Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 29 August 2015

"The Knowledge" by Robert Peake (Nine Arches Press, 2015)

Poems from both sides of the ocean - Magma, Rattle, Poetry Salzburg, etc.

I'm envious of "White Pigeons", the first poem. The birds "are not doves. They do not stand/ for peace". Continuing the description by using negatives, the narrator writes "I do not want to know the physics. I do not want to make a documentary ... I never wished they were more than they were ... I have heard some call all pigeons wingèd rats.// But these were different". So having rejected mistaken identity and some means of investigation, what will the narrator do next? It seems that s/he won't stoop to poeticisms like wingèd. These birds were "bred to home" and the narrator ends by wanting to join them - "Let me/ be a single snowflake in that flurry". In this first poem we already we have implicit statements about the poet's stance re the poetic exploitation of the real world, and perhaps also a hint about a pervasive sense of displacement, of secular spirituality.

In "Nocturne with Writer's Block" the birds are internalized, and again there's a wish to escape selfdom at the end - "Five days, and no letters sent to my other self. ... Let this poem speak back to [the trees]// Let this poem speak to the birds, also,/ nesting in those trees behind my eyes ... The birds will settle for seeds/ on the ground, and I will fall asleep to talk shows.// In my dreams, I am both wind and tree ... Forgive me,/ this nostalgia for my own invented world ... Let the stillness come again, now I am ready / Let the darkness take me down into the well".

It's unclear whether the narrator thinks Writer's Block is a good or bad thing. Does the act of writing falsify? The first section's entitled ‘The Argument’, perhaps hinting at nature vs imagination. The poem with that title is online with audio. It begins with

The bees make a mask, rippling like sauce,
covering the beekeeper’s eyelids. He shaves
them off with a credit card, the stench
of pollen clotting his nostrils, the logic
of terror unable to win its case, though
tiny legs tap their reasons across his pores.

Bees are a popular topic for poets nowadays. The idea of using nature as a mask ("there is a mask of theory over the whole face of nature", wrote Whewell in the 1800s, turning the tables) has potential, but I have trouble with the details here. Even "rippling like sauce" gives me pause. Why was the beekeeper careless, and what's the significance of the credit card (rather than library card, say, or donor card)? And be warned, this isn't the only poem where insects maraud over faces.

This first section has many encounters involving creatures or plants, often in a You/I relationship where the "I" isn't always human (and later, "The rain and I/ leave messages for each other" (p.81)). In "Grass-talkers" there's another plea to avoid symbolism - "Do not ask me to symbolise the one/ you love". Throughout the book several approaches are eschewed like this, only to be picked up later. A multi-aesthetic is at work in several poems. "April" for example begins in almost a Martian School way with "Barmaids pull green spiral taps,/ tippling the bees in swarm/ frothing up a golden head of pollen", but the next line comes from another tradition - "O the youthfulness of arrogance". The final phrase rings the changes with "on goes/ the arms race towards the beating sun".

He often stays on-theme by starting again. e.g. on p.52, each stanza of "Fire" begins with a poem-starting line - "Laughter makes the stars explode", "The sky is blown apart with laughing stars", "Laugh, and the bombs laugh with you". Poems like "Million-Dollar Rain" keeps returning to the title's idea. Emphasising unity, old and new are frequently merged -

We longed for the day when anything would be possible.
The nerve endings open and close like spiked anemones,
tweeting like chicks in a tangled nest, hungry for more.

The grey sponge laps it up like spilled kerosene. We scroll
in our sleep, through hyperlinked dreams, Photoshopped
for effect. Remember. This is what we said we always wanted.

and there's "The drone strike levelled the town/ and then the Vikings moved in" (p.56), etc.

In an interview he says "There definitely seems to be a higher regard for forms - both traditional and experimental - on this side of the pond ... My work has always been grounded in the music of plain speech ... my themes lately have very much been that of an outsider looking in on British landscape and culture". He uses forms in this book. "The Flies" has xaax rhyme-schemed stanzas. "The Hills" is nearly a line-based palindrome. "Canary Wharf" is a sonnet (part of a linked sequence) with some end-rhymes, concluding with more merging of old/new, nature/technology, and imagery/observation - plain, outsider speech

cranes pick the horizon where gulls pocked the sand.
Shoe black, suit cleaners, flower shop for guilt,
security guards aim mops where coffee is split.
From a top-story balcony, an underwriter plans his grave
while admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze

These sonnets are in the final section - "The Smoke". If the first section introduces us to the book's main themes and the second to conflict, this final section, set in London, perhaps depicts a resolution. Yes, it's England, but it's cosmopolitan. There's nature, but it's allowed to be symbolic or allusive. "Tap Water" bring to mind Donne's "The Flea" - "Some part of you is part of me now" though it ends differently, on a London Bridge - "So much water. So many people. We thirst for our selves" (compare Eliot's bridge epiphany - "I had not thought death had undone so many").

"Unidentified Photo on the Internet" puzzles me, and the first line on p.71 "It is twenty-seven against forty-one" is perhaps an allusion I don't get, but in the main the overarching themes mesh well with the local detail. Finally here are two traits that occur in more than one section -

  • Guilt about harming nature
    • "The hand that snaps the twig/ from the branch is my hand", p.35
    • "Forgive me, rose petals, my fingers/ could not resist the habit of plucking", p.80
  • Distrust of Symbol
    • "I never wished they were more than they were", p.13
    • "Do not ask me to symbolise the one/ you love", p.18
    • "glistening, not as a symbol,/ but the simple refraction/ of light", p.81

Both these traits demonstrate a wish to leave things as they are. Paglia wrote that "Beauty is our weapon against Nature". I don't think Peake's so conflicted. Nature, in the form of fate, is something to acquire knowledge of, and acceptance.

Other reviews

  • Abby E. Murray (Fjords)
  • Piotr Florczyk (World Literature Today)
  • Becky Varley-Winter (Sabotage Review) (The book is divided into three sections, each bound by a loose theme. ‘The Argument’ is composed of naturalistic poems depicting the lives of plants and animals, some of them human. ‘Postcards from the War Hospital’ explores places where ancient past and brutal present meet, often focusing on the dangers of greed and human hubris. The third and final chapter, ‘The Smoke’, leads the reader on a formal journey during which the minutiae of everyday life succumb to sweet decay.)
  • Matthew Stewart (the everyday is inextricably interwoven with the abstract ... It’s a wrestling with how we shape our lives and verse once innocence has been forever discarded and suffering embraced)
  • D.A. Prince (London Grip) (The relish in recognising knowledge-as-sin, and how to find the balancing point between opposites: it’s a question underlying many poems in the collection, touched on with a variety of tone and viewpoint. )

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