A perfect light

Robert Flaherty filming Nanook of the North
Robert Flaherty filming Nanook of the North

The relief to be out of the sun,
To have come north once more
To my islands of dark ore
Where winter is so long
Only a little light
Gets through, and that perfect.

I think this is my favourite film poem. It’s not immediately obvious that it is about film; for that you need its title and subtitle: “Epitaph for Robert Flaherty (after reading The Innocent Eye, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, in Montreal, Canada)”. It was written by the Irish poet Derek Mahon and first published in 1968 in his collection Night-Crossing (the long subtitle appeared later). It is the last two lines that are so acute: “Only a little light/Gets through, and that perfect”. Is there a better, more poetically concise summation of photographic art?

Though the poem is called an epitaph, it gives the impression of being the thoughts of Robert Flaherty, while at the same time Derek Mahon himself. The location is similarly ambiguous. Mahon references Canada in the subtitle, and with the mention of the north, “dark ore” and the long winter it seems he is thinking of the Arctic wastes where Flaherty first filmed in 1913 (on the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay). Although Flaherty had gone out the as a prospector (for iron ore) he became fascinated by the Inuit people and was encouraged to operate a motion picture camera by the railroad entrepreneur William Mackenzie who had sponsored the prospecting work. He was dissatisfied with the results (and lost much of what he had filmed in a fire) and returned in 1920 to northern Quebec to film what became Nanook of the North (1922), a study of the lives of the Inuit and the founding statement of the art of documentary.

But Mahon the Irishman and Flaherty the Irish-American are just as much thinking of Aran, the island location of Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, Man of Aran (a sound film, but one that was shot silent). The Aran Islands, in Galway Bay, contain no dark ore, but Mahon is thinking of that deep vein of timeless culture (or an idea of that culture) that has drawn so many artists, Flaherty among them. His film notoriously documents a romantic idea of Aran, with the islanders being encouraged to recreate cultural practics (such as the shark hunt) which they had not followed for decades. For Flaherty, literal truth is less important than elemental truth.

Man of Aran, from moma.org
Man of Aran, from moma.org

So, is the island of the poem in Hudson Bay or Galway Bay? The volume in which ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’ appears, Night-Crossing contains a second poem, ‘Recalling Aran’, while the two poems are book-ended by ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April on Toronto Island’, showing how the poet has purposefully mixed up thoughts of home and abroad. But the poem is an epitaph, and consequently about death (“out of the sun”), the island therefore being not so much an actual place as an idea of death as Ultima Thule – “death as the terminal island … with the island as ultimate art” (as Edna Longley describes it), the place at the edge of the world (to give the title of another film made about remote lives).

The dilemma for the ethnographic filmmaker has always been that the camera they take with them – the symbol of modern civilization – helps bring about the destruction of that which it seeks to record (“Each man kills the thing he loves”, as another Irishman put it). Flaherty’s solution was to record the dream rather than the actuality – the idea of a pure, remote culture, rather than the compromised reality. He filmed with a poet’s eye. Derek Mahon responds with a poet’s appreciation of the filmmaker’s quest, equating the escape from the remorseless advance of the modern with the capture, out of the dark, of that elusive, perfect light.

Trailer for A Boatload of Wild Irishmen

Robert Flaherty is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, directed by Mac Dara O’Curraidhin and written by Brian Winston. I ‘ve not seen it yet and don’t know if it will get shown beyond the festival circuit, but the trailer certainly whets the appetite, both to see the films again (Louisiana Story – such a beautiful film) and to learn more about a filmmaker whose vision is still so inspirational for anyone seeking out the dark ore of why it is we want to film the world at all.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s classic biography of Flaherty, The Innocent Eye is available on the Internet Archive. Nanook of the North is available on DVD from Criterion. Man of Aran is not currently available on DVD, but used copies can be easily found. Derek Mahon’s Night-Crossings is out of print, but ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’, ‘Recalling Aran’ (later retitled as ‘Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge, Massachusetts’), ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April in Toronto Island’ can all be found in his Collected Poems.

Note: Originally published on The Bioscope 1 December 2010, and reproduced here with some small emendations.

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