Slow down for a lyri­cal guided tour of life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

TO say that the pace of mod­ern life is un­con­ducive to lyric po­etry is not so much to flirt with cliche as to drop your keys down cliche’s blouse and in­sist on re­triev­ing them. It’s also un­de­ni­able. As­sailed from all sides by trivia, we’ve lost the habit of the sus­tained con­tem­pla­tion needed to en­gage with this most chal­leng­ing of art forms; so many are the de­mands on our at­ten­tion that at­ten­tion it­self has at­ro­phied.

Nor is it only so­cial me­dia and click-bait junkies who are at is­sue here. In an in­ter­view in 2006, the unashamedly high­brow Martin Amis ad­mit­ted to feel­ing in­creas­ingly rushed, so much so that po­etry had been pushed to one side: “When you’re read­ing your New York Re­view of Books, some piece about North Korea or the Mid­dle East, and there’s a poem in the mid­dle of it, you think, What is that do­ing there?’’

What it’s do­ing, of course, is what it’s al­ways done: it’s im­plor­ing us to slow down — to sit down — and to study this epiphany, to ‘‘take time out’’, to com­pare emo­tional notes. This is what good po­ems do, or one of the prin­ci­pal things they do. They at­tempt, in the words of Louise MacNe­ice, to ‘‘cage the minute’’ — to stop the clock. Lit­tle ma­chines for re­mem­ber­ing them­selves, they give the reader the (il­lu­sory) sense that he has been granted a tem­po­rary stay against eter­nity.

In his mag­nif­i­cent new col­lec­tion Ex­hibits of the Sun, Syd­ney-based poet Stephen Edgar at­tempts, at once, to demon­strate and in­ter­ro­gate this cru­cial role. Cast­ing his eyes over such ‘‘ex­hibits’’ as one finds in mu­se­ums and gal­leries — still lifes, sculp­tures, stuffed an­i­mals and the like — he ex­tends and ex­pands the idea of the

Septem­ber 20-21, 2014 Ex­hibits of the Sun By Stephen Edgar Black Pep­per, 69pp, $22.95 ex­hibit to in­clude a whole range of phe­nom­ena.

All Eyes im­plores the reader to ‘‘Look, look’’ and de­scribes the mo­ment at which the Huy­gens space­craft first glimpsed ‘‘the ghostly Fer­ris wheel’’ of Saturn, with its ‘‘shat­tered rings of icy lace / Exquisitely beyond re­pair’’. Or take the beau­ti­ful Moon­light Sculp­tures, in which a naked fe­male body is ‘‘set’’ in a se­ries of tran­si­tory at­ti­tudes: Now you lie flat, but twisted to the side, One sheet a fail­ing neck­line, and I watch The con­tour of your clav­i­cles Di­vide The shadow, and the shade that pools Be­tween them in the supraster­nal notch.

Here, a mere sec­ond or so of move­ment is care­fully, lov­ingly, re­con­structed. (As in five of the other six stan­zas, the fourth line is given over to a sin­gle verb.) The mo­ment has been ar­rested, frozen.

In the mid­dle sec­tion of this col­lec­tion, the mood ap­pears to darken slightly. Two po­ems, The Pe­ony and Song with­out Words, dwell mood­ily on dis­ease and death, while The An­gel of His­tory re­calls the reader to the in­ex­orable and har­row­ing na­ture of time. An adap­ta­tion of Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s ninth the­sis on the Phi­los­o­phy of His­tory, the poem de­scribes Paul Klee’s art­work An­gelus Novus as he is blown on a storm ‘‘out of Par­adise’’ to­wards a fu­ture he can­not see. What he can see is the sum of hu­man ‘‘progress’’: His face is to the past. And all those brief, am­bi­tious episodes Strewn out — achieved, or botched, or in­com­plete — Along the road’s Un­rav­elled pageant that we both project And roam through, are to him one vast Im­pacted havoc which the years ac­crete And slowly heave up, fused and wrecked, Like Hi­malayas hurled be­fore his feet.

How, then, to rec­on­cile the un­for­giv­ing na­ture of time with the poet’s am­bi­tion to slow it down, to re­claim the mo­ment for con­tem­pla­tion? It would be over­stat­ing it to say that the third and fi­nal sec­tion of the book pro­vides an an­swer to this ques­tion, but it does strike a more af­fir­ma­tive note. In Mo­randi and the Hard Prob- lem, for ex­am­ple, the great painter is com­mended for try­ing to ‘‘see be­hind / The facile com­pli­ca­tions of event’’ by rear­rang­ing (and re­paint­ing) the pots and bot­tles that were his prin­ci­pal sub­ject. Or here is the won­der­ful fi­nal stanza of Oswald Spen­gler Watches the Sun­set: An an­i­mal­cule in a drop of dew — And so diminu­tive That if the hu­man eye should look clear through That globe there would be noth­ing there to see

— Although it only has a blink to live, Yet in the face of this is free; The oak, in whose vast fo­liage this dot Hangs from a sin­gle leaf, is not.

Closely based on Spen­gler’s in­tro­duc­tion to Vol­ume II of The De­cline of the West, th­ese lines sug­gest that an­i­mal life (one couldn’t say con­scious­ness) is its own re­ward, that de­spite hav­ing only a ‘‘blink to live’’, the mi­cro­scopic an­i­mal­cule is free in a way that the oak tree is not. Here, and in The House of Time, the poet would ap­pear to be reach­ing for some­thing beyond the purely ma­te­rial world. At any rate, th­ese later po­ems have a spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal in­ten­sity that I hope will re­pay suc­ces­sive read­ings.

One thing is cer­tain: there will be suc­ces­sive read­ings. Ex­hibits of the Sun is an ex­quis­ite book. It does not de­mand our at­ten­tion but it does re­ward it.

Clock­wise from top, the Bad Seeds at Three Mills Stu­dio, London, on Septem­ber 19 and 20, 2002; Sir Les Pat­ter­son, Kylie Minogue, Cave and Rolf Har­ris back­stage at London’s Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, 1999; Row­land S. Howard, Mick Har­vey and Cave, London, 1982; Cave at RAK Stu­dios, London, 2010

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