The last of the light is not the last of the light by David Calcutt, Fair Acre Press: £9.99
David Calcutt’s first full collection from small, independent press Fair Acre, is pre-occupied with rites of passage, and above all, death, and the transformative power it thrusts upon us. The book opens with a quote from Ovid, ‘Everything changes, nothing dies.’
With an elemental stylistic simplicity of few punctuation-marks and little capitalisation, Calcutt’s work suggests a fabular world beneath everyday surfaces, of mythopoeic themes of nature, change and underworlds; of rites, quests, spells, dreams and incantations. Frequently, one of these facets are expressed in terms of another, as buzzards become, ‘lakota ghost-/dancers in their fringed shirts.’ Egyptian mythology, Troy, Eden, Nirvana, become fabulously interwoven in fluid, transmogrifying, ‘half-waking dreams of water’ as the poet follows his own, ‘dreamland’s crooked backbone.’ There is a reach for transcendence, to get back or crossover, or join with, the lost one, that lies behind much of the poet’s dreamscapes here.
This will to transcendence seems at once to both reside in, and be obscured or ‘cloaked’ by, the natural world. A sequence of six poems, collectively named ‘Tattercoats’, refer to ‘coats’ – of cobwebs, rags, roots, water and stars – and most strikingly for me, ‘nettles’, where the skin, burning from nettle-stings ‘became another animal/it went prowling through the streets/of pain, wherever it trod/there was dereliction./I danced the dance of a man/ in flames.’ In another of the several sequences in this collection, ‘Aten’ (which refers to the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’, where ‘aten’ is the disc of the sun), this balance between the mythic and actual worlds, the grand and eternal and the quotidian and specific, is held with beautiful poise, where:
‘you hang the hook of your gaze
between the horizons,
hold the world stilled,
the motorway embankment,
the leathery trees,
the clockwork heartbeat of the mouse’
Calcutt’s career in radio and theatre drama is evidenced not only in his highly visual writing, but also in his attention to sounds, often playful as well as evocative, as in the poem, ‘Hob Jack.’ A rat in the water, ‘Hair-twitch-nose-tip/an inch above the surface’… ‘blowflies hum/and midges strum/the new dawn’s daystrings.’ Elsewhere, ‘A moorchick clacks among the reeds’, gathering the ‘scattered petals of morning.’ Hob Jack, the rat creature, finds, ‘his joy’s in the frenzy and flood of the kill/and the calm that comes after./Snick snack/the mirror cracks,/a tumble and flurry and someone goes down/to be lost forever.’ There is almost joy in the onomatopoeic language, describing death in the water.
These quotes highlight the strengths of the poems in this book, where the focus is on nature, precisely observed. However, the insistence on death’s presence – even closeness to life – can be overwhelmed on occasion, when the reach for transcendence or ‘meaning’ is stretched into the vague generalities of, ‘I went beyond the edge/of the great emptiness/when I came back/I was someone else,’ or when ‘night opened/its book of wonders,’ or the poet becomes a mouth, ‘in a jungle of beginnings’ or a ‘saint of nowhere.’ To conclude, as in Aten (II), a raptor’s ‘quivering of wingtips/poised at the zenith/on the blade’s tip/before the long slide down,’ with a last-line of ‘the nirvana of drop’ is brave, and whether it wholly works or not may depend on how much you accept, as a reader, the poet’s sense of dual worlds, co-existing, the mundane and the sublime. An end-line that overreaches like this may capsize the rest of the poem if you’re uncomfortable with these flourishes. This occurs again in ‘A pale sun rising’, where the fields, whose ‘edges burn/with a sullen fire/a last flame, the light/of the world.’ The heavy theological influence of this end-line, as if not enough already, is underscored again with a line-space between ‘light’ and ‘of the world’, making it thump with significance.
When the focus is on nature observed, or listened to, there is most success. Without the underlining, nature is animated, as in the poem ‘Dig’, part VIII, when ‘that skylark above the field/is unpicking each stitch of the light/with its voice.’ Or again, in the first section of the same poem, where ‘the broken/bones of words/listening for voices/to come clear of the dirt/speaks a new language/chopped syllables of light.’ There is sombre beauty and meaning here, but it is not given orchestral strings and an extended drum-solo to ensure we listen.
by Ken Evans