Poets and Poems: Sam Willetts and “New Light for the Old Dark”

light in dark TSP

Thirty years ago, we went to London for our tenth wedding anniversary. In addition to all the sights, I did manage to make it to Foyle’s Bookstore on Charing Cross Road (although I don’t recall buying anything) and to the book department at Harrod’s (I do remember buying a volume of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

Last month, we spent two weeks in London—our 40th wedding anniversary. And I did manage to find a few books. Well, perhaps more than a few.

This time, I was looking for poets—British poets. And I found them, at the British Library shop (a great shop), at Harrod’s book department (which looked different from what I remembered), and at Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road. London is a big city, and it can still support bookstores, at least on Charing Cross, where you can find Blackwell’s and Foyle’s as well as numerous used bookstores.

I bought poetry collections by two poets I was familiar with—Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes—and several who were new to me. One of those was Sam Willetts, and the volume I bought (at Harrod’s) was New Light for the Old Dark.

Published in 2010, New Light for the Old Dark was nominated for three first volume of poetry awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize. And with good reason.

Born in 1962, Willetts grew up in Oxfordshire. He read English at Oxford, and has been a teacher, journalist and travel writer. His life took a dramatic turn into heroin addiction. He survived the addiction.

These poems are not “I overcame heroin” poems; only a handful actually refer to it. Instead, these are poems about the past and present, how the past is with us always, how it changes who we are. And not only our own pasts but those of our parents and ancestors, as well.

Willetts has a dramatic family history to draw upon. His mother survived the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe in World War II. Many of the poems in the volume track her experiences from Smolensk to the Warsaw ghetto. One poem is about the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals. These poems rooted in his mother’s history are not presented chronologically or even consecutively, emphasizing how the past and memory are not necessarily chronological.

Many of the poems are also intensely personal. I love this beautiful description of love literally awakening in “Faithless”:

At this hour sounds outside are scarce,
so when a motorbike dopplers by
we listen to each other hearing it.

Against your nape my lips move
slow as mountains. I can breathe the past
hours in your hair: they mean our lives.

are changed, both compromised. Read me
my mind, tell me what the new day
has found here in your unmade bedroom

where these sweet light-spectres
and cut ambers swim to the wall
through your dressing-room treasures.

New Light for the Old Dark is at once sobering and sensual, brutal and beautifully understanding. As poet Christian Wiman says, our past exists only in our imagination, but it is nonetheless powerful for that. That power expresses itself in these poems by Willetts—poems that are simultaneously so personal and so universal.

Image by h.hoppdelaney. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and A Light Shining.

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