Stephen Edgar – Spectre at the Feast

Edgar LE P&W August 2023

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Special Australian Edition August 2023

Spectre at the Feast, poems by Stephen Edgar.

Spectre at the Feast

Seen from the deck’s
Blue eminence, where the hillside falls away,
Garden on leaf-screened garden seems to reach—
One long estate that my distrait
Attention lazily inspects,
And wanders through—down to Balmoral Beach,
And Hunters Bay.

It calls to mind,
This scene, something by Streeton maybe, trees
And shoreline, shoals of splintered light which flare
In patterns that a vagrant breeze
With casual artistry designed.
The garden party, though, has treats to share,
And guests to please,

Of whom I’m one.
And turning from the view to view the flux
And intermingling of participants,
What code, I ask myself, instructs,
By what unspoken rules are run,
The steps and permutations of this dance;
And what conducts

Out of the press
Of this incessant chatter and good cheer,
So effortlessly practised with an art
That seems both artless and sincere,
What cuts me loose to dispossess
The body which stands talking, taking part,
While, floating clear,

Some element
Of mind looks back on the unfolding show
As though it’s past, or like that pageant called
From the thin air by Prospero.
But that is me, it’s evident,
The spectre at the feast, slightly appalled
To undergo

This weird abstraction
Time and again, the figure time suspends
To contemplate as though he were not there
The very action he attends.
But as for that, well, here is action.
The hosts’ son makes an entrance with a pair
Of his student friends,

To improvise
On drums, guitar and keyboard casual jazz,
Jammed on the first-floor balcony. They play
With a cool presence and pizzazz
That says there is no otherwise
Than this, which lavishes, look, here, today,
All the day has.

Here and Now

A rustle in the leaves. One lorikeet
Emerges on a bending stem
To dangle,
While feeding upside down among the sweet
Grevillea flowers at a reckless angle.

In real time, the shadows under them
Make copies on the courtyard bricks.
A skink
Lies practising its brilliant stratagem,
To stare into the sun and not to blink,

A miniature bronze sculpture, till it licks
An errant ant with perfect aim.
The sky,
Drying in blue enamel, tries to affix
One cloud in place before it passes by.

A curtain cord taps on the window frame
Arrhythmically in a faint breeze,
As though
Too quick to hit the beat, making the same
Mistake a few times, then, instead, too slow.

A sort of dreamlike present tense—which frees
The mind from the entanglements
Of nerve
And muscle, all those hinged complexities
We’re made of, with their claims on those they serve—

A sort of disembodied present tense
Pervades this setting to suspend
The day,
As though you were what you experience,
Part of the elements through which you stray,

Persuading you that this will never end.

No Other World

A black and squirming indeterminate mass
She seemed at first, hard to tell head from rump.
The swollen abdomen was obvious,

And there were limbs, but which of them were legs
And which the arms was anybody’s guess.
It brought to mind for a moment that performance

I saw once on TV: two little boys,
Or childlike figures, grappling with each other
And wrestling, tumbling furiously in a clinch

Across the stage for minutes. When it ended,
Up stood one adult man, to bow and shed
The costume inside which he’d been disguised.

And so she rolled in labour. Then between
Two parted limbs out slid a glutinous blob,
Greyish, elastic, slippery, which she caught

In her enormous hands so delicately,
Midwife to herself, and, turning over,
Lifted up to her mouth, as for a kiss,

Her tenderly pursing lips engaging those
Of this new creature. Well, it was a kiss,
But good sense too, and instinct, since its face

Still wore a stocking-mask of wet placenta,
Which she would ease away with little sips.
And then, how gently for so huge a beast,

She laid it on its back. Was it alive?
Ah, yes, its forehead creasing, and the twitch
Of one diminutive thumb. A long fond look

And she resumed her task, taking a foot
And sucking clean the tiny toes. Meanwhile,
Outside the barred enclosure, the zoo staff

Offered encouragement—“Good girl! Good girl!”—
And cameras clicked and filmed. To such a cramped
And public spectacle was she reduced.

I wonder did she see, like Rilke’s panther,
No other world beyond the bars, or was she
Somehow able to look clean through the press

Of lights and voices into memory,
If she had other memory than here,
Though no more than a green hallucination.

Perhaps not. In a clearing in Rwanda,
The grave of Dian Fossey lies, her face
Split open like a peach by a machete.

Around her, graves of numerous gorillas
Are scattered, and not all of them, no doubt,
Met violent deaths, though poachers claimed a few.

Digit, her favourite, put up quite a fight,
Killing one of their dogs, but in the end
They speared him, left his corpse with the head hacked off.

They made two ashtrays of his severed hands.

© Stephen Edgar

Stephen Edgar has published twelve collections of poetry, the most recent being The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems, which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, in 2021. His previous three books, Transparencies, Exhibits of the Sun, and Eldershaw, were all shortlisted for the same award. He was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature in 2006 and was joint winner of the Colin Roderick Award in 2014 for Eldershaw. He lives in Sydney.

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