In consistently even, deeply muted tones, The Silence Teacher is a self-contained world, a series of meditations on the death of the author’s infant son. No poems within escape this shadow, nor try to, and yet there is very little of either self-pity or self-absorption. In fact Peake’s tone is so patient and passive, almost penitential, that when he breaks out into open speech (“Whom have you loved this much?” for instance, in the eerie ‘The Spider’), then that simple rhetorical flush holds an unexpected punch. Perhaps also there is some power in the setting of so many of the poems in the second person, addressed to someone whom we know can never reply. Oddly, however, the real ghost in this book is the child’s mother. She may have asked to be absent, and it’s really none of my business, but as poem after poem slips from ‘I’ to ‘we’, from ‘mine’ to ‘ours’, by the end of the book she had acquired vast phantom status in my mind. It’s an uneasy, affecting and unforgettable collection.
Arthur tells a story too, but in a very different manner. In mock-formal verse it recounts the history of a nobody, coming to life in a small Suffolk village through the WWII years, his marriage to a French refugee, and then her death in an air-raid. It is a beautifully-designed pamphlet of miniature landscapes and wide skies that aims not to outstay its welcome, and succeeds. And yet there is an oddity about it. Telling us that it was commissioned to accompany a film, which we are unlikely to be able to easily find and watch, and featuring mildly-irrelevant period illustrations is annoying. It asks us to take it as something more than it is; I was much happier with it before I read the credits. Still, it is both compressed and compelling: the compression not so much in the poems themselves, but in the gaps between them, as years are skipped across between the close-framed details; and it is those cinematic details that hold you – the image of a little man in his ARP uniform who finds “a dead man propped in a doorway/ the High Street broken apart” who yet just “bends his back to the rubble as the gulls regain their voices.”
With The Flower and the Plough, the design and illustrations take on a more central role, weaving a set of bittersweet poems that might be by themselves at times tender, at others oddly clumsy, into a genuinely beguiling whole; a perfect lover’s gift. I was a little surprised that she opened with the two weakest poems, but they do repay re-reading, and perhaps the book’s strongest point – which it shares in a way with Peake and Figura’s collections – is that it makes no attempt to be part of any poetry world or scene, but stands in engaging isolation, and maybe like the flower of its title, it is steelier than it first appears. ‘The Silence Teacher’ would stand out from any crowd of pamphlets due to its subject matter, but even more because of its approach; ‘The Flower and the Plough’ could well join it, partly because even when paraphrasing Catullus, it is barely trying, certainly not trying too hard, to be poetry. A pair of sparrows who “…fly in the same air, and no one/ can erase the song they share” or “I have felled/ all the trees in my wood/ to keep you going” (from ‘The Bonfire’) are genuinely arresting images, both airy and intimate, and the stripped-back, unfussy language is a real delight.
Geoff Sawers (b.1966) is a poet, historian and lettering artist. He learnt Welsh in the pubs of Swansea and consequently can be understood only by a handful of sympathetic listeners
Part 2 of this set of pamphlet reviews will be uploaded next week.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)