Poets Abroad: A Review of works by Robert Peake, Christodoulos Makris and Lucy Furlong

Robert Peake is a self-styled British-American poet, who was born and educated in the United States but now livesThe Knowledge cover web near London, where, amongst other things he runs the Transatlantic Poetry series of live online readings and discussions bringing together poets from Britain, Europe and the US.

The Knowledge, published by Nine Arches Press, is his first full-length collection. The title derives from the training required to become a London taxi driver, a process if internalising the street plan of the entire city that requires not just an incredible memory, but also an eye for the surface detail of the urban landscape. It is an apt title for this collection, which is rich in just such informationm.

The book is divided into three sections, and it is the first, The Argument, where this eye for detail is most evident. Peake invites us to look at both the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds, often with one informing the other, as in the opening lines of the poem ‘Ursula’:

Black hair. Red claws. That’s all

you need to know. She left

the cubs a long time ago,

and now all she wants is a lamb

to drink gin and play poker.

In the second section, Peake turns his gaze to the conflicts that have marred the first decade and a half of the new century, the crisis of capitalism, of the environment and the constellation of wars and near wars in the Middle East and their echoes of the global confrontations of the last century.

The banked graveyards of Europe retain

wartime dead like bulbs in a raised garden bed,

while moss, grass and clover compete for cover.

 

Too little water, too little sun. The pride and hope

of living things going dormant for awhile, snoring

its spore-clouds upward, detonating in fruit.

(‘Historic Spring’)

The final section, The Knowledge, turns to Peake’s adopted home for its matter. Unlike many recent poets of London (Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed, for instance) and despite a fleeting appearance by Blake, Peake is less concerned with the myth and history of the city than with the reality of its present. In this, his poetry mirrors the cabbie’s knowledge, most notably in ‘The Smoke’, a sequence of six linked fourteen-line poems named for London locations (Home Office, Croydon; Clapham Junction; Soho; Brick Lane Market; Canary Wharf; Blackheath). The linking is underscored by having the last line of each poem serve as the first of the next, closing the circle with the last and first lines of the set. The whole if vivid with the multifarious life of the city; it is both the most ambitions and most fully realised poem in the book.

Close both eyes and follow the scent

of marsh grass, salt rope, barnacled wood.

Oil lamps puff, pipe down their leaden light.

Tusk-like, whale ribs embrace a building site.

Unfortunately, not all of the versification is at this level of intensity, and Peake can sometimes lapse into near-bathos:

I can offer the following services:

 

an emetic for overfull dogs and cats

something to water when the orchids all die

(Grass-Talkers)

He is however, capable of writing verse of considerable wit and musicality:

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 Nice Day’)

Overall, this is an uneven but interesting first full-length collection, and a handsomely serviceable paperback nicely produced by Nine Arches.

*

Christodoulos Makris is a Greek Cypriot poet who lives in the Dublin area and writes in English. He’s also a bit of a Architecture of Chancepoetry entrepreneur, organising reading events in Fingal, where he works for the library service, and editing magazines and anthologies. On the basis of his previous book, Spitting Out the Mother Tongue, he is also one of the most interesting of the younger Irish poets of the moment.

His latest collection, The Architecture of Chance, moves on from that earlier work, especially with the growing use of explicit procedural approaches in the making of many of the poems included. This is both an interesting and a somewhat perilous development, given the temptation to become over-enamoured with the procedure at the expense of the poetry. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see younger poets in Ireland who are willing to take the risk of experimentation in this area.

The results of Makris’ procedural ventures are, it must be said, somewhat uneven. ‘Heaney after Rauschenberg’, for example, which consists of all the four-letter words in Death of a Naturalist, in the order they appear there, starts out as an interesting critique of Heaney’s aesthetic. Unfortunately, there are too many four-letter words in the book to sustain interest, and by the end of the second densely-packed page this reader began to hope for a little more flexibility with the method.

Another example is ‘From Something to Nothing’, which consists of text from the IMF’s website run through a chain of languages in Google translate. The morphing of ‘and reduce poverty around the world’ into ‘facilitate…poverty in the world’ is all too convenient. If the opposite result had been the outcome of the process, you can’t but feel that the poem would never have seen the light of day.

Much more satisfying is ‘16 X 16’, a sequence of sixteen sixteen-word sentences, in which the second word of sentence one becomes the first of sentence two, and so on. The flexibility in punctuation and word order through the sequence allows for an interesting interaction between procedure and poet, one feeding off the other. Procedural poetry needs to be poetry, first and foremost. As with any other kind of poetry, the purpose is to transmute the language into something greater than the sum of its parts. This happens here in a way that simply doesn’t occur in some of the other process pieces in the book.

The real strength of this collection lies in Makris’ apparently non-procedural handling of fractured lyric, a mode that he inhabits more fully. Take, for instance, the first of his ‘Four Manifestoes’:

A red rose

sends fragrance to rise

from my immaculate shirt.

Sunshine, delectable fare, exotic teas,

refine my mind.

The clusters of alliteration and the strong, single syllable and trochaic/amphibrach masculine line endings combine to create a sense of immediacy that both cuts across and underpins the syntactic sense of the stanza while the assonances and near rhymes (fine/my/sunshine/refine) that ripple through the lines display a finely-tuned poet’s ear.

As with The Knowledge, the production by Wurm Press is testimony to the value of digital printing in enabling small presses to produce trade-quality paperbacks at affordable prices.

*

Lucy Furlong is a British poet of immediate Irish descent. Her father and his family moved from rural Wexford to suburban Surrey when he was a child and discovered a small island of rural tranquillity in some fields on the banks of the nearby Hogsmill River, the place where Millais painted the natural elements of his famous Ophelia.

Over the Fields is designed as a map, literal and metaphorical, of this childhood Eden. Consisting of poems, photographs and a pictorial map, it folds like a walker’s guide to fit in your pocket and opens out big enough to spread on a table and pore over.

The poems represent an exploration of this multiply liminal space; neither urban nor rural, in the heartland of Englishness but made somewhat Irish by association, the poet looking back to her father and forward to the son, her twin companions over the fields. It’s a journey:

always looking for that unseen space, that

place out of sight, always near, following her

as she looked for that unseen space, that

place out of sight, always near, immortalized.

(‘Six Acre Meadow’)

As is often the case, discovery is bound up with naming, of discovering that the place known as ‘the field the other side of the second bridge’ has a real name, a name to be found on a map, with a history and resonance of its own. This process of multiple naming is also one of reclamation: of childhoods, of a personal heritage, of the land itself and what it stands for for one family. The resultant poems have a deceptive quality of slightness underlain by delicate strength and assurance:

…we seek out elusive

piscine lurkers, shoal-darters,

minnow-school pretty-carpers,

spike-backed silver-bellied

sticklebacks, shimmer and shift

in ever-changing shallow-shadows.

(‘Hogsmill Tiddlers’)

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