Black Sun: An Interview with Toby Martinez de las Rivas

TOBY MARTINEZ DE LAS RIVAS’S debut collection Terror (Faber and Faber, 2014) established him as a poet of “visionary disposition” and great promise — a promise on which he delivers in his forthcoming collection Black Sun, which will be published by Faber and Faber in February 2018. So much flows into Black Sun that it feels like a disservice to summarize it: at its core, it is an intensely personal collection of tightly textured lyric poems on childhood, love, parenthood, faith, and death by a continuous speaker who operates beneath the specter of a black sun, a dark full circle. It is complex in its referents, and, for me, more complex due to its political perspective, which differs from my own. Perhaps it’s best simply to describe how I felt while reading it. I felt I was being lowered into a living memory — a descent that started at midnight, with the fluttering of birds at night, followed by glittering “rain / then aquarelle of morning.” I felt myself “a rose in ether” — a living thing suspended in prayers, frustrations, judgments, sufferings, passions, and echoes of the “murmur from the bar beneath the palms, / the brilliant lamentation of ringtones.”

I wanted to talk to Martinez de las Rivas further about Black Sun, and reached out over email. After growing up in Somerset, southwestern England, and then studying in the Northeast of England — a “wild fucking kingdom” that strongly shaped Terror — the poet now lives in Córdoba, Spain.


LUCY MERCER: It seems to me that there is a kind of apophatic theology in your first collection Terror and your forthcoming Black Sun, a reaching toward the divine through darkness and negation. What are your thoughts on being defined as a “religious poet”? And is there an interwoven apophatic motion going on within your poems, or are the dark centers of these two collections very different?

TOBY MARTINEZ DE LAS RIVAS: I think, perhaps, our sense of the “divine” is found in darkness and negation. Job 10 closes with this:

Are not my days few? Cease then, and let me alone, that I may take comfort a little. Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death. A land of darkness, as darkness itself, and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.

Two things in particular strike me here. One is that the land of the dead is a place “without any order,” which seems to me to be peculiarly relevant to poetry, and the other is “where the light is as darkness,” where one is forced to hold total opposites in a very strange tension. The verse is not saying that there is no light, but that the light is like darkness. That’s weird, no? That very subtle catch. I find that fascinating. There’s no way to unravel it intellectually, but there is an absolute perfection in its composition as an image. A paradox. So yes, I guess I’m as interested in things like physical pain, doubt, and terror as I am in the final images of triumph, love, and salvation. I suppose I always have a sense that nature itself is fallen, and I have always, since my very earliest memories, held a sense of — not guilt — but shame, intense shame, for which I’ve never been able to account adequately. Feeling that, one is led to guilt. From guilt, one is led to the idea of mercy, from mercy to glory, and so on. To me, those are theological and existential ideas, so no, I don’t mind being thought of as a religious poet; that seems pretty wide, being intimately bound up with ideas of the body, justice, pleasure, pain, punishment, redemption, and so on. Perhaps what it really means is that there is some sense of a teleology running through my writing — I wouldn’t deny that.

As to Terror and Black Sun, there are similarities and differences, as you would expect. Black Sun is a sequel to Terror and tries to deal with some of the anxieties that drove the first book, and to provide some resolution; probably unsuccessfully, but that’s fine. It’s also intended to be the middle book of a trilogy, so I’ll have to see where what comes next takes me. But it’s a more mature book formally, politically, and emotionally, more sure of itself — because I’ve grown up a bit, I guess.

These are fascinating delineations, tensions, and crossing-lines within and between the two collections. And your citation from Job reminds me of Sylvia Plath: “Writing breaks open the vaults of the dead and the skies behind which the prophesying angels hide.” Resurrection is a major preoccupation of Black Sun. Could you talk a little about how it en(d)codes the collection? Is it an ordering principle, a form-maker of this chaos of the dead, or something else?

“Delineations, tensions, and crossing-lines” is about where it’s at — the importance of the Resurrection in Black Sun is a mixture of many things. Its roots lie in my childhood, and the twice-weekly pomp of the Catholic mass and benediction through which I sat with a kind of ecstatic longing. I could sketch out for you the interior sense of glory, the light-headedness I felt at the verbal texture of the readings and phrases of the ritual, of the triumph of singing hymns as part of a crowd, of my association between those things and the vivid, subtly ordered wildness of English parkland outside the chapel’s windows. All of those things are visible in Black Sun. But perhaps the best equivalent is that moment in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” when Gerard Manley Hopkins undercuts the entire first two thirds of the poem with “Enough! the Resurrection” and all that follows after. That sense of glory, of a world turned upside down, of authority, strength, triumph, is important to me, and important to Black Sun.

In part, it’s a book that attempts to come to terms with the intense fear of disintegration that drove Terror — the fear of nothingness. There are many poems about the dead or dying, so the idea of the body that suffers is important, as well as the body that might be consoled through care, through physical love — ultimately, through divine love. Other poems are concerned with the larger body of the state, and the importance to me of the coherence of that body, so readers might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican. In a couple of the poems, I came to see the physical body as the incarnation of time itself. That was a powerful idea to me, and the only response I could conjure to the notion of disintegration inherent in that image was the idea of the physical resurrection, and once I saw it, it was hard to turn away from, as nothing else was equal to it in the shape or totality of its consolation. So I guess one could say that I backed myself into a corner, and had to run with it, finally, as none of the other options were very palatable.

This visceral notion of a physical resurrection, one that you cannot look away from, entrances me. It seems part of a vital — sometimes terrible — allure that runs through Black Sun, enfolding things from the natural world in a rich, alluvial language: multitudes of birds in flight or “egrets with thin legs trailing like anchor ropes,” germinating flowers, moving bodies, landscapes. The book feels close to medieval dream poetry, as does perhaps the speaker’s desire for a shared idyll, a kind of commons — an “England.” Is Black Sun a dreamwork? Have your dreams influenced your poetry?

Well, I could certainly say it began with a dream, or a kind of dream, and that was the black sun itself, a motif that crops up several times in the book, both visually and symbolically or allegorically. It appeared in Terror as a practical solution to a structural problem: how to divide the sections of the book. I strongly disliked the ornaments available, and hit on the idea of a black circle, and then more or less forgot about it — consciously, at least. Some time after Terror went to press I was toying around with images and motifs. I sketched a much larger circle into a document and infilled it with black, and I was suddenly aware of it as a presence separate from me; or as the objective expression of something intimately mine. Staring at it, it seemed to stare back at me. I found something terrible about it, about its featureless, even, dense nothingness. But I sensed some kind of glory in it, too. I imagined a world turned upside down, a black sun rising over it. There seemed something of a doorway to it, though whether a doorway that you had to go into or that something would emerge from, I couldn’t say, and still can’t. In some sense, then, the book was a mere adjunct to the symbol, an attempt to elucidate what it meant. And I can only conclude, from the text, that it means many things. In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London, in another it is a far more hopeful symbol: a temporary eclipse before the body is renewed. In another it stands in for time like a fire burning a widening circle through grass, in yet another like the water at the bottom of a well, as a symbol for history. It remains as ambiguous and difficult to me as the day I first looked into it and it looked into me. As you say, there are aspects of it that are both vital and terrible. There’s a Seamus Heaney poem that includes the line “Omnipresent, imperturbable / Is the life that death springs from.” The reverse, of course, is also true. Black Sun, I think, has something to do with that.

As you suggest, there is a certain notion of England that is important, too. Hostile to the metropolis, hostile to a particular kind of urbane sophistication, loyal to a kind of Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise. That very much started in Terror, but I think it’s been intensified by living in Spain (and there are many poems about Spain in the book). In fact, I find myself more or less exiled by Brexit and in a rather odd position by which my children (who live with their Italian mother) are Italian citizens and well settled here. I cannot really risk going back to England and finding myself forever separated from them, neither can they return to England, as their mother is now more or less persona non grata by virtue of her nationality (and doesn’t wish to go, anyway). All of which — as much as I love Spain — has only served to intensify a kind of longing in me for an England that I remember and love intensely, but to which I have no real recourse now. So if that vision is overdone, there are good reasons for it. Perhaps, in that sense, the idea of a physical resurrection is particularly important — the idea of a final settlement, a final restitution, a final having.


Black Sun will be out in February 2018, but for now you can read several poems that feature in the collection online at the Tupelo Quarterly.


Lucy Mercer is a writer who lives in London. She is currently studying for a PhD in “Speculative Emblematics.”