Sunday, 19 April 2015

A tussle with understanding, Robert Peake's The Knowledge

An American living near London, Robert Peake writes poetry with transatlantic features, as is shown by the rich texturing of his first full collection, The Knowledge (Nine Arches Press, 2015). However, I'm not going to let this review get bogged down in an excuse for a sterile debate on the stereotypes of what might define British and American poetry. Instead, I’ll focus on doing my utmost to capture the qualities of Peake’s verse.

In his collection, the everyday is inextricably interwoven with the abstract, as in “April”. The poem begins by setting a concrete scene:

“Barmaids pull green spiral taps...”

Nevertheless, a change of gear soon takes place:

“Here is the sallow-green heart of things,
sap coursing through like amphetamine,
the sticky truth, its plausible deniability.”

Peake is launching towards ambitious ideas via an extravagant simile. Few of his contemporaries would dare to plant “deniability” in the midst of a poem that started off with a pint in a pub. Big issues are being met head-on rather than being dealt with obliquely.

In this sense, what is The Knowledge of the collection’s title? Well, it’s not just self awareness in poetic and vital terms. It’s a wrestling with how we shape our lives and verse once innocence has been forever discarded and suffering embraced. Peake channels his implicit (and sometimes explicit) debate through the lens of someone who lives as a foreigner. Among the early poems in the collection, “British Matches” hints at a feeling that Peake will explore in depth as the book goes on. The ending reads as follows:

“in a place that will never be home.”

The Knowledge takes the experience of being an outsider, of living within a community while not belonging, of discovering places with a freshness that lies beyond the reach of locals, and it builds towards a crescendo as the collection progresses, culminating in an excellent final section, “The Smoke”. Of course, this very title is cunning: only a person with local “knowledge” would be aware of London’s nickname and all its resonances and ramifications. In other words, Peake is signposting that he is about to embark on an emotional dissection of the capital city of the U.K. from the perspective of an American who knows it intimately.

Throughout “The Smoke”, British readers are rewarded with a view of London that encourages reassessment. However, there’s also a broader vision at work: the poet’s self-awareness is centred on a tension between the individual and the mass/morass via the portrayal of this city. As such, the final lines of “Clapham Junction” provide us with a terrific scene:

“Crowds weave together, and people disappear.
I step back from the edge, into the slipstream.
The train is gone, the moment past, but still
the ghosts remain, black shadows cast.”

Once more, we can see that one of Peake’s stand-out qualities is his ability to bring his poems to an arresting close, as in the following example from “Tap Water”, which seems to bring together several strands of the collection. There’s meticulous observation from an outsider, all funnelled into a leap that risks all in an intensely specific yet universal tussle with understanding:

“Standing at the railing on Blackfriars Bridge, I lean
into the mud-scented wind like a ship’s figurehead.
So much water. So many people. We thirst for our selves.”

I suggest that you join Robert Peake on his quest. The Knowledge engages. Like all top-notch poetry, it renews its readers.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Tasting Notes at Stanza 2014

Regular readers of Rogue Strands might recall that Tasting Notes was featured at Stanza 2014 as part of an exhibition titled Poem in a Bottle - Poet and winemaker Matthew Stewart's poems uncorked, whereby individual poems from Tasting Notes were available for the taking throughout the festival, straight from otherwise empty wine bottles, in various locations around The Byre Theatre.

Well, Eleanor Livingstone (the director of Stanza) has very kindly forwarded to me a series of photos of the exhibition that were taken during the 2014 festival but only reached her this year. Here's one of them:

There are some lovely artistic touches that have been applied by the photographer, Jacqueline Skelton, and I'm very grateful both to her and to Stanza for permission to publish her work here. It will also be appearing on the wall of my study, that's for sure!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The jolt of recognition

Looking back at when I was first hooked by verse, I remember that one of the main, unexpected attractions were the sudden jolts of recognition that I encountered in certain poems that my teachers offered up. Those jolts were addictive and they still are. They excite me by opening up new trains of thought about my own life, while also consequently signposting poets who are going to stay with me.

Here's an example. I make no bones about featuring Tom Duddy once more, because he's exceptional. Full stop. Here's the opening to his poem "Their Child" from The Hiding Place (Arlen House, 2011):

"It takes me half a second too long
to get their names out, though I knew
who they were the moment they stepped
out of the crowd, hailing me cheerfully..."

This might be unassuming language, but what about that jolt? Can you feel it too?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Needlewriters anthology launch

Tonight sees the launch of the online anthology The Needlewriters Companion and its sister publication, in print, The Needlewriters (Frogmore Press) at The Needlewriters Café in Lewes. Entry is free and there'll be short readings by several of the featured poets such as Liz Bahs, Clare Best, Charlotte Gann, Robin Houghton, Judith Kazantzis, Alice Owens, Jeremy Page, Janet Sutherland, Kay Syrad and Irving Weinman. You can find more details about the event here.

The print version will be available to buy at the reading. After the reading it will be available (post free) from The Frogmore Press (21 Mildmay Road, Lewes BN7 1PJ) and from Skylark Bookshop, The Needlemakers, Lewes at £10. The online version is on The Needlewriters website here.

I wish I could make it along, but at least I have the consolation of having work in both versions of the anthology and the prospect of giving a reading myself at The Needlwriters this coming October. I'm already looking forward to it!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Two new poetry pamphlet publishers

I was delighted to discover not one but two new poetry pamphlet publishers this week!

First off, Sphinx featured an excellent interview with Mike Barlow from Wayleave Press, and you can also visit their website here to get a flavour of what they're producing.

The Next Review, meanwhile, have been one of the most recent exciting additions to the print-based magazine scene in the U.K., and they've just announced the publication of their first batch of chapbooks from Gareth Jones, Don Russ and Jo Robinson, all decked out in their inimitable house style.

I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on pamphlets from both these new ventures.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

An endless struggle with the years, Paul Henry's Boy Running

Some poets seem to shed identities with every publication, but Paul Henry’s individual books lend themselves to being seen as a part of a whole. Each of them engages in a dialogue with its predecessors. In that respect, this review will focus on his new collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015), while also contextualising his recent work in the light of what has come before. In fact, Henry implicitly asks his reader to do so. The notes at the back of Boy Running state that Usk, its opening poem, answers “Sold”, the last poem in Ingrid’s Husband  (Seren, 2007), his previous collection.

Let’s look at how the relationship between these two pieces unfolds, starting with “Sold”. Cards on the table: I’m in love with this poem and have carried it in my head since first reading it several years ago. I’ve long been interested in the dynamic of how a house becomes a home and vice versa, a process which Henry captures exquisitely as his family prepares to move. He ends with questions:

“Shall we stay or leave then, love?
It’s only the years moving inside us
and everything hurts in autumn.
Where shall we put them,
the years, in our new house?
the years we are moving out of?”

“Usk” starts by providing unexpected answers to those questions with a brusque lyricism:

“So we’ve moved out of the years.
I am finally back upstream
and, but for their holiday dreams
on every bookcase, the boys
were never born, it was a dream.
Here is where my past begins…”

As a stand-alone piece, “Usk” is already moving. However, in the context of Henry’s earlier poetry, it’s an emotional earthquake. I’m not just referring to the afore-mentioned link with “Sold”, but with his entire body of work: I know of few poets who are as capable of treasuring and portraying fatherhood as well as Henry, such as in the outstanding poem “The Breath of Sleeping Boys” from Captive Audience (Seren, 1996), yet here we find him stating “the boys were never born”. Furthermore, the sudden shift from first person plural to singular is packed with ramifications that reach out through Boy Running.

The first section in the collection, “Studio Flat”, is explicit in these concerns. Of special interest is Henry’s changing use of the term “the years”. In previous books, it was charged with ambivalence. Now, it’s a torturous reminder of what has been lost, as in the opening verse of “The Bright Room”:

“Every night you turned away,
your back a door closing on me,
untouchable, over and over
on the hinges of four seasons,
your dark door closing on the years…”

The book’s second section, meanwhile, is titled “Kicking the Stone”.  Again, it goes over familiar ground for Henry aficionados with a fresh twist. The Welsh suburbia of Henry’s childhood is beautifully evoked, and we revisit several characters who cropped up in Captive Audience, such as Catrin Sands and Brown Helen, although the poet’s perspective of them is once more shifting from ambivalence to something darker. Yet again, ”The years have/slipped their mooring” and there is the presence of “your teenage ghost.” Henry is finding himself reflected in these very characters who seemed so different from him back in the 1990s.

And so to the third and final section of Boy Running. Titled “Davy Blackrock”, this is perhaps the most wide-reaching part of the book. Davy Blackrock is a modern day alter ego of Dafydd y Garreg Wen, both musicians who dream of a perfect song. Of course, there’s also an extra alter ego to layer in: that of Paul Henry himself.

“Davy Blackrock” interweaves the personal, the pastoral and the urban. Where Henry reduced the space between the poet and the page to a maximum in “Studio Flat”, here he’s stretching it out. One such example can be found in this extract from “Blackrock: the Bedsit Years”:

…”They slipped a silver ring
onto Blackrock’s finger. It shone
when he played to his children,
up and down the neck as he sang
with a black guitar on his knee.
But they hid in his dreams,
the years, biding their time,
the dust on the attic’s L.P’s.

The first child flew, the second.
Come back, carnival years!
If I should lose your love dear…
sings the fire to the wind.
And the lost years are calling,
the mousehole bedsits, the sex.
Inside a stairwell’s vortex
Blackrock is falling, falling…”

Once again, we encounter the guitar of Henry’s earlier books, the children, the ring that branded his finger in a gorgeous piece in “Studio Flat”, all filtered through another character in this instance. Boy Running might seem a disparate book at first reading, but its coherence is deep. Above all, however, Davy Blackrock, Dafydd y Garreg Wen and especially Paul Henry are in an endless struggle with “the years”.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Boy Running. If anything, Henry’s lyricism has been distilled still further by his suffering, and has led to his most ambitious work to date. I very much recommend you get hold of a copy, but why not read The Brittle Sea, New and Selected Poems (Seren, 2010) first, and accompany him from the start of his journey?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Poetry in Düsseldorf

I'll be off to Düsseldorf this weekend for the annual Prowein fair. Viñaoliva will have a stand there and we'll be showing the new vintages of our Zaleo wines. Of course, poetry will be accompanying us in the shape of Tasting Notes, my second HappenStance pamphlet. The aim is to reach a readership that would normally dodge verse at all costs.

Here's a reminder of Tasting Notes, via its film version. Please bear in mind that I'm reliably informed only a few copies are left in stock at HappenStance...

Tasting Notes - a poetry film by Matthew Stewart from Matthew Stewart on Vimeo.