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

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 publishedOzMuze in the early 90s and worked for several years at the Sydney-based Poets Union where he initiated the magazine Five Bells.


(Published in famous reporter 40; December 2009).