Robin Fulton: Light Years

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“Light Years”

The loneliness of a blue sky is extreme.
There’s no depth on earth like it we could fall down.

What relief, then, when night comes, to see the stars
once more, Aldebaran, Regulus, Deneb

close to hand like marks on my childhood ceiling
measuring how the day’s last paleness took so

long to darken over the line of pine-tops
west of the manse, over the moor

its skein of thready tracks, beyond the moor then
over Kilbrannon Sound, and remote Kintyre.

from Grenzflug, Editions Rugerup, republished in full with the permission of the author

 

The phrase “Light Years” which Robin Fulton Macpherson uses for the title of this poem, sounds, to those unfamiliar with the colloquialisms of science, as if it is about time. Actually it is used in astrophysics and in popular science as a measurement of distance. When the vast expanses of the universe are being considered, the mileage that a certain fleet-of-foot long-distance runner, Light, clocks up in a year becomes a way of imagining, or almost imagining, such huge lengths of space (can anyone really imagine such magnitudes?).

Fulton Macpherson’s poem reflects on those distances but the poem is also about the concept of time folded into that constant. It reflects, too, an understanding of the poetic qualities of the apparently objective, the way that symbolic language is very difficult to elude, even within terms specifically designed for mathematical precision.

Many of Fulton Macpherson’s poems, perhaps most, unfold from a declared observing “I”. Sometimes, as with “Light Years”, the personal is generalised, momentarily transferred to an objective exterior with the assertiveness of a natural law, hence the arresting opening line: “The loneliness of a blue sky is extreme.” This is a transferred epithet: it is of course the poet’s “loneliness” here, not the sky’s, and because RFM has depersonalised the sentence there is also a sense that this might actually be everyone’s sense of loneliness before and beneath and within the awe of blue. With a headlong, appropriately awkward second line, delaying, teetering-style, the verb and preposition to the end, “There is no depth on earth like it we could fall down,” the poet expands on the angst of a clear sky, reversing up with down and challenging the conventional view: after all, for many, the same clear sky, might simply, unproblematically, be beautiful.

Fulton Macpherson’s poems are almost always concerned with solitariness, a quality which surely needs to have known others to be able to talk about itself since it would mean nothing without the knowledge of absence. The others in RFM’s poetry are other apparent solitaries, his minister father, composers such as Shostakovitch and Beethoven (so perhaps artists in general), and, most of all, his past self, or himself, the two near-distinct beings of the poet in the past and the poet of the now. In a parallel doubleness, for decades the poet was “Robin Fulton” but now, in retirement from his teaching career, he has become “Robin Fulton Macpherson”, as if another, equally as essential person, always latent, has finally revealed himself, and the two Robins can now co-exist publicly.

To be solitary, alone, is not necessarily to be lonely. In Fulton Macpherson’s work there is a very special ability to adopt a philosophical lyrical stance, a certain outward stoic serenity even, while bearing witness to what can at times be the inward slow motion of a deep-seated panic attack. Vast expanses – the sky, the sea, or the moor – simultaneously fascinate and terrify. As the poet says in the poem “Rain”, which recounts his youthful ambition to climb Morven in a day: “What stopped me was not the gradient / but the unbearable loneliness / that would crawl in on me from the moors / and would stare at me and not say one word.” (Grenzflug, 136). The personification of the absence of persons is a witty response, even so, to such existential terror.

In “Light Years” Fulton Macpherson again reverses expectations when daylight recedes and the stars begin to appear. They, of course, are far bigger and much further away than the blue light of infant Earth’s atmosphere but the poet instead makes the stars small-scale and homely, paradoxically far nearer than the sky and therefore far more reassuring – “close to hand like marks on my childhood ceiling.” Even here, though, the poetic device is complex, expressing several otherwise irreconcilable ideas at the same time. The reader knows that the poet’s childhood is in fact well beyond reach, as all past events are, and so that ‘close of hand’ is at best meaning in memory only until another sense clarifies – it is that the particular marks on the ceiling were ‘close at hand’ to the young poet not only to the older poet in the act of remembering. There is also the suggestion that these marks, by a trick of light, may themselves have been a way of tracking the coming darkness as light seeped away from the childhood bedroom at dusk, an invention of measurement, the poem seems to hint, by someone used to having time on their own from an early age.

Despite the initial sense that this childhood was as reassuring as Fulton Macpherson’s old friends the stars Aldebaran, Regulus and Deneb, the childhood vignette is presented rather coolly. The child waits, waits, waits for the comfort of nightfall, a series of images which hardly suggests unalloyed happiness in the day. The poem then tracks the disappearing light, naming the places it deserts one by one, a film sequence of silent observation, with the final irony that “remote Kintyre” – in reality, a local place just across a narrow stretch of water – is emotionally further than Aldebaran, which really is light years away. And so “Light Years” concludes another poem by a master witness of the unsettling dizziness of being, responding with simplicity of language and complexity of thought.

– Dr. Richard Price

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