Lovers dance through time

Elder­shaw

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­of­frey Lehmann

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’’,

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