in Sydney at the moment called Crime Scenes consisting mostly of photographs taken in the late 1940s to the 1960s of, well, crime scenes. Suicides, murders, unexplained deaths, molestings, crimes of neglect. Examples of the forensic. Often the bodies are absent or subsumed within the scene. A table still set, a chair askew, a bed covered with a thin chenille spread and a net curtain billowing at a window, a dressed doll, a wooden or linoleum floor. They came back to me as I re-read this book.
Edgar is regarded as a Tasmanian poet, and he has lived in Hobart for many years, but he was born in Sydney. His life in Hobart, one assumes, accounts for the references to the mountain and the river but at least one poem 'Penshurst' is set in Sydney and is about the middle class southern Sydney suburbs "sunk into their fabled lifelessness/The great Australian emptiness". However, although there are the slightly sinister net curtains, it is far from:
"... any need to happen or explain,
Be puzzled over or be otherwise."
But, of course, he the poet has written the poem and we do puzzle over it.
The first poem in this book, 'The sail and the gannet', sets the tone of the volume, as you'd expect. It expresses a sombre yet sensuous delight in the world of afternoon.
"Hours that require
Only themselves. Suspended,
Division and the eye dissolve, desire
Almost is mended."
There are those favoured images, birds, sails, the river. Human presence is hardly there, except through the mechanism of desire.
The next poem, 'The Last Day,' introduces an apocryphal feeling. If there is something that concerns me here and at one or two other places in this volume, it is a slightly judmental tone: "the fat cream pooled in jugs, the too rich cakes,/ The moues, the probably clever chat". Edgar is normally more subtle than this.
In 'The Stool with the Green Seat' an object is the subject of the poem and humans are present in absence. The poem enacts an idee fixee and is a prime example of Edgar's attention to small details and his wit in lines such as "The intermittent, dull/ Thuds of a fly/ Not learning glass".
The poems rarely use the first person. There is a slightly conspiratorial "we" in some and a modernist second person "you" is occasionally addressed. In the poem 'Scene with Tower' Edgar describes, to begin with, a scene without people: an empty street, an empty playground, yachts "so otiose and lovely among the sheens" then he delivers a slight shock. On a diving tower:
"A group of adolescents gathered there
In one unbroken still, like captives cowed
And marshalled by armed men, whom we can't see,
Waiting the dispensation of their whim."
It is in such shocks that we read a compelling narrative that takes us from just the lyric to confrontation with perception, with expectation.
Poems about loss of faith ('The Beautiful Illusion'); the "frightful, indefatiguable critique" of language ('The Invisible Men', 'The Spelling Lesson') and a series of "what happened here after the humans have deserted the scene" poems, eg. 'Correspondent's Report', show the range of Edgar's concerns. And some of it is quite funny as in 'Other Worlds', a nice take on US alien-obsessed X-file type madness. There are political and historical concerns as well, the series of poems exploring the aftermath of Chernobyl being just one example.
It is hard to condense the flavour of this book. The further you read the more complex its texture becomes. Stephen Edgar's book isn't easy but neither does it try to be hard for its own sake. It's as though he is saying the times are difficult, perception cannot be taken for granted, even though words are lovely and language is seductive at all levels, aesthetic, political and at the levels of desire. The absences are as much the strength of this work than any easy lyric presence.