[This post contains an image and a poem depicting an event that was utterly abhorrent, and that some people may therefore find offensive]
Les Murray is a poet of the voice. His genius lies in making strange that most familiar sound, capturing it and presenting it on a page. Often what he has to say feels less significant than the inflection and accent with which he carries it through.
Stephen Edgar strikes me as being a poet of the eye. He is one of the rare breed of modern poets who disciplines himself to use formal metrical and rhyming structures – a discipline that engages the eye as well as the ear. And the sense I have of his poems (the very few I’ve read so far) is that he is concerned with communicating vision.
The poem Memorial was written in response to viewing an exhibition of photographs depicting lynchings that took place in the South of the United States. In particular, Memorial is a viewing-by-verse of a photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy in 1935.
The poem is saturated with religious language: the hanging corpse is ‘transfigured’, the onlookers in the photograph ‘contemplate the mystery’. In the second stanza the beholders are being ‘devoured’, ‘sliced’, ‘enticed’ – what the photograph depicts is a grotesque Holy Communion, the memorial of an Anti-Crucifixion in which the celebrants are themselves consumed.
The final two stanzas zoom in on a girl in the left of the photograph, ‘a girl of twelve, maybe’. She is smiling, ‘lit up with a half-embarrassed leer’. Drawn into this moment, she is hanging between innocence and trespass. (or maybe the point is that there was never any innocence?) Unlike the other participants who souvenir elements of the body, the girl will live her life in the knowledge of this horror. ‘This hour will hang between her and the light’.
Whenever this photo is done in remembrance of him, she will find herself damned, not redeemed.
The lynching of Rubin Stacy, 19 July 1935
In the still transfiguration of sunshine
That whites out almost all one leg and arm
Until they merge into the slender pine
He’s hanging from with an inhuman calm,
Who are these blanched beholders gathered round
To contemplate the mystery they attend
With titillated awe?
What men and women and what children bound
In witness of the hour that they suspend
Lightlong? What shocked observance of what law?
Two little girls are standing at the right,
One staring at the lens perplexedly,
The other, half her face devoured by light
Bright as her smock, lifting her eyes to see.
There’s one man whom the trunk obscures and slices
From view, a woman peering as though round
A door or window frame
At something not quite decent which entices
Attention even so, and will confound
Every objection modesty might name.
And then you see her. At the left she stands,
Behind the awful focus of suspense,
Her hands crossed, mimicking his handcuffed hands,
On her frocked crotch, her naked face intense
And lit up with a half-embarrassed leer,
A girl of twelve, maybe, too unaware
To mask her downward grin.
Sometimes the witnesses would souvenir
Some item: a photograph, a hank of hair,
A severed finger joint, a scrap of skin.
Surely she’ll have no need of them. For here
This ritual and her rapture will unite,
Surely, into a lifelong souvenir.
This hour will hang between her and the light,
Between her and her life to come, this scene
And what she is in it will interpose
The days that have to be the day that’s been,
Lighting forever everything she knows
With what she saw, and knows she saw, and knew.