On Light & Carbon: Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing
Noel Duffy is a scientist who studied experimental physics at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated with a first in 1992. After a brief period in research he turned to writing and poetry. On Light & Carbon is Duffy’s second collection and follows his confident debut, In the Library of Lost Objects.
This collection continues where Objects left off in deepening the exploration of the relationship between poetry and science. We are assured that the poetry still “strives to make the unexpected connections between the intimate human dramas of everyday life and the grand backdrop and insights that science provides”. These are bold claims.
‘Footprints in Lava’ mysteriously sits outside the main body of the collection and before the title page. The poem is in response to the Laetoli footprints of two early humans discovered in 1978 in volcanic ash in Tanzania, and dated to 3.6 million years ago. Duffy uses the footprints as metaphor for evolution:
They move towards us from nowhere
of our beginnings, to some place dimly stored
within us. Woman. Child. Man. Walking.
Footprints in lava.
‘Earthrise’ signals the start of the collection proper. The soundtrack from 2001 – A Space Odyssey might slowly begin as an imagined accompaniment to the poem. The title was the name given to the photograph of Earth taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission. But it is Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last human to set foot on the moon, who speaks to us: “Blue gravity gone / I hung / weightless”. The central theme of the poem is the isolation that follows after experiencing the extraordinary. The greater the experience, the greater the loneliness: “This is a form / of loneliness / I hadn’t expected, / an isolation / so great that / I will never / escape it”.
What else can you do when you’ve stood on the moon and seen the blue planet as a “marble”? Who would understand? The poem creates a picture of such abstract loneliness that our envy of anything that the astronaut may have seen or achieved is suddenly diminished.
Back down to Earth, the collection explores metaphysics. In ‘On Light & Carbon’ Duffy is “spellbound” by “light trapping the carbon” and discovering the world is made of “stardust, the elements scattered”. This, for the poet, is where the ideas of science begin.
Characters we are introduced to in the collection include chemist Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz , Persian scholar Alhazen, Dutch draper Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton. As these are giants of science begin to populate the poems, we are led to expect the unexpected. ‘The Seeing’ examines Hamilton, considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of the 19th century, and his obsession with writing poetry:
.... Wordsworth stayed once and told
that his writing lacked truth, that he should trust more to
versify with equations instead of words;
Yes, I’m a successful scientist, but I need to be a poet! It’s the question of light and carbon, art and religion, science and the poetry, a question that Duffy seems to challenge himself with throughout the book.
Among the cast of characters, Duffy’s father plays a major role. We first meet him in ‘Photograph’ where Duffy urges his young, childless mother and father on their wedding day to “step into the car and pull away”. As a heartfelt thank you to loving parents who dedicated their lives to bringing up children, Duffy avoids sentimentality but still manages to touch the emotions of this mid-life parent. The next time we meet his father, in ‘Last Days’, the newly-married man has grown old and become ‘Da’, existing on a diet of morphine, jelly and ice-cream: "There lying on the sofa, already asleep – / this last memory of you flaring now in grief".
Unlike ‘Footprints in Lava’, which crouches at the start of the book, hoping to avoid any contact, Duffy advertises the summation with great relish. ‘Fish Ascending’ is presented as a coda in which a fossil is given to him “one Christmas / as a present”. A candle is lit and in the flickering flame:
it had risen again in light instead
of water, an icon of two world systems
reconciled and comprehended
This is a book to savour, and one in which the muscular 2001 Odyssey soundtrack in our minds is slowly replaced with the ethereal imagined sounds of, I would suggest, An Ending (Ascent) by Brian Eno. It’s a collection to enjoy from start to finish, with useful notes at the back that will help you overcome any awkward science bits. The truth is that the poems sing with the pure ideas of a poet who has honed his craft, but still remains full of wonder.
David Coldwell is an artist and writer based in the village of Marsden in West Yorkshire. His poems have featured in a number of print and online journals and poetry anthologies. He is a regular contributor at Marsden’s Write Out Loud open mic nights