Here are poems that deserve many readings to appreciate the subtle and far-reaching eye of the author who created them. Robert Peake seems to peer through the surfaces we all experience and change our perspectives – not always comfortably but enlightening nevertheless. This is a truly ‘international’ poet, an American who has chosen to make England his home and adopt citizenship, so he does not take the myth of this ‘green and pleasant land’ for granted as we born here so often do. He is able to inject a note of caution into our assumptions and force us to look at the darker elements we tend to gloss over, and the risk this imposes on our traditional values. He does this with a deep humanity, a sense of humour, and the vision and awareness of someone absorbing all this for the first time.
‘Culture shock’ is a much overused phrase but I cannot think of another, more eloquent way to describe the first section of this collection. The strangeness, the quirkiness, and the honesty with which the author creates a sense of displacement is tangible. The mixture of language is used to great effect. There is also a sense of loss here and as a reader there are lines that will permanently remain with me as in Still Life with Bourgainvillia:
The bougainvillia taps
at the window, and you
Nowhere is the strangeness better illustrated than in British Matches:
On the matchbox, there is a child,
frown like a downturned slice of melon
flames decorating her thin stick arms.
I wonder why only children. Fire kills
trees, and adults, too – anything alive
Now we are six thousand miles apart,
and the pale light of an unfamiliar
place lights up this new-to-me warning.
And the mixture of language in “Have a Nice Day!” pulling together two cultures through familiar phrases and a wonderful sense of humour:
Have, why not?, instead, a day
of kumquats, instead
hold butter in your mouth
until the daymelt
and the dewy pulse
of reason hurdles slipwise
through the air.
Have a handstand day, a head-
Have it your way, kiddo,
and have it with jam.
I found the middle section of the collection (Postcards from the War Hospital) more difficult to come to grips with but was privileged enough to hear Robert Peake read, and the fact that America has been at war for most of its existence makes this section particularly enlightening. We are taken to many places – including Iraq and Afghanistan. We learn what it means never to have lived in a time of peace. What impresses me greatly is the author’s humanity, which I found very moving, as in Last Gasp (December 2009) relating to the finding and hanging of Saddam Hussein after he was dragged from his desert hole:
Dare we mention the soft grasses
growing, somehow, under a stone?
They, too, must have known the sunlight once.
A salt stain bleaches the pillow cover.
Who can tell if it was tears, saliva, or sweat?
Only that the head was wanting rest,
and the ever-present sense of loss in Postcards from the War Hospital, Winter
I have run out of topics
for dreaming, so I make them up:
each morning, a new lie.
Under the dragon’s tongue,
a tiny pebble of black saliva.
Each of us, our ignominies.
Always the war. We will
run out of morphine soon.
The radio flickers indifferently.
In my dream, I lose the leg,
and another sprouts in its place,
All night, I walk upon air.
In the third and final section (The Smoke) we return to London with such watchfulness and perception that I felt it was being invited to look at the city of my birth through new eyes. The section includes the waiting room of Home Office, Croydon :
The clerks shuffle paperwork cheerfully
red passport, blue passport, green passport,
brown, jobsworth elves who know the list
of who gets Christmas, who gets coal.
My number up, I flash a tight-lipped smile,
Should I stay or should I go? stuck in my mind.
the first of six sonnets which include Clapham Junction, Soho, Brick Lane Market, Canary Wharf, and Blackheath – intense insight into the diversity of London life, including sounds and smells – good and bad – linked together by those lines “shall I go or shall I stay” (from the English punk band, The Clash) which stick in the mind, running through in all directions like the trains from Clapham Junction.
Having grown up with London Tap Water the poem of the same name turned this most maligned commodity into something else for me, as though drinking it cements a sense of belonging:
Some part of you is part of me now, sipping it.
Every poem in this unique collection is worth a special mention, but I cannot leave the book without showcasing one that holds particular significance for all poets – Nocturne with Writer’s Block – where Robert Peake explores the two ‘selves’ of a poet with surprising honesty and produces an extraordinary piece of work on the secret life of writer’s block:
Five days, and no letters sent to my other self.
It has been too long I have listened to chatter.
Now, let the deeper words come.
In my dreams, I am both wind and tree, the sound
and feel of it. Each leaf I am is turning,
my only goal to catch the sun, to catch the sun.
Perhaps, like the leaf, this poem will never end,
but go on casting back the light until it fades.
Perhaps I have held it hostage long enough
turning on its thin, cylindrical stalk. Forgive me,
this nostalgia for my own invented world.
Sometimes the one I live in seems unbearable.
Even in the sight and feel of this book there is something warm and inviting – it is beautifully produced and bound with its soft, matt, all-seeing cover design. It seems to tell you to be ready for anything and everything – a new kind of knowledge – dip your own eyes in and you will not be disappointed.
Find out more about Robert at his web site.