Slow down for a lyrical guided tour of life
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