Ever since the publication of his first collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (Picador, 1998), I've been a firm admirer of Paul Farley's poetry. Later books did seem to indicate he might be following the well-trodden path of an ever-increasing enjoyment of erudition. However, his new collection, titled The Dark Film, marks not only a return to form but a raising of the bar, at least to this reviewer's tastes.
So why is The Dark Film such an achievement? Well, first off, it's a reconnection with what made Farley's poetry so outstanding in the first place: a keen awareness of the individual within a wider social history and landscape, a distinctive set of voices, colloquial verbal gymnastics and a playful connection with the reader. Nevertheless, this time Farley manages to go further. This is in no small part thanks to his growing consciousness of his positioning in the canon, of how his work fits with that of his predecessors.
Three examples from The Dark Film will show what I mean. Adults is a good starting point. Its opening lines read as follows:
"I'd look up to them looming on street corners
or down on them at night though my bedroom blinds,
crashing home from the Labour Club, mad drunk..."
Here is a poet who's read Douglas Dunn's Terry Street and is aware of possible comparisons and contrasts. Unlike Dunn's outsider's eye and academic's perspective, Farley is situating himself as one of these people in his childhood. Nevertheless, he's also clear on the dangers of playing up to that role now he's left those surroundings. Big Fish is a superb piece and underlines the point:
"...your birth street greets you with an ambush of smells:
teatimes in doorways where no-one remebers your name."
Farley is also pushing onwards and forging his own vision of Britain, all in the context of other poets from previous generations. One such example is Gas. The first stanza reads as follows:
"Seeing the country from a train
I've grown convinced its gasholders
in fact are used to house the spite
and gloom of post-industrial towns..."
There's an obvious nod towards Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings in the opening line, a knowledge that the remainder of Gas must necesarily evolve in the light of the earlier poem. Farley is recognising the inevitability of those afore-mentioned comparisons and contrasts, and embracing them. This is a different, updated, "post-industrial" view of Britain. In simplistic terms, if Larkin was projecting "love, hate, love" for the country, then Farley's line is more "hate, love, hate".
The Dark Film demonstrates that Paul Farley is coming to terms with his own idiosyncratic capacity for projecting a personal vision of contemporary Britain. It's a terrific book in its own right, but the most exciting part is that the best should be yet to come from him.
The shortlist for the 25th TS Eliot Prize has been announced, and it's heartening to see a book from Nine Arches Press, Jacqueline Saphra's excellent *All ...