Lovers dance through time
By Stephen Edgar Black Pepper, 109pp, $23.95
STEPHEN Edgar, who was born in Sydney in 1951, has an international reputation as one of the most accomplished formalist poets writing in English. Eldershaw marks a watershed in his work. Together with 16 shorter rhyming lyrics (more typical of his intricate and constrained style), there are three linked narrative poems spanning more than 70 pages. These narratives in unrhymed blank verse, ranging in time from World War II to the start of the present century, have allowed Edgar to break through into a more explicit expression of emotion.
They can be confusing, with their complicated time lines and multiplicity of characters. But at the end you realise these pungent and brightly coloured fragments of more than a dozen people’s lives are a sustained single narrative, a wonderful love poem and elegy for a woman, Helen, viewed through the eyes of Luke, her lover.
The publisher’s blurb describes these narratives as ‘‘ drawing on personal experience, reimagined and transformed through the lens of fiction’’. This gives them an authenticity and power they would not have if they were pure fiction.
The first narrative, ‘‘ Eldershaw’’, has nine parts with dates as the only headings. It starts with ‘‘ 1955’’. Helen and her husband, Martin, have bought the ‘‘ haunted house’’ of Helen’s Tasmanian childhood, Eldershaw. They have two children, Sally and Claire, dancing naked among the rhododendrons, singing about imaginary friends called deppites.
Then ‘‘ 1941’’ follows, giving a glimpse of Helen, on the edge of puberty, immersed in the bush around Eldershaw.
The next section is another ‘‘ 1955’’. We get the first hint that Helen’s marriage is dead at its heart. Abandoned for the evening by Martin, who prefers a night out with the ‘‘ boys’’, she screams at a ghost in the back flat of Eldershaw.
This is followed by ‘‘ 1965’’, ‘‘ 1957’’, ‘‘ 1945’’, ‘‘ 1959’’, ‘‘ 1963’’ and finally ‘‘ 1961’’. The high point is ‘‘ 1945’’ with the description of Helen naked on her honeymoon, ‘‘ with her gleaming breasts’’ as ‘‘ great washes of white water surged around her’’,