The Dark Film, the fourth collection from the multi-award winning Paul Farley, delves yet deeper into the poet’s fascination with the visual, and explores further a wide array of familiar topics – memory, history, technology, national identity, landscapes. While the mood throughout the book clunks uneasily between the trivial and the serious, the verse nevertheless brings a consistently high poetic energy to the everyday. One of the most successful pieces is the final one in the collection, a lyrical number entitled “The Circuit”:
I want to be laid to rest in a sub-station.
I want the padlocked door I tried for hours
as a bored and disrespectful child to be swung open;
to be placed respectfully next to transformers.
These transformers, he meekly asserts, “will hum to me in the quiet after you’ve gone”. With this poem, The Dark Film ends with a curiously elegiac plea for companionship. To be sure, Farley has always had the canny knack of quietly engaging his reader through a series of counterintuitive strategies, most obviously the direct address to an undefined You. Here we witness a different approach: “I want to lie and abide and bridge the gap / so you might think of me as the days shorten”. Distanced intimacy pushes and pulls the reader into and from the speaker. Darkness and light clash softly together in a somewhat flattened out, digitised take, on Miltonic chaos: “you find you’re sat / in the dark, and rise to put the big light on”. Indeed, Farley is a writer who convincingly embraces multimedia imagery: Google Earth, typewriters, and the cinematic, particularly the eponymous ‘dark film’, pepper his pages. At times, the references feel contrived, but there is a consistent and authentic interest at work in the imaginative process here: “When I typed in ‘Everything is happening all at once’ / some saw a kind of rain, a smirr of ideas” (“Digital”). “The Circuit” also invites an obvious contrast with the first text in the collection. ”Forget all of that end-of-the-pier / palm-reading stuff”, the speaker growls in “The Power”. The tone is curiously nervous, unclear of the book’s direction; perhaps this is appropriate for the crumbling scene, “like cake icing”.
By way of contrast “The Queen”, one of the most assured items in The Dark Film, bristles with a fine comic touch. Farley dwells in detail on the word “queen”, revelling in its abrading qualities as “something strong and round and made of stone”. Ultimately, though, there is little pay-off and the speaker cuts short with a needlessly, and thereby ineffectively exacerbated, conclusion: “Jesus, I’m the thinking Queen”’ Rather, the poem’s true spirit lies in the concision with which Farley relates the cultural position of the monarch – “We have a Queen. We’re living in a Queendom”. “She is a fifties Queen in black-and-white / moving through the Commonwealth in newsreel […]” “an eighties Queen eclipsed by a princess; / a nineties Queen advised not to lose touch”. She sits at the moral centre and yet shapes the countercultural periphery that retaliates against her. In short, “The Queen”, in many ways a lively poem, stutters. It’s a curiously riveting work though, much like the collection as a whole. The unsettling, nervous charm of The Dark Film marks out Farley as a highly worthy if bold choice for the T. S. Eliot prize.