Friday, March 24, 2006

At the Lighthouse - a retrospective

The poem below, At the Lighthouse, was written about six years ago and is about the break-up of a long-term relationship which affected me very deeply. (It wasn't written until about six months after the event, of course, since it's always hard in the immediate aftermath of such things to get them clear enough in your head to make reasonable poetry with them.)

I'm not sure this is a particularly good poem though, but I do think it was a necessary thing for me to write, something which moved me on stylistically as well as emotionally. To explain that remark, I wrote a few more in this vein around that time - half-bitter, half-nostalgic, after-the-break-up retrospectives - then left them behind, hopefully for good. I've never been very good at 'personal' poetry. I prefer to look at larger themes in my poems, to at least touch on the bigger picture where possible, and this constant narrowing things down to personal specifics, to the mundane, seems to give my work a sort of cloyingly 'fashionable' self-awareness which I dislike.

Not that I like an utterly abstract approach either, the cold clear line of some postmodernist poetry, or the deliberate intricacies and complexities and lateral jump cuts of some avant-garde work. I suppose the poems I like best - of my own - tend to be a bit on the simple side. Overly simplistic, some might say. But not this poem, At the Lighthouse; this is more superficial than simple, I think, whilst not wishing to be too harsh on myself, this poem having been written at a time of great personal despair - hard to believe now, on the far side of it - when poems were wrung from me only with immense difficulty. And soon after, indeed, I stopped writing poetry altogether for several years.

For those who might be curious, the poem is set in the South of France, where we used to holiday together most summers. To be even more precise about the location, it's actually the lighthouse above Cap d'Antibes. To get there, you have to navigate these narrow winding dusty lanes, what the French call 'lacets' as I recall, meaning tight bends like shoelaces. And at night, this powerful beam of light sweeps the Cap, crowded with red-roofed private villas and swimming pools, and the glittering bay below. Marvellous when taking an evening swim, to lie back in the black water and wait for that beam to sweep across the Cap. I've actually managed to find a few daytime shots of the lighthouse and views of the bay online, which you can hopefully see by clicking here, if interested.

In spite of my reservations, there are little touches I like in this poem - the opening image of pine trees envisaged as 'bald old men', the atmospheric dust, the quasi-religious overtones long in advance of my own brush with organised boredom, the silver fish of the bay seen from a distance and at height, and lastly - my own twinge of nostalgia, probably only audible to myself - the cigarette, also described in another poem of this period, entitled 'It was cool inside the chapel', as 'your ubiquitous cigarette'. I was a chain-smoker too, don't get me wrong. But cigarettes - and booze, actually - were a major part of that relationship, over eight long destructive years, and since I'm now a smoke-free zone, the mere mention of a cigarette, in the right context, can flash me, both uncomfortably and with affectionate regret, back to that time ...

At the Lighthouse

Its cold steel eye swung
to dust our heads
below the scruffy creak of pines,
bald old men staring
at the black line
of the Mediterranean.
There was always dust there;
dust in our lungs
and in rope sandals.
We climbed the tilting path
to the lighthouse,
glanced in through the porthole
of the chapel.
From the viewing platform
at two francs a time
the bay was no longer
a silver fish
landed on its side.
You moved off into the dark,
the glowing target
of your cigarette
something to lock onto,
burning the retina.
I should have kept you
shadowy, elusive
as those fairy lights heaving
a half-moon bay.
But we had only months
before we fell apart,
swivelling the lens
to face our hinterland,
each trap at last
revealing what it was,
thick swimming dust
fused in the glare
of that cold steel eye.

This poem was first published in Poetry Review.


Mark said...

This is a really beutifull poem, I think you are very brave and to be commended for bearing your soul in such an eloquent way. You conjour up the bay of Antibes in a magical way - I especially like your desciprtion of "the scruffy creak of pines".

Great blog, keep up the good work, I look forward to exploring your work in more detail in the future.



Editor: Jane Holland said...

Thank you, Mark.