Man, Wall, Sea

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Working with his father, Joshua Edwards has also created an intriguingly masculine book. The collection presents father and son’s perspectives on an American landscape molded and scarred by men.

Campeche is a staunchly reflective, lyric book that knows its place in a long tradition of men
philosophically watching the world: recently, John Koethe, more canonically Whitman and Wordsworth. “I see my reflection…”, “I watch the two…”, “I feel waves…”, and “I see citizens,” writes poet Joshua Edwards in the opening stanza, unambiguously alerting us to his stance on the scene.

Working with his father, Joshua Edwards has also created an intriguingly masculine book. The collection presents father and son’s perspectives on an American landscape molded and scarred by men. Beside Joshua’s poems, photos by his father, Van Edwards, underscore the themes and attitude: the book opens with a black and white photo of a man in boxer-briefs with a gun tipped at a phallic angle, and then a coiled snake on the road, shot in dry, pebbled precision. Elsewhere Van represents a sculptural nest of Greco-Roman figures grabbing one another, and Joshua’s speaker tells us, “On my second day, eating chicken carcass, I feel like a man.” When Joshua refers to the species, it is “mankind.” If you feel you belong more properly to “humankind”, you might have to set aside some frustration, but it is worth it to appreciate the blunt to cruel clarity of these reflections.

“Mankind” always shows up against an amoral natural backdrop, often the ocean. Water threatens and entices both the poet and the photographer. The opening section title, “Deucalion” invokes powerful water and powerful father-son duos: like Noah, Deucalion, son of Prometheus, saved himself from a flood. Like the epic figures, both Edwards are compelled or impelled to sites where, as Joshua puts it

It’s a nice place to watch

Nature’s indifference
Break like a winter wheel
Against mankind’s talent
For physical withdrawal.

Before this poem, “Seawall,” Van presents first a shot of the ocean at the edge of a storm, and on the verso an image of a curved seawall. This wall’s concrete disconcertingly mimics the wave it should prevent, and the image inverts the normal contrasts in a seascape: the wall is white, the land dark stone. “The ocean cleans the face / Of the old, friendly wall // with bubbles of soft foam,” says Joshua’s speaker in the following poem. But this is not a comforting image: the familiarity arose because the ocean once passed destructively through the place the wall supposedly protects. Both Edwards ask us to stand just on the edge of the sublime that borders on terrifying.

In a video on-line, Joshua tells readers that symbolists, especially Paul Valéry, influenced him, particularly in “Leviathan,” one of my favorite poems. But for the most part, it is unlikely you will find that France or French symbolism to color overtly the book. Instead, this is a profoundly American book, set in Galveston, Texas and usually articulated by a coolheaded rational “I.” Both the lyrics and photos work in clean lines to delineate a particular slice of Americana, in a manner that sometimes echoes Edward Hopper, sometimes Diane Arbus. The photographic and poetic images are in that sense stylized.

Joshua tells us “I know a place beyond style. / Let us call it the self.” But I don’t think we go to that place, though we walk around it. These selves are guarded by walls as carefully—and perhaps futilely – constructed as the sea wall, portentously holding back rather than confessing. Edwards offers conclusions drawn philosophically – such as, “It is time to listen to predecessors” – or sometimes presents “[m]odern parables composed in half-light” or “architectural parables” but rarely gives readers immediate access to emotion. These are lyrics emphasizing the latter part of Wordsworth’s definition: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and the best is composed “by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads).

That said, at the best moments in this book, such as “Leviathan,” that long, deep thought manifests itself as a parable that borders on supernatural revelation rather than philosophical exposition. Here, Joshua departs from realism and enters the surreal, perhaps in the manner of Valéry as he says, but perhaps with an even more mystical sensibility of Hieronymus Bosch or William Blake.

Let me conclude with its representative ending:

Beware. Your time is near.

Someone has learned lessons
You didn’t mean to teach.
A crowd is gathering.
Your skull is their kingdom.


Read “The Translators,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Joshua Edwards

Kascha Semonovitch’s poems have or will appear in Zyzzyva, The Colorado Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, The Crab Creek Review and other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and a doctorate in philosophy from Boston College. She has also co-edited two books of philosophical essays on twentieth century European thought. She lives in Seattle where she writes about art and culture. More from this author →