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reviewed on November 30, 2023

A former Fulbright grantee and Stegner Fellow, and current director of Canarium Books, Joshua Edwards occupies a kind of “avant-adjacent” position in the field of contemporary poetry, at home neither in the academic and pop-cultural realm of Official Verse Culture—to borrow Charles Bernstein’s term—nor in the radically experimental hinterlands of conceptual, cross-platform, leftist, and post-Language poetics; one might think of him, perhaps, as what Kimberly Quiogue Andrews calls the “academic avant-garde,” a movement combining the analytic humanities and other forms of scholarship, including literary history and theory, with more or less “conventional” poetic craftsmanship, e.g. left justification, regular stanzaic and syntactic structure, and a general suppression of linguistic and autobiographical histrionics.


Positioned as it is between poetics cultures, and having been published in ultra-small boutique presses, Edwards’s work has received little attention, of late, from the titan-makers of the present-day poetry scene.  Edwards is, though—along with fellow Canarium editor Robyn Schiff and Srikanth Reddy, both at the University of Chicago—part of a distinct movement in contemporary poetry joining post-Romantic European lyricism with a winking and distinctly American irony.  If Louise Glück and disciples like Elisa Gonzalez, Rachel Mannheimer, and Noah Warren constitute a Kunitz-influenced Yale School, Edwards, Schiff, and Reddy, along with a handful of others, make up a Chicago School whose “I” speaker bends autobiography into allegory, often in long-form poems in the vatic mode. “And so,” Edwards writes in that mode, “when I looked to the stars and saw / Only the darkness between them, I knew / That our world’s time in the heavens should end.”


Both The Double Lamp of Solitude and A Monthly Account…, in other words, feature a high-altitude “I” possessed simultaneously of Romantic grandeur and ironic bathos, a Janus-like doubleness which lends these collections, swerving as they do between “high” and “low," a charming evasiveness, like the repartee of first-date banter or the ramifying conversations in a dinner party of six.  “The moon sometimes // seems to be a line break / for a night-walk,” Edwards writes in “The Lamp of the Moon”:


you look comfortably

up at it from a dark

path, and when

your gaze returns


everything is darker.

The world sucks,

so they drink wine

and look at the moon. 

It’s perfectly alone

as it moves the sea.


As they oscillate in pitch, moreover, Edwards’s poems exhibit both a nimbleness in perspective and a conscientiousness in structure, as in the progression in “The Lamp of Intimacy” from nigh-Platonic allegory to radical individualism:


Going the same way

in the course of a good life,

from a place of longing to

love, one draws another

closer. Uneasy laughter at

sentimentality, “It is not


a heart because it beats,

but because of its heat.”

What replaces the embarrassment

of nakedness as the eye

unclouds with time's exposures?

Simplicity? Attention?


A couple carved their names

into a tree, signed documents,

sacrificed similar things with

different outcomes in mind.

Today this is their story.

Tomorrow its meaning


could change. Each displaces

the other. I first saw you

March 16th, 2007, in front

of a bookstore on Bergen

Street in Brooklyn at 7 o'clock.

You wore a long, puffy coat.


Similar in form and style, The Double Lamp of Solitude and A Monthly Account… slightly diverge in subject matter, the former a kind of realist rumination and the latter a more fabular künstlerroman


Opening with a series of gorgeous landscape poems in the tradition of the Romantic walking tour, The Double Lamp of Solitude consists, like Ruskin’s “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” of anecdotal meditations on the physical landscape and its mediation of culture and memory.  If such a path leads Edwards on rare occasions into sentimentality—though I am, admittedly, allergic to the love poem in any form—the collection is characterized throughout by Proustian reverence for the mysteries of place and time, charged with an elegiac wonder at a vanishing world.  “The tenses of verbs worry them,” Edwards laments in “The Lamp of Comfort,” “so they will never use ‘have had,’” eulogizing here the imperiled pleasure of the present-perfect.


In turn, A Monthly Account… develops a more insistent apocalypticism, following the eponymous orphan Agonistes through his artistic development to the point at which he creates an “appalling device in my basement” part avant-garde sculpture and part dirty-bomb.  As an asteroid plummets to earth, Agonistes finds an antidote to his world-weary cynicism in newfound love, Edwards lifting both of those stock tropes into profundity: “‘How are you?’ she asked, but who was I then?”


Across both of these fascinating collections, Edwards looks simultaneously backward to Romantic mysticism and forward to postmodern pessimism, offering an ambitious yet at the same time tender portrait of the interrelation between desire and doom.  That portrait is developed brilliantly midway through A Monthly Account…, where Edwards writes that “[b]ecause we think ourselves too far along / There are things that can no longer be made.”  Cataloging items including "Victorian carriages, Fabergé / Eggs, beauty, [and] verbal prophylactic charms,” Edwards concludes with a line as despairing as it is delightful: “The future has no thought of balustrades.”

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