Review: Stephen Edgar’s Exhibits of the Sun

To say that the pace of modern life is unconducive to lyric poetry is not so much to flirt with cliché as to drop your keys down cliché’s blouse and insist upon retrieving them. It’s also undeniable. Assailed from all sides by all manner of trivia, we’ve lost the habit of sustained contemplation needed to engage with this most challenging of art forms; so many and so various are the demands upon 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 – such 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, the 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 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 Exhibits of the Sun, 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 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 Problem’, for example, the great painter is commended for trying to ‘see behind / The facile complications of event’ by rearranging (and then 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.

Stephen Edgar, Exhibits of the Sun
Black Pepper; $22.95; 69pp

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First published in The Weekend Australian.