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Guest Review: O'Hanlon On Farley

Abigail O'Hanlon reviews
The Dark Film
by Paul Farley

‘I will not write nostalgic poems’, Farley insists in ‘A Thousand Lines’ from his newest collection, The Dark Film. ‘I will put these things out of mind.’ Yet nostalgia is presented as a recurring theme in this surprising and thought-provoking work. It is especially prominent in poems like ‘Nostalgie Concrete’, or ‘The Milk Nostalgia Industries’, where the industry of the title is ‘trading in covert nostalgia […] it’s more than milk delivery’ – milk being used as a symbol of reminiscence. After all, what more could you ask for from something that you can associate with ‘Jane Austen sitting on a milking stool/with a natty teat technique; that and a pail/each jet rings into, soft lit, in an English field.’?

Farley also uses nostalgia in other poems – ‘like returning to a natal pool/after years of doing business in great waters’ (‘Big Fish’), juxtaposition of old and new feature frequently in the collection. Titles such as ‘Adults’ and ‘The New Babies’ are set next to each other, or the opposition surfaces within the poems themselves: ‘we envied those who’d fuss/over the Ancient World […] while we slaved on the Western Front’ (‘Ink’). He also considers history and the passing of time, notably in ‘Creep’ (‘we feel the shock/of time in time) or ‘Pop’, a lament on the tendency of history to homogenise:

and the Mod and the Rocker
will slowly converge
in the fullness of time

to a mixture, an aggregate
post-war character

Beneath these overt themes, however, there is a more basic idea which Farley explores: differing perspective and perception, especially from within. Indeed, many of the poems in this collection feel not so much epic as personal – though not necessarily intimate. This is reflected in his style, which is accessible, bordering on conversational at times, and not without licks of humour – take the last lines of ‘Force Field’ or ‘The Queen for example: ‘Imagine waking up […] and realising, Jesus, I’m the fucking Queen!’.

There is occasionally a danger of his tone becoming too plain – ‘Google Earth’, for example, has some remarkable imagery (‘eyeballs might block the sun’) but is marred by dull repetition in its opening stanza. However, Farley’s strength as a poet, in this collection at least, lies in his ability to present his ideas and imagery in smart ways – perhaps appropriate given that this is an exploration of perception – whether in passing lines ‘a note so low it turned your bones/to milk’ (‘The Airbrake people’) or within a poem as a whole, as in the heart motif in ‘Outside Cow Ark’, a comment on nature’s transience.

The opening poem of the collection, ‘The Power’, acts as an introduction to the rest of the collection’s narrative – in that it is here, more than any other poem, that Farley challenges the reader to engage with the power of imaginative thought (‘picture a seaside town in your head…’), a concept which he then develops into exploring the ability to see our own world differently.

The concept is further highlighted in ‘Quality Street’, which takes an apparently banal activity – peering through sweet wrappers – and transforms it into a way of reshaping reality: ‘you took us out of time and gave us the power/to hype the moment…’ the poem is a striking example of his ability to take the everyday and make it extraordinary:

Adding a yellow wrapper to
the sheet of blue
creates a green which covers everything,

a thousand years of growth at once

‘The Dark Film’, as the collection’s central poem, presents the main theme of perception – and argues that things hidden can be brought to light ‘if looked at long enough’. This poem is about image, and Farley uses imagery well; the vision of ‘An eyelash […] four foot long, electrified’ is likely to stay with the reader after the poem is finished.

Farley is able to switch between the languid half-rhymes in the opening (‘The dark film goes on general release./Floodlights rake the low cloud base’) to the harsher, stuttering consonance as the audience’s confusion develops –

We wonder where the film was shot:
the Night Mail stopped, or Empire State
caught midway through a power cut

So he knows how to use sound to reflect mood – but he also knows how to use language to evoke the senses. The final two stanzas of the poem describe the film coming to an end: to say it ‘crackles like a bonfire’ may seem obvious at first, but when taken in context, it gives a strong sense of old-style film reel flapping its last, complete with the haunting afterimage of faces.

The poems in this collection may not profoundly move or resonate with the reader on an emotional level, excepting the sentimentalism of reminiscence, but this isn’t Farley’s aim here: the collection as a whole is reaching out to the reader not emotionally, but intellectually. The Dark Film explores its subject matter in an imaginative way – perhaps not fully (after all, there’s only so much you can fit into one coherent collection), but what it does instead is provide the reader with enough intrigue to challenge their own way of looking at the world.

Abigail O'Hanlon is a third year BA student in English and Creative Writing at Kingston University; and a poet.
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