London Grip Poetry Review – Malcolm Carson


Poetry review – EDGAR: Stephen Claughton considers Malcolm Carson’s extended exploration of a poetic persona


Malcolm Carson
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978-1-915553-21-8

In his new pamphlet, Malcolm Carson has gathered together the ‘Edgar’ poems from his four previous collections with Shoestring, omitting a couple but adding two new ones, making twenty-one in total. It’s good to be able to read them in one place.

A number of poets have created alter egos—Weldon Kees’ Robinson, John Berryman’s Henry and Hugo Williams’ Sonny Jim spring to mind. Berryman denied that he was Henry, although he admitted there were similarities between them and it’s hard not to see the anguished Henry or the dandyish Robinson as expressing aspects of their creators’ personalities that they might not have wanted to take full ownership of.

By using the character of Edgar from King Lear, Carson gives his readers a head start in terms of what to expect. Framed by his bastard half-brother, Edmund, in a supposed plot to kill their father, the Earl of Gloucester, Edgar adopts his own alter ego, fleeing to the countryside and disguising himself as poor Tom, a ‘Bedlam beggar’. These might have been called the ‘poor Tom’ poems, except that as interior monologues they are very much Edgar rather than Tom.

The poems aren’t a commentary on the play, although there are references to it. The first poem, “Edgar goes bait digging”, has an epigraph from King Lear: ‘The art of our necessities is strange, / And can make vile things precious.’Another poem, “Edgar refuses marriage”, is a rejection of Nahum Tate’s 1681 reworking of the play in which, a note tells us, ‘he has Edgar marry Cordelia in order to effect a happy ending.’ Elsewhere, the play is a source of imagery (‘the river called Eden / running black as brother’s deeds, father’s ignorance, my knowledge’).

Significantly, the poems aren’t set near Gloucester’s castle or Dover, but in Carson’s own Cumbria, along the rivers Eden and Gelt and the Solway Firth. Although some of the poems (e.g. “Edgar at harvest time”—‘leaning in my fustian, watching / with inconsequence the gleaners / among the stubble’) are set firmly in the past, others introduce deliberate anachronisms, with references to ‘antique plastic / on a by-pass fence’, ‘Traffic lights on Stanwix Bank’, or ‘a palisade of corrugated iron’ and titles such as “Edgar considers a mortgage”, “Edgar takes an allotment” or “Edgar tends his cacti”. The language has the same duality, mostly modern but sometimes with a touch of the mock antique—fustian even. The timelessness of nature (‘nothing lasts / yet all’s the same’) allows us to move effortlessly between past and present, so that Edgar both is and is not the character in the play. “Edgar and his chronicler” addresses the issue head on:

Who are you who places me
in such odd circumstance,
in times incongruous to mine,
allows me to speak in language
I couldn’t know? … 

In Carson’s poems, Edgar’s escape into the wild (‘The fell’s the place where I will range / free from all constraint’) is less to do with his physical safety than the restorative powers of nature. Concentrating on a heron or watching a kingfisher and other riverine wildlife by the Eden is a form of mindfulness, ‘for too much / cogitation draws me down / to depths where sorrow lies.’ Or simply,

I am distracted from dark thoughts,
join in delight, despite myself,
at small birds that dink to my feeder.
				(“Edgar is happy”)

The poems do not sentimentalise nature and the escape is not always complete (‘It troubles me this flux / of moods, watching,’ he says of the river in “Edgar by the Gelt”). The consolation is that of being an outsider (‘The politics of buzzard, / goldcrest, salmon, vole, / will not ensnare me’) and not only among creatures. Out drinking:

In the Crown I settle to
others’ banter, take comfort from
apartness, work on the riddle
of myself amid all this.
				(“Edgar in Stanwix”)

Elsewhere the detachment becomes a deeper alienation:

I think I am in love, or how I imagine
that state to be since I have only

my views of others and how they behave,
supposedly enamoured.
                               (“Edgar in love”)

Recent events have given Carson’s choice of subject a wider, political relevance. With the wrong people in power, it feels very much as if we’re waiting for order to be restored at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, or as “Edgar regards the politicians” puts it: ‘a rebalancing / of order after the dark hours of a disordered world’. The poem provides a good description of populism in practice. (King Lear is, after all, the play from which the phrase ‘a scurvy politician’ comes, even if it meant only a temporizer.)

We began with Edgar digging for bait in the sands of an estuary and the collection comes full circle with “Edgar revisits the shore”, ending with the ‘real’ Edgar’s most famous line: ‘Ripeness is all.’ Whether this really is the end is left open

Where now “Tom”? 
On seeing this again, 

 do I need him still, or 
will he persist despite /

best efforts to put behind 
the time upon the heath?

At a personal level, one may hope that Malcolm Carson has no further need of Edgar, although his readers will surely want more. The use of a literary character reminds us that poetry isn’t just a branch of life-writing or psychotherapy, but part of a tradition.