Review, Stephen Edgar's 'Lost in the Foreground'

Duffy and Snellgrove (2003)

Dense, intricate, beautifully crafted, Lost in the Foreground is a book marked by a very strong personal aesthetic. Edgar has found very much his own way to create a poetry that bridges playfulness and tenderness, quirky modern inventiveness and the pleasures of a fairly traditional taste for highly ordered verse. This is not a poetry I found it easy to warm to initially, but I am conscious that nothing is gained by imposing one's own aesthetic on a poet working with different premises and tastes. Edgar's Lost in the Foreground is, it seemed to me, very English poetry - very clever, very conscious of erudition, very wordy. Emotions and important human insights are certainly there but there is a cool feel to it all.

Having admitted these reservations, I must also stress that the more I read these poems the more I was impressed by Edgar's achievement. The images are breathtaking, the control of verse forms and the invention of structures subtle and skilful. At times I was reminded of Virginia Woolf, at times of Peter Porter, Philip Larkin or Auden. I don't know if I could think of an Australian poet post-Slessor who uses rhyme so successfully. Humorous, understated, beautiful, these poems are definitely a triumph of something new.

"Stranger to Fiction" examines Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in a slightly arch mock-epic style. The regular rhymed pattern is quite an extraordinary achievement - beautifully there but unobtrusive, entirely suiting a poem that might have come from Auden in a lighter vein. It leads us to the line "The world is odder than you think", though by the end this becomes the cautionary: "Under the sun/ You'll gather as you learn to grieve/ Things that you would not now believe."

Another very fine poem is "Strange Magic" where lamentation and its Egyptian connections are explored in a way that is at once playful, strikingly beautiful and very powerful. The tone and style of much of Edgar's verse could be gauged by the concluding lines describing returned tourists:

Their hearts are still in Egypt, and

The unheard music and the wailing cry
These women clad in black
Raise up distract them, while the magics vie
To hear the presence in the stone,
To see the signal in the jackal's bone,
To know what makes the sun come back.

In poems like "Incident at Grantley Manor" and "The Company" Edgar finds ample scope for his spirit of playfulness, parody and wit. "The Company" is an engaging satirical look at our world, blending a James Bond style with the language of Conspiracy Theories. In "Incident" an Edwardian murder-mystery style invites us to focus over and over on the moment of a stroke victim's fall seen through the eyes of several characters. If I mention Virginia Woolf in connection with Edgar, it is mostly this poem I am thinking of. As in Woolf's masterpieces "The Waves" and "To the Lighthouse", a surface of great gentility and refinement is made to reveal a powerful undertow of sadness. Paradoxes of time and timelessness are evoked in an exquisitely crafted poem. Despite the initial gulf separating me from Edgar's aesthetics, I have gone back many times to this poem with a growing sense of both its sadness and its brilliance.

Nevertheless, there are moments when, I feel, Edgar is less successful. In "The Book of the Dead" the point of the parable seemed to me obscured by the accumulation of words - as if the intricacy and inventiveness were out of kilter with the poem's focus. So I found myself "lost in the foreground" where, all the words and images being so foregrounded, the impact of whatever might be happening was lost.

One of the highpoints of this collection is undoubtedly Edgar's moving tribute to Gwen Harwood, "Arcadia". As a writer of elegies, Edgar in "Arcadia" produces a masterpiece of dignity, profundity and poise. There is a wonderful power of condensation in such lines as "None more than you/ Knew where the shadows are." The afternoon at Oyster Cove, a Sunday fishing trip, frames the poem in a real, everyday context. The sadness and affection are strong and compelling without any hint of being forced or imposed. Perhaps the triumph of this poem, as with several other poems in this collection, is the fusion of a very natural everyday tone with a highly ornate, almost baroque style. The patterning of Edgar's verse seems to come from another age - early Auden or Frost or perhaps even Matthew Arnold - yet it works.

One other poem that deserves special praise is "The Customs Officer". The eerie chill of this poem, its image of the all-knowing Customs Officer inspecting our lives, is woven across several pages of brilliantly balanced humour and anxiety. The Kafkaesque sense of universal guilt blends into a humour that is not humour. As in "Arcadia", Edgar's writing in this poem often becomes very concise, the simple words taut and clear, the bite of feeling transparent.

Stephen Edgar's Lost in the Foreground is undoubtedly a major achievement. Edgar has taken a traditional style of poetry and breathed new life into it. He has developed an elaborately patterned style of his own, without sacrificing considerable humour, compassion and intellectual sharpness.

Other reviews by Peter Boyle

Sarah Day's The Ship (Brandl and Schlesinger, 2004)
Jill Jones' Broken/Open (Salt Publishing, 2005)