Launch of John Foulcher’s ‘The Sunset Assumption’

By | 8 August 2012

Later in the book the vast space of Notre Dame is invoked, and the real question pegs itself cleanly to ‘The Sunset Assumption’ (the long, stunning title poem).

Here, ‘absence is presence’ attempting to capture spiritual essence, the moment of human/spirit connection and to ‘leave in a blessing of light’. Yet this practice, these walls, limit that possibility, while outside

On the sunny side
of worship,
no-one is particular 
about all the things you should think 
or where a dream should go.

So what is the sunset assumption? Sunset – the final moments of light for the day, but cyclical, rising again the next. Assumption – meaning both something we take for granted and the religious meaning of transformation without death (as Mary rose into heaven). The former is our assumption of time; that our own personal histories are larger than life and have meaning beyond ourselves.

The lesson of Brother Luc – one of seven Algerian monks who refused to leave Muslim villagers and was murdered by terrorists – is that time is short:

... the brothers know
their separate lives amount to weeks or days;
Brother Luc is little more than seconds in the wind.

It is at Notre Dame where we learn that ‘everything runs into air’, and as the sun sets in Fitzroy Gardens back ‘home’ in the final poem, ‘Nothing, other than the world, goes on’.

Is spirit then too an assumption? Perhaps that latter definition holds. That personal transformation is possible before death, that the heaven we seek is here after all in a City of Light is the fulcrum of this book; its patience of pigeons, its lovers’ breath, its stars rushing to earth, or as in ‘Visit’, in its ‘small moons, loose change. The glow from an open door’.

Robert Gray once wrote of Foulcher’s work that it ‘says that the life of the spirit is a continual beginning’. Something here reminds me of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This book is aural, full of voices, bells and music. It’s visual with paintings, place and architectural landscapes; full of interior spaces – rooms, houses, catacombs, churches, cathedrals. It is tender and loving in the broadest sense of humanity, and full of yearning.

The poetry rides that wonderful, mysterious border between the conscious and the unconscious. That fecund place, somehow at the same time, both familiar and unknown to poets. There is a risk in that place of not finding the poem, of not finding our way. As Foulcher wrote once:

Poetry isn’t an occupation in itself; rather it’s a risk you take in responding to life, and it depends on having a life to lead. And it is risky: you’re never sure what’s going to happen when poetry comes to you …

Writing a poem is like fishing in the dark pool of the subconscious: when there’s a tug on the line, you’re filled with excitement, but the exact shape of the creature you’ll pull in from the murky depths of the mind will only become clear in the act of its capture on the page.’ (‘A word from the poet’ in What on Earth Possessed You. Selected, Halstead Press, 2008)

The poems in this book have captured the vow of marrying the surreal with the solid, and we wander a little uncertain and anxious with the poet through Paris’ churches and back streets, along the river, and through the snapshots of the past, to seek the answer to that question in ‘Cathedral notes’ at Notre Dame: ‘as the centuries pile around / what difference does it make / that anyone raised these stones?’

It is important that the lines in ‘Cathedral notes’ – ‘I’m lost, as I always am’ and ‘we are lost, and almost at rest’ – come near the end of the book. The journey through Paris is not a search that will be finalised. It will not provide answers. It provides pathways, a processes to move forward into an almost-grasped understanding.

What is discarded – old versions of god, religious certainty and dogma, past violence and political surety – leads to what is kept: a faith in the natural world as a beating pulse of meaning; love in its tenderness for things that arise out of the meeting between a natural world and human-made cities; a desire to keep probing the soul and a real power in the way words and art and music can become pure enough to have real meaning in that journey.

Lovely in its poetic balance, The Sunset Assumption is well-crafted with its deep and subtle ‘voice’ and a unique imagination. I fell in love with this book because there is so much questioning and rich beauty within it.

You feel the qualities of the man in the book: his sensitivity to confusion, his understanding of loss and his compulsion towards insight. He embodies the tenderness for the human condition – as ‘Star’ shows:


Midnight, and something has fallen into the grass.
We go out to see what it is:

a little chip of light 
that’s hard for us to look at.

We kneel and shield our eyes,
we think of those paintings of the shepherds

and the glazed angels
who bring such truth, such happiness.

Above, the stars are wrapped around the world.
There are so many of them, 

jostling for space.
In parts of the sky they’re dense, like breath in the cold,

others are off by themselves, 
lifted as gently as debris on that calm, black sea.

When we pick it up, its heat
is a marsupial heat, fleshy and generous.

We take it inside, cradling it
in our arms, hoping the night won’t miss this one small star.
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