A Light Left On

Written by Brian Meeks for on

Reading Rachel Manley’s new book of poetry A Light Left On is somewhat like entering a large, dimly-lit room from the harsh glare of daylight. At first, nothing is visible. Then, out of the thick shadows emerge familiar objects: a table, chairs, lamps, paintings on the walls. Then, as the eye gradually adjusts to the new situation, you look up, and instead of a low concrete slab roof, there is this huge, vaulted ceiling and in its peak there is a large skylight. If this breathtaking realisation of depth and space is not itself startling, then it becomes so when, our eyes now completely adjusted, we notice outside the skylight, the entire twinkling constellation of the night sky.

I have gone into this rather long and perhaps not wholly appropriate analogy to make the rather simple point that Rachel’s small book of poetry deceives the unaccustomed eye. In the glare of the trilogies and odysseys of some of our more decorated poets laureate its brief fifty-five pages may pale. But it is a gem. A light left on is a work with many facets. It is a poem of ancestors: ‘Listen to The Gate (For E.M.)’

Know, without sorrow,
that the edge of night,
the last line of the page,
only saves the day, 
shelters the story.
Boundaries do not kill,
they just contain. 
Tears you take into the night
will not flow back to me. 
I am here, locked
in the laughter, in the life
of your remembrance;
don’t turn back at the garden gate.
Now they honour you.
As I walk down the path
I remember a life full of stars
and a bright white moon
where we saw ladies dance,
and the solitaire sang so sadly
that the pines wept
and left poems on the ground… 
we’d find them in the morning.
All the way down to the gate
I could hear your footsteps
tracing his, and all the way back
your footsteps alone, picking up courage.
Now I am forty and I think I will
dance right off the edge of the moon.

A Light Left On could only have been written by a woman. It plumbs caverns of the soul which most men fear to travel. It excavates the past like a careful archaeologist, dusting each fragment discovered with a jeweller’s brush. It throws open the doors of a personal world to the public, yet with no fear of exposure, for there is the integrity that there is nothing to hide. A Light Left On is a poem of nostalgia and sadness and at first this is the dominant impression; but as in all dimly lit rooms, there are hidden dimensions: amidst the dim forest of loss and longing, there is celebration and sunlight. For it is also a poem of catharsis and exorcism and a recognition that in the eternal cycle there is always regeneration, birth and blossoming:

Listen to ‘Afternoon’:

I will imagine
as the music plays
a faun
is something far away
that runs beside a stream,
and when the music ends
light sits in the trees
near stream and faun
like old friends.

It is a poem of heroes. Listen to ‘Bob Marley’s Dead (For Drum)’:

I rise beyond
a fantasy
I wake
I break faith
with the white dream

The moon is black
my mother sings with me
Oh Marley’s dead 
and there is prophecy.

It is a poem etched with that epic, blue-green landscape of all our memories. Listen to this, from ‘Regardless II’:

The limbs of the hills
stretch olympic across the sky
the wind is the will
who bends the elbows of trees
beats my soul into peace;

I am here
at the nerve’s edge
where old testaments
roll in like waves 
and break.

But most of all, it is a poem of that eternal search, to understand the changing of seasons, the solidity of friendship, the passage of time and the irony of memory, giving us simultaneously, the smile of pleasure and the anguish of pain. Listen to ‘Forty’ in its totality:

By forty I had lost you 
Sleep had quietly shut the door,
just for a while, I thought,
as though you and Par were resting… 
but this is different.

In the end, Rachel Manley’s A Light Left On opens the door on a personal world. Read it on Sunday afternoon when there is no one to disturb. You may weep; or you may smile; but if you give it half a chance, I assure you it will touch you. And what more can we, the reader ask?

In a warm eyrie
midst the scent of pine
the sculptress looks down
on her finished work
and smiles.