“the lines of our lives connected…”

On Light & Carbon, Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing, £8.99
reviewed by Emma Lee

noel duffy light carbon

Noel Duffy is clearly interested in science as the title, On Light and Carbon, suggests and poems within draw on scientific subjects, e.g. the big bang, the second law of thermodynamics. Here he discusses ‘Harmonic Resonance’ (the subject is the poem’s title) where a professor has set two pendulums in motion, each following the motion of a sine wave,

chasing the other and sliding gradually closer
as their frequencies moved towards harmonic
resonance, till both waves finally rested upon the other
and the pendulums swung in elegant unison,
a single pure note witnessed, though silent.

Yet, such abstract demonstration in a lecture
theatre, he explained, had meaning beyond
its hallowed walls, this knowledge enough
to stop an army marching as it crossed a bridge
for fear their heavy, unified bootsteps
might hit the structure’s hidden timbre
and the edifice would collapse beneath them
in a tangle of masonry and falling girders.
And so such soldiers were instructed
to walk at ease as they crossed its breadth,
their casual steps a brief respite from
the monotony of obedience and order.

This leads into the final stanza where a friend’s father, who served in the armed forces, would produce a tuning fork of unspecified pitch and let it sound before sitting down at a piano to play a sonata (presumably pitch and note perfect).

Noel Duffy doesn’t confine himself to only writing about science. In a sequence, ‘Timepieces’ he draws on his father’s relationship with his best friend identified as PJ, a friendship that survives divorce and an antipodean move. PJ is an artist. The poet goes with his father to an exhibition, after which PJ presents them with one of the paintings,

It was a small, mounted canvas
of a dark red sky, thickly layered

in daubed brushstrokes, the jet-black
tangle of a tree’s branches falling

across the thick light of the background
and drawing the eye to the right where

the sun hung low, its form not reassuring
or soft, but dense as a blood-red shield.

My dad put it up on the living room wall,
proud to have a piece of his great friend’s art.

He told me that such things mattered
and would endure.

It still hangs there now.

The thick red paint and leafless tree suggests the painter’s mood. The implication is that the painting is not likeable. It’s the act of loyalty in displaying the picture that is important. The last line is given poignancy because readers already know the father has passed on, survived by PJ. However, I found the poem’s rhythm prosaic and couldn’t see that setting it out in couplets added anything that wasn’t achieved in writing it as two paragraphs of a prose poem.

The poet’s mother was a seamstress, making dresses from patterns, although he didn’t like watching her at the sewing machine with its thick needle working so close to her fingers. In ‘The Pattern’,

Tonight I sit at another machine

and try and weave a pattern for you, Mother,
these lines like those pieces of cloth laid out
and marked, then brought together
with the same patience and care (I hope)
as the dresses you made in this house;
to make a gown for you of words

that you may wear some cold winter
evening when your work is done
and the sewing machine stilled – that
we may know each other
through such patterns made, the lines
of our lives connected like fine thread

and cloth, brought together finally
after years grown apart, and the shared
understanding of our chosen craft.

There’s a tenderness here and a reaching out to try and find common ground, despite mutual bafflement at one another’s chosen craft.

‘On Light and Carbon’ is a collection of quiet, considered poems which explore both personal and scientific themes and which are very similar in tone and rhythm.

Emma Lee

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