Shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, New Light for the Old Dark is an unusually late debut, presumably because Sam Willetts (born in 1962) lost 10 years to heroin.
Even more unusually, addiction is not the sole subject of his book, but rather one of several elements – along with the Second World War, his Jewishness and his mother's wartime escape from Poland – that form a loose-leafed autobiography.
The thumbnail sketches of dead junkies and people on the point of departure, visits to cemeteries and snapshots of a cleansed ghetto and Nagasaki the instant before the bomb, make for a haunted atmosphere.
One piece depicts a suicide with that most frivolous of verse forms, the triolet (a favourite of Wendy Cope's). Not in itself amusing, "Thames Triolet" is a taste of Willetts' dark humour but untypical of his writing. He prefers unrhymed, sober-suited free verse which seldom becomes prosy.
For all that, New Light for the Old Dark is not lugubrious, and Willetts' conservative treatment of charged material not only avoids sensationalism but also delivers quietly affecting moments: the poem to his loyal mother, for example, or one of the volume's drug poems, "Digging", which glimpses the wasted years from his girlfriend's perspective: "The waking-up, to all that's lost: her happiness/ her younger years, the child she might have had."
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