Poems insist on their own terms
The Red Sea: New & Selected Poems
STEPHEN Edgar’s The Red Sea has Clive James all over it: he offers a recommendation on the back, is quoted in the blurb and is the book’s dedicatee. Despite the apparent similarities between the two poets (their formalism and allusiveness), Edgar’s poems are — formally and tonally — more stringent than James’s, almost ego-less in their drive to art.
Edgar’s stringency is such that he sums up his career in a cool 100 pages, ignoring his first two books and beginning the Selected Poems section with poems from his superb third collection, Corrupted Treasures (1995).
Edgar’s career is strikingly consistent in tone, approach and interest. Comparing his earlier poems with the 15 fine new poems in this volume, though, we see that his interest in form, if anything, has deepened with time. The new poems work with more complex stanza forms that develop further Edgar’s inventive use of rhyme.
This is seen in The Annexe, a new poem, when Edgar rhymes phantoms with tantrums (though rhyming television with misprision in the same poem strikes me as a rare misstep).
Time and memory are Edgar’s great themes. These, in turn, are expressed through various tensions: movement and stasis; thought and sensation; loss and continuity. By Stephen Edgar Baskerville, 112pp, $19.95 By Michael Farrell Giramondo, 128pp, $24 Thematically, then, Edgar calls to mind the late Rosemary Dobson. And like Dobson’s, Edgar’s poetry is full of phantoms, surprisingly so given the apparent rationality and lucidity of the work. For both poets, this interest in the ghostly gives their poetry a powerful depth that the calm surfaces may not make immediately obvious.
The ghosts in Edgar’s work range from the celestial to the familial. In Voyager, concerning the space probes, outer space is where light ‘‘ becomes an apparition’’, and the messages that Earth sends into space ‘‘ leave no earthly trace’’.
In The Pictures, one of the most startlingly original of the new poems, a memory of the poet’s mother is ‘‘ An undeciphered pictogram / You’d almost take to be another / Ghosting that grainy footage’’. The phantasmal nature of the image is also considered in Living