Statement of Prejudice: V little. I’ve heard of Farley and been told he’s influenced by MacNeice, but little contact with his work.
Reality: Gosh The Dark Film is a tricky beast to pin down. There’s plenty to like, and I can think of five excellent poems off the top of my head (more later), which in a pleasingly economical 40-poem collection is impressive, but there’s also some ropey/drafty material, and some pieces that are more ambition than execution. Concerning the latter, this blog is often hung up on unambitious poetry, so credit where it’s due for the book’s opening and closing poems, both concerned with the poet’s creative authority and relationship to the reader. Let’s have a closer look.
The first, “The Power”, is one of several pieces that address the reader directly, invoking oneself to action. This is a bit of crit-bait risk-taking in itself, but the poem, inviting as it does the reader to build up and then burn down a mental construction of a seaside town, doesn’t quite pack the punch its argument demands. The intention is grand enough: “Forget all that end-of-the-pier / palm reading stuff” is as much a dismissal of its lofty/airy poetic contemporaries (not entirely ungenerous) as it is the start of the assembly instructions that follow. And Farley does indeed take his own prescription to ‘Start from its salt-wrack rotten smells / and raise the lid of the world to change the light’ in subsequent poems in the collection. So fair play. [coincidentally, fare play is an anagram of Paul Farley, with only a ‘ul’ left over. Ho, hum. – ed]
But the rest of the first section is somewhat more insipid, the ‘brilliant greys of gulls’ and ‘ballrooms to come alive at night’ not peeling sufficiently away from the quotidian to maintain the poem’s unsettling tension. Similarly in the second half, it starts encouragingly (‘the kind of fire that flows along ceilings, / that knows the spectral blues’) and ends weakly (‘pilings / marooned by mindless tides’). As a general rule, poems that focus on the particular instance, the singular detail, are more powerful and suggestive (and fun to play in) than those that don’t. ‘Mindless tides’ has that slightly undirected grasping for significance that makes my skin contract. One mindless tide is plenty. It ends with ‘Now look around your tiny room / and tell me that you haven’t got the power’. I’ll leave that with you a moment.
The final poem, “The Circuit”, neatly completes the book’s loop (natch) by returning to the theme of the reader in communication with the now posthumous poet, wherein we should receive ‘a little shock each time you find you’re sat / in the dark, and rise to put the big light on’, the poet having been inhumed in a power substation of the high fence, gravel and overgrown weed variety. A nice image, but again one that might be accused of overreaching in its insistence on the poet’s transformation (another neat buried pun, I think?) and positioning as literal enlightenment. In any case, the poem is as much about how the poet wants his work to be received as it’s about our reception of it, and just overreaches in the attempt. Heaney and Paterson can get away with this horse-before-cart thing, Farley hasn’t quite got that grade of chop.
Speaking of Paterson (and when am I not), he’s the Picador poetry editor, and by the sounds/words of it his paws are all over this one. Its obsessive retreat into the past and frequent bathetic representations of childhood have loud echoes of Nil-Nil and God’s Gift, and if PF is on the MacNeice highway, he’s come via the Paterson by-pass. After “The Power”, the next five poems are colourful if slightly bite-lacking reminiscences, and it takes a while to get to the juiciest meat. A later poem, “A Thousand Lines”, contains the imperative ‘I will not write nostalgic poems / I will put these things out of mind’, which isn’t quite right either: clearly the past is a deep emotional wellspring for PF, and it would be foolish to expunge it entirely when he draws from it so fruitfully; on the other hand there are as many weak poems on his childhood as there are on the present, and the nostalgic poems are slightly more difficult to excuse.
But there is plenty to admire. “The Circling Stars” is an imaginative and provocative little piece based on and translated from Anglo-Saxon myth; the title poem has a fair claim to the MacNeice estate with its free-associating and nightmarish accelerations; similarly “The Milk Nostalgia Industries”, which not only manages to send up his own bad habits but make something striking and unusually revelatory of his personal history without submitting to sentimentality or self-aggrandisement; “Odometer” is so good Paterson could have written it ten years ago, which still puts him well ahead of the curve: ‘it always ends with a new owner / screwing open the odometer / all keen for winding back the clock / and finding there a folded note / which reads: Oh no. Please. Not again.’; “The Queen” and “The Mind” are fun bits of imaginative work with their metempsychosis, strong finishes and sharp bites.
Probably the poem that sums up the collection is “In the Wind”, which has fewer foreign fingerprints than most in the book, and has a real contemplative power to it, while still managing to be only tantalisingly close to excellence. After a little self-conscious posturing ‘in nineteen eighty-two: ‘Wind them fuckers up’, / he croaked, ‘I’m getting too much oxygen’, he gets to an uncommonly keen point: ‘In my theory of wind / it stills us, or slows us down to thought. / I’ve always admired people who can sleep / in armchairs while a party blows itself out.’
Tl; dr: This is, despite the extensive criticism, a really fine book of poems. It has a clarity of intent and expression that is rare and valuable, a healthy dose of wit and imaginative agility, and if it doesn’t quite live up to its well-acknowledged predecessors, that’s hardly condemnation. The Dark Film, if a little scattershot as a collection of ideas, has more wow-moments per page than any other book in the list bar Olds’, and is well worth the time.