Stephen Edgar launched Tempo by Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann) at the Friend in Hand Hotel on 14th October 2013.
“It is only our conception of time”, Kafka tells us in one of his bracing aphorisms, “that makes us call the Last Judgement by that name; in fact, it is a court in permanent session.”
This sense of the superimposition of past and future onto the present, of the simultaneous coexistence of all time, is an abiding theme in Sarah Day’s new collection, Tempo, as signalled by the epigraph from St Augustine:
“A present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future… what then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”
And the manifold ways in which this insight can be illustrated are richly explored in poem after poem. In “Fayoum”, subtitled “Funeral Portraits of Roman Egypt”, we have the material artefacts of a long past epoch present to our sight: “these portraits painted on the coffin wood/ like missives from another age”. But beyond that, beyond the coffin wood and the pigment, we see the abiding emotions of the human in their painted features, “Hauteur, assuredness, self-interest/ emerge through worn-out caustic and gold leaf”. These could be your fellow citizens any day of the week, the “strangers that you meet/ across a bus or train and fleetingly/ in the unguarded moment see close up”. “they gaze with eyes that live”, the poem concludes, collapsing that gulf of centuries.
Material records from the past are even more poignantly conjured in the poem “In Time, Pompeii”. Yes, there are the mosaics, the colonnades, the statuary, but more arrestingly, the figures of those who died in the volcanic ash. In an image reminiscent of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and its immutable illustration,
The cast of the young woman
is forever that—a young woman,
supine, elbows bent, weeping
into her hands.
And, of course, she is more, or, should I say, less than that, because the cast is the plaster that filled the hole in the ash where her body decayed. It is the shape of her absence that makes her present to us.
And this does not exhaust the teasing temporal perspectives of this poem. After visiting the ruins, Day walks “through time to a ploughed field/ where a man with a hoe works,/ meditative, desultory”. “he is not from my century either”, she wryly or wistfully observes, before heading to the station for the train “with its noisy freight of twentieth century/ passengers bound for Naples”. So images from the past seem alive now, and figures now living can seem part of the past.
Reading many of the poems, I was put in mind of two favourite words of mine, both beginning with p: pentimento, the revealing of a painting or part of a painting that has been covered over by a later painting—under the wash of the present moment we see these images from the past floating into view; and palimpsest, a sort of literary equivalent of pentimento, a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next, though leaving traces behind.
A different take on this theme is used in “The Seed Vault of Longyearbyen”, which refers to that extraordinary repository of plant seeds built deep into a cliff on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where “the endless shelves of dormant DNA/ beguile the flux of time” and constitute, she says, “this mausoleum to the Afterwards”. DNA, of course, could be called the seed within the seed, that more or less eternal prescription for the transient life forms which flower from it, including us. And in “Family Tree”, what she calls “the mantra of our DNA” is recited, while reading through a list of family members from 1765 onwards. Her elderly father (I think), with eyes closed, his eyesight too poor to read the small print himself, joins the litany as “the living dead appear/ in answer to their spoken names,/ step forward one by one as if in light”.
DNA, the eternal prescription. Eternity itself is best understood not as an infinite prolongation of chronological time but rather as the stilled or unending present moment. In “The Mower” “Eternity’s the green concentric lines… The blade against the grass is present time.” And then there is the eternal present in which nonhuman life forms live, like Keats’s nightingale. In “Optics”
A column of gnats opens up the moment:
a hologram against the sky’s clear void…
Plato’s moving image of eternity—
spinning its intricate motion,
its vast, timeless, unceasing loop.
“Tempo” is of course the Italian for “time”, but in its application to music it denotes the speed at which a passage is to be played; variations in the perceived speed of time, motion and stillness, change and constancy, the permanent and the evanescent: these motifs too are at play, or at work, throughout Tempo, as instanced above in the image of the gnats. Or again in “Gulls”, where a flock of gulls seems stationary on the waters of a bay swept by a gale:
how does a host of hundreds of birds
on the bay hold its own?
Does the hill with its forest crown
and farm-housed hem cradle them in its lee
on a ribbon of calm…
Or is their stillness an illusion
of the mess of white?
This is the merest impressionistic survey of some of the thematic strands in Tempo—the “what”, we might say. There is also the “how”. As A E Housman reminds us in his lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer—is the peculiar function of poetry”. It is the transfusing of emotion that transforms these poems from observations, in both senses, to genuinely affecting and memorable art. As in, for instance, the image of that young woman in Pompeii. As in “Alzheimer Ward”, to choose another fairly straightforward example, with its evocation of the ravages of lost memory : “Their landmarks are behind them now,/ wartime weddings, youthful wives—/ trinkets of lost, forgotten lives.”
Yet even so, when a face floats, nameless
at the open door
like a hazy memory of love—
something painful like rapture moves the heart.
That slight ambiguity about whose heart is being moved is a fine touch. Or there is the deliciously spine-tingling edge to “The Mirror”, a curious incident from childhood when a group of them discovered a large mirror lying face upwards at the bottom of a brook which spooked them with its uncanny reflections “between illusion/ and substance in the vortices and currents”. Or even something as simple, as apparently trivial, as an evocation of hens pausing to drink from a bowl of water on a hot day becomes quietly moving:
For a moment nothing is so beautiful
or calm as this hiatus. Side by side
the russet and the smoky hen,
statue-still, devotional, thirst slaked;
a clear ellipse of water, egg-shell blue.
“Hens at the Water Bowl”
“A poet’s biography”, Joseph Brodsky wittily observed, “is in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes and metaphors… With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story.” And Seamus Heaney has said: “In a poem, words, phrases, cadences and images are linked into systems of affect and signification which elude the précis maker. These under-ear activities… may well constitute the most important business which the poem is up to.”
All of which is to say that, in talking about the themes in Tempo I have no doubt failed to address directly those crucial aural and lexical and rhythmic and other elements which Brodsky and Heaney refer to, in which the true business and life of these poems reside, but I hope that from the various quotations from the text I have included you have been able to hear them at work, if only fragmentarily and fleetingly, and that they have planted in you the desire to hear more. Tempo is a wonderful book and I am delighted to declare it launched.
– Stephen Edgar
Stephen Edgar’s latest collection, Eldershaw (2013), was published by Black Pepper Publishing. Further details can be found on his website http://stephenedgar.com.au/
Tempo is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/tempo
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