Near Calvary – Selected Poems 1959 – 1970
The Many Press ISBN 0 907326 20 X
Nicholas Lafitte committed suicide at 27 after a long battle with schizophrenia. Arguably this highly gifted poet threw away, along with his life, a greater literary legacy. It’s probably best however to refrain from such speculations and resist the temptation to billet Lafitte with the likes of Douglas, Keyes et al. Anyhow, he did live and write for at least three years longer.
Lafitte is more of an obsessional than confessional poet; more a Plath than a Lowell, with the odd lyrical smatter of Lorca. His poetry swings between polarities of stark intellectualism and morbid religiosity reminiscent of the ‘mania’ of Christopher Smart (the title ‘The Madman Compares God To
A Great Light’ says it all). It would be shallow to put this down to schizophrenia; there’s evidence of deep ontological concerns which are perfectly rational, if a little obsessive.
Lafitte’s style can be stream-of-consciousness: ‘It is the leopard-coloured sand/You see, supine beneath these, ultimate/Fins of the sea-scales I lie/On the sea’s edge, a heavy sand to be squeezed/As who would squeeze a flannel with my one/Eye against the sun I see the sheer/Rock
face soars up unperspective-/Wise to where trees shatter the sky’ (‘This, Is The Sea’).
It can be casual and direct like the Roman love poets: ‘Love is not loving or being good or kind,/is rather a sort of shared disturbance/in the emptiness, ripple in a pool of /bleakness. To say I love you as you once said/to me does not demand a gesture like, say,/a valentine or kiss. Love is’.
It can be supremely descriptive: ‘the damson twilight, half creamed clouds/Of smoke hung like laundered sheets from the beamed/Roof tree’ (‘Evening Over Malta’); ‘the trees scorched ochre, chrome yellow’ (‘And the blue grass taut and dry’). It can be succinct and evocative: ‘men,/with freckled hands sip beer in silence’ (‘To A Sicillian Prostitute’).
Typically of many mentally afflicted poets, Lafitte invests a neurotic animism in the anxiety-free natural world: ‘The old wasp/Sun stings the window pane’ (‘To A Sicillian Prostitute’); ‘the January sun/Must always dwarf the summer, see/How it stretches skies across the city’s black!’ (‘Poem For Robert’); where the evening is a yellow glass,/And battered crows comment scornfully’ (‘Seven Last Words’); ‘The pathology of autumn synchronises/ Breakdowns with the falling of the leaves./A neurotic sun travels round the sky’s rim’ (‘In The Clinic’); ‘Climate is mortality’ (‘Calvin’s God’).
Some phrases of Lafitte’s read like sections of Van Gogh’s paintings: ‘knives of rain’; or Max Beckmann’s: ‘oiled existence skins’.
‘In The Clinic’ is the accessible mental illness piece which had to be written, but still surprises metaphorically: ‘November is/The staff nurse with the clinical smile’. It includes the motif of the head as a helmet which crops up sporadically throughout the collection: ‘Schizophrenia’s/Worse, that’s when you wear a balaclava/Helmet in the summer’.
Lafitte’s introspection is limitless: ‘I am no macro-lover,/nor even very nice’ (‘If There’s God Above The Blood-Bathed Heavens’). It verges on the solipsistic: ‘I AM MY WORLD’ (‘Homage To Wallace Stevens’).
Lafitte is gripped in a morbid theology, a faithless faith blighted by a questioning intellect: ‘There is no final metaphor. Only this,/Inevitable, fidget with the images. Canterbury carried by anthropomorphic/Frenzy demands male ministers’. At the end of this piece Lafitte, as if exhausted with trying to sum up the ‘sensed otherness’ of spirituality, sighs a final metaphor: ‘men fumbling with matches in the night’ (‘Thoughts At Night’).
Some parts of this collection read like a philosophical self-help pamphlet getting in a bit of a tangle. Lafitte is a soldier of doubt who comes through the smoke of the battlefield in spite of himself, in spite of his final act. His mastery of poetic styles is breathtaking as is his descriptive inventiveness. He is only let down by occasional over-theologizing.
So is Lafitte’s philosophical epitaph to be: ‘My god has gone; we are all/alone now, each in our desperate bed’ (‘Letter from Mwanza’)? Powerfully typical of this poet’s gifted pessimism, but I prefer: ‘Yet shall/My love endure the summer of my strength’ (‘Seven Last Words’).
Originally published as 'No Macro Lover' in Poetry Express 19 © 2004