Lacklight by John Clegg
At first we didn’t call the dark ‘the dark’;
we saw it as a kind of ersatz light,
a soupy substitute which shucked the hems
and wrinkles from our objects. That was nice.
And later on we came to love the dark
For what it really was –admired how
(unlike a candle) it could fill a room,
(unlike a torch) it focused everywhere,
(unlike a streetlamp) it undid the moths,
(unlike a porchlight) anywhere was home,
(unlike a star) it couldn’t be our scale.
In utter darkness, we were halfway down.
Then came the age of lacklight, loss of measure,
darkness turned inside to cast a darkness
on itself. Though ‘age’ would make it finite.
Perhaps we’re stuck there, straining in the lacklight.
Still, across the last however long,
I’ve noticed something budding, vaguely sensed
a nerve untie and reconnect itself.
I think my lacklight eye is almost open.
from New Poetries VI© John Clegg
I need to confess that I am little obsessed with this poem. I have been saying it to friends and acquaintances – really anyone who passes through my kitchen long enough to hear it – and enjoying saying it enormously for a while now. This is partly due to the poem’s devilish simplicity. Phrases such as, ‘That was nice,’ and ‘..we came to love the dark’ are disarmingly pleasing to utter, as is the term ‘lacklight’ itself, with its playful echoes of lacklustre and lackadaisical. And yet there is nothing simple at all about this poem, which is why it has me in its grip.
One of its complex aspects is that from the outset we are made complicit with the speaker. The fact that darkness is being rebranded first as ‘ersatz light’, then as the invented term ‘lacklight, in a manner that calls to mind Orwellian doublespeak, is not a state of affairs outside forces have inflicted on us. We chose this. That ‘we’ rings out three times in the first two stanzas and so Clegg embroils us all in the murk, deftly evoking how self-delusion gains collective momentum in a society that’s ‘halfway down’. Clegg establishes a terrifyingly topsy-turvy world in which an Emperor’s New Clothes-like conspiracy exists, one where darkness gains plaudits and light none at all.
And the plaudits are so persuasive! Of course a candle or a torch’s force is only partial, whereas darkness is total. Of course darkness provides universal cover and offers to even out differences in status. It’s startling how the neat syntax and assured repetitions of the bracketed phrases so easily convince us of their authority. We are swept along from the second stanza into the third with a delicious sense of certainty until, abruptly, we are brought up short by: ‘In utter darkness, we were halfway down’, and are floored. What does ‘halfway down’ signify? Inertia? Hell? Moral turpitude? Existential angst? Your guess is as good as mine, but wherever or whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go there.
Except, devastatingly, Clegg’s last two stanzas seem to suggest we already are there. Gone are the oh-so-carefully balanced phrases of earlier. In their place exists only confusion, disruption ‘loss of measure’, conveyed in the horrifying line: ‘darkness turned inside to cast a darkness/on itself.’ The deliberately cumbersome enjambment, the fact that now the ‘we’ has become querulous and questioning, ‘Perhaps we’re stuck there’– all serve to unsettle us deeply.
Is there hope? Maybe a shred. On the one hand, the speaker, by the last stanza is freed from the ‘we’ of earlier verses, which might foreshadow a moment of individual clarity. But just as we contemplate this possibility, Clegg undermines it. For the speaker here seems less clear than ever before. They can’t be definite about time (‘however long’). They can’t be certain about what’s going on with their own body (‘vaguely sensed’). The last line begins not with a confident assertion but a hypothesis (‘I think’) Might the speaker simply be more alone, more self-deluded than ever before? Clegg is, in this ending, masterfully ambiguous, ceding control of the narrative to a body part; the eye. I’m a little squeamish about eyes and never more so than in Clegg’s near-final image, conjured with exquisite economy, which has ‘a nerve untie and reconnect itself’. It is the speaker’s eye, acting semi-independently of its owner, that seems to be adapting to the gloom. There are overtones here of mutation, even of synthetic alteration. The effect is destabilizing. Yet, adaptation and resilience are good things, surely? There’s no neat conclusion here – the poem evades simplistic moralising at all costs, but Clegg’s final line is still indubitably ominous: ‘I think my lacklight eye is almost open’. What will happen when the eye does open? Will the speaker be enlightened or more lost than ever? We don’t know. But the way in which the term ‘lacklight’ has crept into the line itself suggests we should be on our guard.