Stephen Edgar’s most recent book is Eldershaw (Black Pepper, 2013). In 2012 The Red Sea: New and Selected Poems was published in the United States by Baskerville Publishers. A new collection, Exhibits of the Sun, is forthcoming from Black Pepper. Among his earlier books, Lost in the Foreground (2003) was awarded the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and the William Baylebridge Memorial Prize and History of the Day (2009) also received the William Baylebridge Memorial Prize. He won the inaugural Australian Book Review Poetry Prize (now the Peter Porter Poetry Prize) in 2005 for his poem “Man on the Moon” and in 2006 was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature. In 2013 his poem “The Dancer” won the inaugural ACU Prize for Literature, awarded by the Australian Catholic University.
His website is stephenedgar.com.au

The Secret Life of Books

They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts.

What do they have to say and how do they say it?
In the library
At night, or the sun room with its one
Curled thriller by the window, something
Is going on,
You may suspect, that you don’t know of. Yet they

Need you. The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look, already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph

Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.

They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.

Dead Souls

In the darkness of the kitchen late at night
(All lights have been put out) the notes of Satie
From another room float through like globes

Of a dim illumination. Everything,
Immobile and withdrawn, takes on their sheen,
A glimmer that forbids the inquisitive hand,

A posthumous display, released from the world
Of matter. This shelf of glasses, at eye level,
Glistens like a game of vestigial light,

The ocular equivalent of an echo.
Like spirits of the virtuous dead, they queue,
Absolved from further truck with sense or use.

Out there, on the mountain’s slope, a summer fire
Ulcerates the night like a scene from Bosch.
The very silence is conceived of howls.

The Sail and the Gannet

A single sail,
Translucent apricot,
Drifts like a poppy’s petal on a frail
Breeze that is not—

A baby’s breath
Of air sparingly strewn
And eked out by the estuary’s width
All afternoon.

Lit from behind,
That fabric puts on show
What all of this, when the sun has declined,
Will undergo,

When like a dye
Extravagantly loosed,
Late saffron through blue river and blue sky
Will be suffused.

Hours that require
Only themselves. Suspended,
Division and the eye dissolve, desire
Almost is mended.

The close of day
Approaches: echelons
Of shade and light ascend the river, grey
And flooded bronze.

That sail’s no more.
And out of nowhere looms
One gannet, sweeping up and down the shore,
In the gold glooms

Seeking the day’s
Last fish. So swift it flies
And circles and returns, rushing to appraise
What underlies

Its beat, it brings
A darker note into
The scene, as though to match the darkenings
That drain the view.

Too fast its flight
(And slightly desperate
Before the urgings of the loss of light)
To concentrate

Its faculties
On fish, it can’t be seeing,
You feel—or it’s this shadowing it sees,
And is now fleeing.

Other Worlds

An alien’s corpse (assert the ufo-buffs)
Waits even now snap-frozen in a vault
Deep in Wyoming. Time to call a halt,
Then, to the lies and bluffs?

They’ve got the sunset taped. Weird episodes
Among the sober denizens of New York,
Indecent probes and eerie lights that stalk
Dentists on country roads

Are merely fieldwork now towards PhDs.
For one more night the investigative crew
Stakes out the wheatfield, hanging on some clue
To its harvest mysteries.

One mile away, dawn yields a crop of neat
Abstractions modelled after Mandelbrot.
They take their pictures and pursue the plot.
And yet, what is the wheat

Whispering now they’ve packed and quit the scene?
What process in the river’s sky-blue void
Captured their figures like a Polaroid?
And where have the trees been?

Incident at Grantley Manor

Seven o’clock, the time set in his mind
Like herbs displayed in aspic, as the chimes
Were striking. Then the squeaking of his shoes’

Black leather tread, pacing those measures down
The first-floor hall, where sunset’s apricot
Was oozing nectar through the open doors.

Her voice, conspiratorial and astonished,
Called him across the bedroom’s drowning cube
Towards the window. How well Miss Waterson

Remembers it: “Please come and look at this,
Mr Devine;” the clock on the mantelpiece
Rehearsing for the hour of seven. She pointed

Down. There, a moving picture on the lawn,
His father, like a patient whose long months
Of immobility meant learning afresh

The art of walking, climbing the light’s green slope
Towards the summer house, looking intently
As though for a cuff link or a signature.

That evening he still thinks of, lying now,
No longer needing lessons for his legs,
How he cast back his glance and saw the windows

Blazing like cats’ eyes on his uselessness,
And in that golden mirror, two gold figures
Recording him, two shadows of dark gold—

Miss Waterson (was it?) and another one—
And then took out his watch on which the hands
Were so meticulously assembling seven.

Young Emily, appointed just the week
Before, came rushing to the stairs—she’d seen
Him stumble—to advise Mr Devine

About his father’s fall. And so, almost
Immobilized herself in that clinging syrup,
She observed the hall clock’s quaint rendition of

Seven, the time set clearly in his mind
Like summer herbs in aspic, as the chimes
Were striking. Then the squeaking of his shoes’

Black leather tread, pacing those measures down
The corridor, where sunset’s apricot
Was oozing nectar through the open doors.

Her voice, companionable but astonished,
Floated across the bedroom’s drowning cube
As he descended. How well Miss Waterson

Remembers it: “Please come and look at this;”
And Emily, who had just been taken on
That week, came rushing to the window. She pointed

Down, smartly on the stroke of seven. There,
A moving picture on the lawn, was old
Mr Devine, like a patient whose long months

Of immobility meant learning afresh
The art of walking, climbing the light’s green slope
Abstractedly towards the rose garden.

That evening he still thinks of, lying now,
No longer needing lessons for his legs,
How he cast back his glance and saw the windows

Glaring like cats’ eyes on his helplessness,
And in that golden mirror, two gold figures
Gesticulating, two shadows of dark gold—

The new girl (was it?) and another one—
And then took out his watch on which the hands
Were so laboriously assembling seven.

Miss Waterson, with Emily behind her
In a panic, dashed to the stairs to find
Mr Devine, anxious to let him know

About his father’s fall. And there they saw him,
Almost immobile in that clinging syrup,
And heard the hall clock’s muffled tolling of

Seven, the time set firmly in his mind…

Strange Magic

A group of wailing, black-clad women stands
In grief’s inductive trance.
The river bears their loved one off. Their hands
Flap, though hysterically, to the beat
Of an unheard music, while their naked feet
Fulfil the rhythms of slow dance.

Egypt: some former ordering of matters,
Or magic, still holds sway,
And, working through their hearts, draws in the tatters,
The grief-torn scraps of a terrain
No word of theirs has power to sustain,
And lets it live for one more day.

In a stone gloom the lion god’s displayed
(The tourists with their brief
Attention flicker past)—tear marks inlaid
Deep in the corners of his eyes;
His face is leonine and sadly wise,
His human body swaddling- stiff.

Then too the powers hardly allowed for words:
The presence in the stone,
The presage in the motion on the birds,
Recurrence of the sun that fed
The everlasting banquet of the dead,
The signal in the jackal’s bone.

Out on the molten river craft obey
Miraculous new conditions,
Although the old wind plays with them all day
And fills the lateen sails, although
The ancient waters still contrive to flow:
The new rules of the new magicians,

The truth that shocks all those who’ve understood
(And who can understand?)—
A magic stranger than the lion god.
Back home the tourists with their brief
Attention flicker past the new belief.
Their hearts are still in Egypt, and

The unheard music and the wailing cry
Those women clad in black
Raise up distract them, while the magics vie
To hear the presence in the stone,
To see the signal in the jackal’s bone,
To know what makes the sun come back.

The Kiss

How can she do this now that it’s all changed,
Present her lips to kiss
As though that known face were the same as this
From which you’ve been estranged?
Of course it is. Here, now? Or then and there?
How can she sit down in her cloud of hair

And watch you as though you were someone else?
You are, of course, to her.
You were this rendezvous’s commissioner
And nobody compels
Your self-distressed attendance here but you.
So watch her do as only she can do.

She lifts her left hand to her left earlobe
And tugs the earring, slides
The hook half out and rubs at it and glides
It in, as its purple globe
Swings back and forth to tantalize your sight.
Soon she will do the same thing with the right.

A silver bracelet rides along one arm
Or settles at the wrist,
And lest adornment should seem prejudiced
The other has its charm
As well, made somehow perfect by the dent
That mars the curve of its encirclement.

And those two combs holding her hair in place,
Two combs of tortoiseshell—
And when she took them out, oh how it fell
At night around her face,
Which she would lift to you and shut her eyes,
That beauty come to seem beauty’s disguise,

And whether by desire or candlelight,
Her skin took on a glow,
An alabaster lucency, and so
She leant back to invite
Your open-mouthed assent. And you would hold
That pose like two Klimt lovers cloaked in gold.

And that first night you slid the purple shift
Over her shoulders and
Peeled gently downwards, leaving her to stand
In Aphrodite’s gift,
And sinking with her garment to the floor,
Made moist the shadowed fold you knelt before.

How can she do this now that you’re estranged,
Stand in her cloud of hair
As though she were the same, though well aware
That everything is changed
(Of course she is), presenting for your kiss
The mouth that was the mouth that is not this.

Eighth Heaven

I open the flyscreen door and slip inside,
Easing it shut. Low voices – the radio? –
Drift from the dining room, although their words

Are indistinct. A milky sort of light
Clings to the ceiling, showing that the summer
Is well established here and the inner shadows,

However cool they may appear, are tacky
As bare thighs on a vinyl chair.
My mother, at the kitchen bench, is pouring

Afternoon tea, or would be, but I see
That, unsurprisingly, that red-brown ribbon
Is stationary and the steam hangs still,

A Lilliputian fog. Can time have stopped
So simply, in this simple suburb, at
This hour of day? And yet the radio

Is lit up and those voices natter on,
Talking the timeless issues of the day
And advertising their predated products.

The sideboard stands, as ever, well equipped
With seldom used utensils, special service:
The special teapot of white china, capped

With shining metal like a soldier’s casque;
The little glasses with their Chinese figures –
Sum Fun Tu, Me Fun Tu, Tu Yung Tu…; plates

Of many colours with their hidden names,
Remembering far better than I can
Their few occasions. And there is my father

Standing in the lounge room, half-turned away.
I summon up some greeting and can feel
The words unbodied, though not a sound disturbs

The house’s depth. I walk in and am baffled
To find, however much I move about him,
That that one aspect is still turned to me,

Unmoving, a one-sided hologram.
Net curtains billow at the window, frozen
In air, as though a child were crouched in them.

In the middle of the wall the oval mirror
Declines to represent me, though I come
So close my breath appears on it. I place

My right hand’s fingertips against the glass
And feel the surface tension of a pool
Resisting, then reluctantly giving in.

My fingers come away with silvered ends
Which, as they sway, show scraps of furniture
And carpet, flowers in a vase.

Now I am gazing out across the park.
The afternoon is caught among the leaves,
Detained indefinitely out there, and in

My throat. My fingers are still wet from touching
The glass; I must have brushed them on my cheek.
At the back gate I see that I am leaving:

That is my arm there sliding the bolt shut.
A bowl of fruit is on a table by
A window. On the round face of an apple

Surmounting it is held the light of the world.
It sits there like a globe of crystal, or
A painted droplet – the Earth that Dante saw

When he looked down at last from the eighth heaven.
Within it, sworn to secrecy, flamboyant,
Swim all the ages and the hours.

Made to Measure

Impossible to wield
The acreage of the fabric that unfolded,
Slung from his shoulders like a crumpled field:
The distance from one Christmas to the next
When he was only seven
Was aching there; a foreign city flexed
Among the ripples; a face, the star-shocked heaven
About his flailing arms were shrugged and moulded.

Too heavy to outrun,
Too slow to measure what it underwent,
Though gradually the passage of the sun,
Unmanageable in its train of light,
Seemed almost to respond
As he yanked the yards of stuff in like a kite
And gathered the brocade that trailed beyond
His arms’ reach to the scale of measurement,

However strange the weave
That writhed about the working of his hands:
The footage too atrocious to believe,
Printed with corpses; Greece; the falls of salmon;
Her upturned silken wrist
He would have torn out history to examine;
His father’s final blessing, which he missed.
However far he comes or where he stands,

At last, and limb by limb,
Contour by contour, that unfolded cape
Settles ever more fittingly on him.
His forehead is the line of the sky’s vault,
His shoulders trace the ground,
His palms the ways he wandered by default,
And in his gestures those he knew are found.
What shape the day discovers is his shape.

The Red Sea

Lulled in a nook of North WestBay,
The water swells against the sand,
Hardly more liquid than Venetian glass,
In which clear surface, just a little way
From shore, some four or five petite yachts pass
With languid ease, apparently unmanned,
Adrift along the day,

Imagining a breeze to fan
Their motion, though there’s none. Siobhan
Reaches a giant hand down from the sky
And nudges with insouciant élan
The nearest hull, her bended waist mast-high.
That hand is just as magically withdrawn.
So moves the catamaran.

And through the Lilliputian fleet
She, Beatrice and Gabrielle
Wade in the shallows, knee-deep, spaceman-slow,
To fashion their manoeuvres and compete
Among the stationed hours to and fro,
While watching through the viscid slide and swell
Of water their white feet,

Made curiously whiter by
That cool light-bending element.
Doubled by shadows on the sand they glimpse
Pipefish and darting fingerlings they try
Impossibly to grab, translucent shrimps
Among the lace weed, seahorses intent
To flee the peopled sky.

Hard to conceive that they should be
Precisely who they are and here,
Lost in the idle luxury of play.
And hard to credit that the self-same sea
That joins them in their idleness today,
Careless of latitude and hemisphere,
Blind with ubiquity,

Churns elsewhere with a white uproar,
Or wipes the Slave Coast clean of trees,
Or sucks among the scum and floating drums
Of some forgotten outpost founded for
The advent of an age that never comes,
Or bobs the remnants of atrocities
Limply against the shore.

What luck they have. And what good sense
To leave the water with their toys
When called, before their fortunes are deranged.
And still the day hangs in its late suspense
For hours without them, virtually unchanged,
Until the bay’s impregnable turquoise
Relaxes its defence

And sunset’s dye begins to spread
In flood across it to the sand
They stood on, as though, hoping to disown
The blood of all the innocents he’d shed,
Macbeth incarnate or his grisly clone
Had stooped on some far shore to rinse his hand,
Making the green one red.

Murray Dreaming

It’s not the sharks
Sliding mere inches from his upturned face
Through warps of water where the tunnel arcs
Transparent overhead,
Their lipless jaws clamped shut, extruding teeth,
Their eyes that stare at nothing, like the dead,
Staring at him; it’s not the eerie grace
Of rays he stood beneath,
Gaping at their entranced slow-motion chase

That is unending;
It’s not the ultra-auditory hum
Of ET cuttlefish superintending
The iridescent craft
Of their lit selves, as messages were sent,
Turning the sight of him they photographed
To code: it is not this that left him dumb
With schoolboy wonderment
Those hours he wandered the aquarium.

It is that room,
That room of Murray River they had walled
In glass and, deep within the shifting gloom
And subtle drifts of sky
That filtered down, it seemed, from the real day
Of trees and bird light many fathoms high,
The giant Murray cod that was installed
In stillness to delay
All that would pass. The boy stood there enthralled.

Out in the day
Again, he saw the famous streets expound
Their theories about speed, the cars obey,
Racing to catch the sun,
The loud fast-forward crowds, and thought it odd
That in the multitudes not everyone
Should understand as he did the profound
Profession of the cod,
That held time, motionless, unknown to sound.

In bed at night,
Are his eyes open or is this a dream?
The room is all dark water, ghosted light,
And midway to the ceiling
The great fish with its working fins and gills
Suspended, while before it glide the reeling
And see-through scenes of day, faintly agleam,
Until their passage stills
And merges with the deep unmoving stream.

Black Light Theatre

And grief does pass. He’ll manage to believe
In time the reinstated golden rule
Of sunlight on his neighbours’ swimming pool,
Cast up among the gum trees to retrieve
The boughs caught in that gilded mesh and weave.
As he hesitates in Monday’s vestibule
His family and his lasting friends will school
His darkened sense and draw him by the sleeve.

In the black theatre all the stage is black
And, dressed in black, the actors move concealed
Against that backdrop, unseen as they wield
The props, which shine transfigured where they track
Through emptiness.
Although he has come back,
He won’t forget what that black light revealed.

***

Notes on the poems:

From Corrupted Treasures

The Secret Life of Books
Dead Souls

From Where the Trees Were

The Sail and the Gannet
Other Worlds

From Lost in the Foreground

Incident at Grantley Manor
Strange Magic

From Other Summers

The Kiss
Eighth Heaven

From History of the Day

Made to Measure
The Red Sea

From Eldershaw

Murray Dreaming

Uncollected

Black Light Theatre

 

My sincere thanks to Stephen, one of my very favourite poets, for sending me these beautiful poems and allowing me to republish them on here.

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