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Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast

There was always something cringeworthy about family snaps. As Philip Larkin says in Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album ‘But o, photography! as no art is, / Faithful and disappointing! that records / Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds’. Larkin’s not quite got it. Yes, the camera recorded the dull day as dull but, unaccustomed as we were to that camera, the rictus of the smiles and the awkwardnesses of our bodies were created, and not simply recorded, by it. I’ve never actually seen the photo but my brother has described a piece of war zone photojournalism in which a mother carries the body of her child across a bullet-pinged street. She spots the camera and, instinctively, flashes Larkin’s hold-it smile.

Photographers like Nan Goldin changed the way that the establishment thought about photography. She obsessively documents her friends using available light and basic flash, achieving deceptively candid results. Viewed singly, some of these images might be dismissed as snaps but, viewed cumulatively, they speak lyrically about life and loss.

Things are changing: social networking is turning the world into a community of Nan Goldins. Our phones are always to hand. We are always being photographed. We are uninhibited like no generation before us. A meagre selection of awkward poses and nasty knitwear is redolent of the 70s and 80s but an overwhelming stream of photography changes the relationship between the subject and the camera. We have never been photographed more candidly. The results, viewed en masse in a slide show or a timeline, are profound meditations on our vanity, mortality and capacity to love.

Sam Willetts’ New Light for the Old Dark is a meditation on the Jewish experience of the holocaust, his parents, his childhood, his heroin addiction and his life lived clean. Like Goldin and the social network’s timeline, there is an obsessive quality here, one that gains its power through repetition. The holocaust sits like a grey layer of ash in the soil beneath its foundations. In SMALL GIRL IN A CROWD, Willetts imagines his mother as she ‘hopscotches / from cobble to kerb in time with the links-rechts / crunch’. The poem initially presents the resilience of childhood and the child’s capacity to adapt: the forced march has been turned into a game. However, Willetts’ mastery of appropriate detail conveys his grandmother’s transmission of fear as she ‘yanks her back by the hand, so hard / the wedding ring pinches’.

Guilt casts a long shadow over the collection. In ON THE SMOLENSK ROAD, that same mother’s protective grasp transforms her daughter into an animal fighting to survive, as she believes that her mother’s floral dress will pick them out as targets for the Stuka‘s attack. The collection is effectively composed, and these poems are in ironic dialogue with one another. Willetts’ photo stream is unflinching and wide in scope.

This past is in collision with the speaker’s life. Even in the paradise of rural Oxfordshire ‘beside boyish reaches of the Thames’, there is a desire to escape when there should only be a delight in dens and rafts. The speaker can hear the railway from bed. ‘At night, I knew the lines shone / like a river of rails under the sidings-lights / as the wake of a train broke gently / through my bed; by day, the sleepers / were steps laid flat to their vanishing point, / each track a ladder back A for Away‘. In the context of the other poems, it is hard to keep the rail entrance to Birkenau Gate from mind. The ease with which this river of rail gently flows endows it with a supernatural quality. This historical shadow may well contextualise the grotesque play on Seamus Heaney‘s Digging in DIGGING, Willetts’ account of struggles with addiction. ‘I’m back in the basement, / heartsick, digging for a vein in February // as in a February gone and a February / still to come, / spitting prayers through the tourniquet // between my teeth, licking up tears and pleading / for my blood to plume up in the barrel, please // blossom up, squid-ink, blood-anemone’. Time is reduced to a meaningless set of words and the only beauty and meaning is in forgetting and self-destruction.

As the collection concludes, beauty and fresh air finally break through. In GARDEN, the reader is exhorted to ‘Look to your life’ and in A REDBREAST FLEW INTO THE KITCHEN, Willetts’s Ode to a Nightingale or The Darkling Thrush, the bird ‘Clattered // at no windows, just paused there, bold as truth / and looked at me – looked, looked – for a few breaths / and flew clean out again. I sat electrified, heart / banging, nearly laughing at such a plain visitation’. The everyday language, diction and repetition all try to underplay this epiphany but the collection suggests that connection is the key, whether it be through his grandmother’s hand, the sweaty adhesive of a lover’s skin or through nature itself.

Buy New Light for the Old Dark from Jonathan Cape