Light assumes shape everywhere; the light of the Age of Enlightenment, the light of the spirit, of ritual or God and of the ordinary windows of home ’glinting like staples’. Yet finally, in ‘Cathedral notes’ near the end of the book, the poet concludes:
But the light of heaven is not bright light. It is the light embedded in things, that makes things as they are, as they will come to be.
‘The City of light’, the first sequence of 13 poems, has two personae. There is ‘you’ and ‘the orphan’ – or is it the lost child in the adult in that guise? This child reappears in poems particularly about the dark. The most powerful example of which is ‘Dark ways’, set under Paris in the catacombs. Children there are making their explorations of adventure and running into skinheads. It makes you scared for the child – scared for the child in a way we all can still be afraid of the dark – of that final dark. And perhaps its underground, crying our ‘pink tears’.
And then, coming with him to the City of Light, there is a ‘she’, the lover of an ethereal sort, one suggesting a companionship, a sexual seductress, yet a companion also of loss. And ‘loss is a good place to start’, he writes.
We cannot know this light unless we know its companion, the dark: ‘It isn’t as you thought it would be. The City of Light is as dark as a grave’ he writes. And it has a river that ‘slices the city in two’ swinging between the living and the dead; the present and the past.
And you worry about the darkness as it swings in and out. In ‘Pigeons’, birds that ‘have crafted the art of waiting… made a profession of the dirt’, know only grey instead of colour. You worry about the insinuation of despair in – ‘you understand the language of pigeons. You know their place’.
In the poem ‘Words’, hinging on language and meaning – life’s meaning – the unanswerable question is clearly posed: ‘Comment ça va? In the city of light, you must find an answer to that.’
And so, the quest.
There is a swaying between the carnal and the ephemeral in The Sunset Assumption. In ‘Body’, making love, ‘everything is dark’, and ‘it’s only the body that holds you’, yet that body is ‘still and cold’ like death. Focus is often on hands: the hands of Botticelli’s Mary in his Annunciation as Gabriel reaches towards her – not touching, as conception will be immaculate –but aching for the open hands, the gift.
Yet in ‘Winter Evening’, the hands of the nuns are open in supplication. They request. They do not offer.
Physical death is the final and obvious end to the body. Death haunts these pages, scurrying out of sight in dreams at times, blood-rich on the guillotine at others. There is the dramatic murder of Marat in the bath by Corday. And the guillotining of Corday, her head ‘like a piece of delicate lace’, ‘her blood still humming its melody of skin’.
Artists are important in The Sunset Assumption as historians of people and of feeling; triggers for poems coupling history and art. Monet is there, as is Rodin, Jacques-Louis David, Botticelli and a doff to Pollack.‘There’s safety in art’, Foulcher writes in the aptly titled ‘Art’. ‘You keep it an arm’s length while you hold it in both hands’.
With the intimate voice of the painter Jacques-Louis David, we enter art through the French Revolution via the confronting poem ‘Belief’. We are struck by the way any belief can justify perspective and action. A powerfully intimate biography of Robespierre then follows – and hence the Revolution – in poems based on the months of the Revolutionary Calendar and tagged titles reflecting the movement of seasons. Here is a complex, dark and forceful unveiling.
A major unifying thread through this book is belief; its murderous results and its astonishing compassion. And so, we come to religion. Or more specifically at first, God.
In the ‘The City of Lights’ sequence, God comes into the lines early. Next after the lovers! Here he is the god of judgement and rejection, standing by the bed and wanting to know about the stains. In Paris, he is everywhere, surrounded by gold and ‘his prettiness draws people in’.
The struggle is on again between institutionalised religion and a true sense of spirit, reminiscent of Foulcher’s wonderful earlier poem, ‘Why I go to church’ in The Honeymoon Snaps (1996), where he senses the divine in a forgetfulness if mind:
Often in the stone-yellow light of a Sunday morning service, I’ll feel something in the congregation’s forgetfulness. something, for a moment, more real than commerce, more physical than a kiss, humming with the echo of stars, the thin ice of galaxies on those nights when everyone else is asleep.
Back into The Sunset Assumption, the poem ‘Soul’ proposes a sense of self-disappointment at his own yielding. Sitting by the Seine in the dark, pulled by the bells of the church, ‘in the end where else do you [does he] go’, but back to the old god with ‘white hair and a white beard, wearing a robe of bloody red’. And, ‘He’s all those things you’ve come to deride’. Yet, still, ‘In the end, everything is a prayer.’