Simon Barraclough has been, for the past year, Poet in Residence at Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Barraclough remarks that his path there began with a fortuitous reading in 2013, but also long ago as a child looking up at the dark West Yorkshire night sky. His third collection, Sunspots, reflects this deep and pervasive interest in the cosmos, but more specifically, in our very own local star, the Sun itself.
I come to Barraclough’s collection with profound interest in how science and poetry can interact, specifically astronomical and physical science. Barraclough does an excellent job of “circling” the sun in different ways, using each poem as a way of examining some facet, or “Sunspot.” His knowledge of Sun-science comes through in his application of scientific concepts and language, and his poems reveal the nature of the Sun via its interaction with us and with the broader universe. This is a cosmic long view of a book.
The poems are untitled, and each begins with the image of a circle with a round dot in the centre, presumably representing one of the titular “Sunspots.” The engaging first lines assist the lack of titles, with the first in the collection breaking open a scene where “The Sun woke me this morning/ with a swift kick to the door.” However, where poems switch from the Sun’s voice, titles may have provided some useful context.
There is no lack of variety in terms of tone in this collection, which weaves between playful, sardonic, grim, romantic and whimsical. Many poems are written in the Sun’s own voice, like that of a casual, gossiping hairdresser—although deceivingly. The Sun contains multitudes. At times, the voice comes across as feminine, other times masculine, even others as a distant and detached ball of fire.
Interestingly, the Sun also appears as deity, with Barraclough adopting the language of Catholic prayers (such as the Hail Mary format employed in “Hail Etna, full of fire…” and “Salve Regina, Mother of Orbits…”). But perhaps the Sun is less like the oft-silent Virgin Mary and more akin to the ancient gods of pantheism, variable and jealous. The Sun looks upon our lives with disdain (“I pity your brief lives”, p. 29), or mourns its fall from grace as “chief creator who could ripen grapes/ as an afterthought” to “the buoy, the marker/ that indicates the exit from the harbour” (p. 88).
A sense of the vengeful deity emerges where Barraclough paints a surreal landscape of death in the poem on page 40. This catalogue of hellish visions reads as if greatly inspired by Dante’s Inferno. However, here, the Sun has stopped at its zenith and the world is slowly burned away, “void, a famished, loveless coal.” This Boschian catalogue of imagery is revisited in the Sun’s ruthless indictment of humanity’s violence on page 72.
Barraclough very clearly possesses a musical sensibility and deploys a palate of sound-patterning delightful to the ear. Clever wordplay also adds a texture and richness to the collection, as well as playfulness. Allocations of assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, skilfully organized and inverted, appear in a number of poems. One successful example of this is on page 86, where:
are the spin doctors of the universe,
This adeptness with sound patterning and word play can sometimes run off with a poem, where it becomes lost in musical effect and heavily emphasised hard rhyme (such as the poem on page 99): “but soon the field lines/ declined to stay defined and tended to/ incline towards the taut sublime.” More often than not, however, Barraclough’s use of sound enhances his poems rather than overwhelms.
Barraclough most memorably and successfully captures the nature of the Sun in his insightful imagery. Page 78 brings a conversation between mother and her child, who asks what she did “inside the Sun.” The mother replies with a list of charming images, stating that she “oiled the swivel-mounts of sunflower heads”, “pipetted cyanide into apple seeds” and “patented the highlighter pen.”
Not least is this demonstrated than by the final lines of the anaphoric litany that is the collection’s fifth poem:
For she sets herself by the grid of Manhattan.
For she will kill you with the loving of you.
For she can shine.
Miranda Barnes, a poet from the US, is pursuing her PhD at Bath Spa University, where she teaches Creative Writing. Her poetry has appeared in a number of US journals.
Simon Barraclough’s Sunspots is published by Penned in the Margins, 2015.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)