It is late November and its dark dark dark. Woken in the night by my unsettled children, it is oddly timeless: Either two a.m or six thirty, it doesn’t much matter. In the studio it is dark dark dark and I’m working from just after midday with daylight bulbs, focused in small pools of light, the gloom thickening behind me. Banked clouds sweep in from the sea, engulfing me in sudden drops into darkness and isolating rain. And then they’re gone. And the gloom continues to swill. Outside everything is dying back, collapsing. The birds are leaving. The audio books I’m picking are getting into the spirit of things. I just finished ‘Jamaica inn’, a sort of high gothic pastiche of Wuthering Heights with an emphasis on the spectacular manifestations of Cornish damp. Now its a long piece about Pompei, tracing the lives buried in the thick black lava. You see, my thinking is to Go With It: Embrace the darkness. It felt as though there was a collective national sigh of despair as the endless, beautiful summer finally gave way in early October and in rolled the rain and the wind. We had all, it seemed, forgotten that this is how it is. I resisted and griped, became tired of life, planned moves and then surrendered to the horrible beauty of the onset of winter.
And now that I have wholly embraced it I am letting it press the work in different directions. I am making necklaces in blood reds. I am making pared down cold metal pieces. But most of all I am drawn to really different pieces of poetry than those I usually use. The thing I made this week that I just loved was an absolutely plain bracelet decorated with nothing more than the last four lines of the John Donne poem ‘A Nocturnall upon St. Lucies Day, being the shortest day’ and they read
‘Since shee enjoyes her long nights festival/
let me prepare towards her, and let me call/
this houre her vigil, and her Eve, since this/
Both the yeares, and the days deep midnight is’
It’s just so gorgeous. The poem I mean. The opening line is the same refrain ‘ Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes’. I want to put it on everything I make because it is so beautiful and in my head always at the moment, making perfect sense of this time. But here’s the conundrum: Darkness and winter are traditionally the symbol of death and loss in the poetic landscape, presumably because they ARE the time of death and the aging of the cycle of the year, the time of literal loss of light and everything that represents to us.
Earlier in the poem is a description of the time of year as ‘whither, as to the beds feet, life has shrunke/dead and enterr’d’...and the subject/author is ‘re-begot’ of ‘Absence, darknesse, death; things which are not’. Its a beautiful line, perfectly summarising the winter/darkness as the state of ’not’ The ‘nocturanall’ is in effect a suicide note, a lament that the protagonist will not be ‘at the next world, that is, at the next Spring; For I am every dead thing’. The darkest day of the year is the darkest day of the year and these concepts are conjoined.
Several years ago at a tradeshow I took a large order from the National Trust. Scrawled across the top of the invoice was a request for ‘NO NEGATIVE POETRY’. Their concern had arisen from a very jaunty bright blue necklace which was an optimum midsummer piece embedded with sweet, floating tiny white flowers. AND the opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’:
‘Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn...’
So, yes, it was quite funny. And I have no idea what I was thinking making the piece. But it does raise the question of just what constitutes negative poetry, and is it really unacceptable to use it? Is musing on the end of days necessarily negative, or part of our life, and valid particularly at a point in the year that promotes it? Can ‘darkness’ be beautiful also?
A favourite fragment of mine actually IS: ‘ The Dark- felt beautiful’...from Emily Dickinson poem #593: ‘I think I was enchanted/ When first a sombre Girl-/I read that foreign lady/The Dark-felt beautiful’ .ED it seems, positively embraces the darkness. Other fragments about darkness and winter, such as the closing lines of Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ (‘Or if the secret ministry of frost/Shall hang them up in silent icicles/quietly shining to the quiet moon)are also ‘positive’...here in a deep winter midnight, he is wishing for the infant beside him that ... 'all seasons shall be sweet to thee..’. Others are perfectly innocuous if taken out of context and used purely in terms of the beautiful images they evoke, like this from Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘ yet from these flames/No light, but rather darkness visible’. When I first read this line it gave me such a clear visual of the darkness as definition I was keen to use it until I hesitated because of the context of ‘the dismal situation, waste and wilde’ that surrounds its line in the ‘fallen angels’ section.
Most however, or the ones that I’ve been recently drawn to, are firmly in the potentially seen as ‘negative’ camp. November is the month of everything dying off, and the truth is, I need to spend time in this strange place of insular darkness. After a summer of hot white light and openness I need this closing in of perspective, this collapse into the shapeless gloom. We work too hard to jolly it all up. Thick coats, bright lights, too much music. I say pause in the dark awhile, in the rain. We live in a death denying culture in perpetual freak out about aging. I say enjoy the rotting plants and the shapes they make against a cold sky. This isn’t negative, it just is. The winter sky is also by far the most beautiful sky of the year and I love the low sun in my eyes, changing the shapes of everything. The darkness and dying back is also a counterpoint against which the spring will be a beautiful explosion of softness, light and scent. But in the meantime ‘this the yeare’s deep midnight is’ and I will let it lend a little darkness to my work.