Decoding the Dark, Catherine FauldsThe bottom two thirds of the jacket is a deep, soft grey. The top section is white, and this holds the title, centred, in thick dark grey letters over two lines. The author's name is in small white lowercase print, centred, in the grey area, just above the middle of the jacket. No images.

Poet’s House Pamphlets, 2020   £6.00

Poetry of extremes

Catherine Faulds’ pamphlet is set in Svalbard, the world’s northern-most permanently inhabited settlement. While staying there in the month of January (with its 24-hour nights), the poet worked in collaboration with visual artist Sarah Davidmann on a mixed media presentation with the theme of darkness.

The poems are united by their unusual location, but show an interesting variety of form and — throughout — a sense of struggle to depict such alien conditions. How do you write about the absence of light? How do you decode the dark? I was reminded of such extreme challenges as the woman who lugged her cello up a mountain and played Bach on the summit.

The poet explores a world of darkness and danger where nothing is sharply defined. We are introduced to the setting gently in ‘landfall’:

we fly through a Rothko dusk
         bands of scarlet/magenta/violet
that merge into dense night

But when we reach ‘decoding the dark 1’, we are pitched into challenging territory where where each stanza bends back on itself and the only verbs are participles.

Throughout the pamphlet, moments of clarity are juxtaposed with incidences of distorted form and syntax. For example, ‘Goat Grass’ reads like a traditional sonnet, although its physical shape blurs the sense of where the ‘turn’ comes.

In ‘decoding the dark 4’, we move from polysyllables of foreboding to monosyllables of basic needs such as ‘love’, ‘heat’ and ‘loo’, and then on into stark gutteral sounds: ‘a an ar ra da’.

‘decoding the dark 5’ re-uses the palindromic form to arrange a verbal sequence that sounds like a prayer, and looks like icicles hanging from the page.

The collection finishes with the interesting ‘pinhole’, where the repetition of ‘now’ suggests a distillation of time into a series of moments. The last stanza leaves it unclear whether any attempt to capture such an inhospitable environment can be termed a success (‘the pictures we find / are white’). And that seems to me just right. This set of poems takes the reader to the extremes of what can be said.

David Lukens