Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Stephen Edgar, Australian Ace

MY FRIEND Stephen Edgar is the supreme lyricist among the current wave of Australian poets. Les Murray is the acknowledged master, the Magister Illyrio in our Free City of Pentos—here I attempt to forecast one of the Game of Thrones allusions that might be standard usage among the cultural critics of the generation to come—and I suppose that in the long run all of us will be measured by our distance from him. But others can do strikingly individual things: Peter Goldsworthy, for example, can actually write in the tiny, haiku-like measures that everyone admires but hardly anyone can handle; and Judith Beveridge, with her uncanny powers of observation and evocation, is unbeatable when it comes to portraying nature as only marginally needing humans. And there are more. But nobody, not even Murray, can put an intricate form together like Stephen Edgar. Swiss watches aren’t in the race, especially now that all they contain is a microprocessor and a battery. The typical Edgar poem generates an astonishing first force from its panscopic wealth of imagery, and then that force is multiplied by the way it is put together, with verse paragraphs that flow meticulously from stanza to stanza, and every stanza a new formal discovery in itself. I have all his books, and today his new book arrives: Exhibits of the Sun.

Just the thing to take with me on this afternoon’s visit to the Infusion Suite at Addenbrooke’s, where, once every three weeks, I sit for a whole afternoon with a tube plugged into my arm. As what seem gallons of immunoglobulin are pumped through the tube, I am going nowhere. It is an ideal time for reading, but the book has to be the right size, so as not to demand too much handling, lest my cannula get joggled loose. (In that idea can be heard an incipient poem, which might be comic; as, indeed, is the whole process. I feel like Iron Man in the repair shop.) Quite soon I plan to make a start on Conrad’s Victory, but for this afternoon I have Stephen Edgar’s new volume.

As always, perfection is Edgar’s territory. A typical poem by him leaves nothing more to say, nor any other way of saying it. His poem about Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history—the angel that flies backward with its vision full of accumulating ruins—gives us a picture of the ruins: “one vast / Impacted havoc.” But even more remarkably, it also gives us the angel’s feelings, how “he longs to stay” but is forever swept onward: “a storm is blowing out of Paradise.” These phrases do Benjamin even more honor by quoting him directly: but their placing is all Edgar’s. Savoring a hundred moments like that, as President Reagan might have binged on a packet of Jelly Belly Super Sours, I reflect on how far the Australian cultural expansion has come. And so it should have done: Australia has twice the population of Sweden, which gave the world Saab, Volvo, and Abba. (The third conglomerate made more money than the first two put together.) But Australia remains a small country. It just looks big on the map. Any feelings of isolation that its intelligentsia once had, however, no longer fit the facts. Its film directors and actors, its singers and conductors, are everywhere. The theater director Michael Blakemore has several times had hit shows running in London and New York both at once. Even in poetry, a field which has no real commercial existence, there is an Australian presence in the world. Once, as recently as in the previous generation, this was not so, and there was a justifiable niggling ache from the marginalization. But now the Australian poets don’t have to waste their time thinking on nationalist lines at all, because the world is their oyster. I never expected this to happen in my time. It should be no surprise, however: along with the freedom to prosper, the freedom to create is one of the first freedoms a democracy offers. And even the Americans now know roughly where Australia is. All over the world, any underprivileged or oppressed group of people would like to get into Australia. Though many are invited in—for its intake of immigrants, Australia rates high as a host nation—they can’t all come: a fact which gives the Australian pseudo-left intellectuals, always looking for a new grievance, a chance to call their own country an offense to mankind. Meanwhile the first container ship full of Australian Aboriginals has yet to arrive in the Persian Gulf. As I reflect on these things, I resolve to take down from the shelf, this very night, Stephen Edgar’s nearest thing to a definitive selection—published in the United States, it is called The Red Sea—and further soothe my aching brain. Along with my heart, my brain is practically the last part of me that works, but the news from the Middle East is enough to further scarify the mental lesions one already has. A new group of extremist killers has shown up who regard Al-Qaeda as being too soft on the infidel. A storm is blowing out of Paradise.