Po­ems in­sist on their own terms

The Red Sea: New & Se­lected Po­ems

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Mccooey

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

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