Honeycomb, M. R. Peacocke
HappenStance, 2018 £5.00
A master of her craft
M. R. Peacocke demonstrates not only remarkable skill in Honeycomb, but also striking freshness. The writer's career spans decades, but she isn’t just churning out the same old stuff. The poems are intense examinations, digging deeply into sensitive themes without faltering.
The lived experience of growing older is not dismissed. Rather, all the frailty, frustration and grief of ageing and of accepting death — that of others as well as her own — is observed from every angle. None of the writing feels heavy-handed. There’s always an element of cleverness or surprise. She is a poet who really enjoys words. She can take old subjects — snow, the moon — and delight the reader with a new way of noticing them. As in ‘Late’:
Water was slacking into runnels
from drifts and pitted snowbacks,
dripping from the gutter and ragged
icicle fringes […]
waiting in ledger curds and bluffs
to bumble into soft explosions.
Moon doesn’t read much […]
leaning becalmed in a lunar dawdle
(doesn’t she know it’s morning already?)
There is poignancy here to the explorations of physical decline associated with ageing. It’s wonderful to see these difficult themes, so often belittled or ignored in our society, given their due weight of attention. Such as in ‘Running’, where the poet speaks to her own body:
and if I say, Do you remember running?
it pauses, puzzled.
A sense of saying goodbye to the world runs through the whole publication, just as the narrator has already said goodbye to others (in ‘Taking Leave’):
And it’s like that, people leave,
sooner than they thought
Each poem is interwoven with subtle rhymes, rhythm, and sounds to savour like boiled sweets. It’s Peacocke’s artistry that allows the reader to face the reality of mortality; to sit for a while and consider it. It is quietly tremendous.
What I like best about these poems is that they surprise me. By which I mean, they delight me — by confounding my expectations, at the same time as resoundingly confirming what I know to be true. They’re also luminous, while glinting with irreverent humour.
In the first poem, ‘Eastham Street’, at a certain hour (when the ‘chip shop is closing’) old women gather at ‘the top of the street’: ‘Lightly the northwest wind brooms aside / trash of clouds and words.’ How I love that echoing, contrasting, perfectly matched ‘clouds and words’.
Here’s an ‘Afternoon’ late in life:
A wakeless lull that’s less than sleep
brims in her eyes and palms and lap.
Something is finished. Nothing’s done.
A lapse, a loss, a truce, a peace.
This is what this poet does. Again and again I recognise the right word, the right rhythm, the right rhyme and meaning delivered together in a way that’s elucidating, confirming, stimulating and satisfying, at the same time as surprising! All these things — which, for me, inseparably equal the project of poetry.
‘What shall we do about the mess?’ she asks, with perfect poise in ‘Shall we dance?’.
The title poem, ‘Honeycomb’, is extraordinary — so many of these poems are. ‘How nimble the old are’, it starts; and then, a little further in, this idea is introduced: ‘how I love anything that hesitates — pauses — / sticks with me a minute’.
What an interesting, amazing picture is being built in my mind. Of this character — old person, very light, and filled with light — flying past, as on we all hurtle. Here’s the last verse:
I’ve gathered a little parchment leaf.
It settled against my cheek as damp and cool
as a child’s kiss. We have happened
together. We slip away.
This is what happens to us all. It’s all that can happen between us: to coincide for a while, touching. How extraordinary that this poet has captured this in this poem, which then stuck with me a minute, as we spun past.
In this collection, with its theme of age and aging, Meg Peacocke’s poems describe coming to terms with the many forms of loss that arise as a result of living into one’s ninth decade. These include the loss of physical and mental abilities, of purpose and performance, and of freedom and independence, but possibly the most difficult of all losses the poet has to face is the loss of people.
In the poem ‘Late’ she compares the time she may have left with a loved one with the suddenness and seemingly unstoppable onset of a winter thaw:
and I ran to the high field
clumsily as a pregnant woman
to tread our names in blemished
brilliant drifts; because the time we have
is shrinking away like snow.
In ‘Taking Leave’ she recognises that others will share this experience and like her, will never be truly prepared:
he wrote, beyond speech,
the familiar hand grown sketchy,
I didn’t know you were going so soon
And it’s like that, people leave
sooner than they thought
sooner than they knew, and things
don’t wait, and a lifetime
isn’t enough to recover the words,
uncover, discover the words.
This last stanza finds the poet bereft, possibly wanting to go back to put things right, to say the things she could have said, or to find new things to say, or just to say goodbye properly.
This sense of dismay reappears in ‘What the Bird Said’:
A loss, a death, was stuck
hard as a gall in my throat.
I was foolish for consolation,
wanting a god to be angry with.
It’s winter and the poet is in the garden with a robin who ‘turned the puff of himself / towards me’ and ‘shook out tremors of music’. The robin’s breast changes colour with the light, he arrives in the poem with a ‘Flick of a shadow’ and in his vital presence she can’t remain angry or upset. He is there along with the natural decay of a winter garden. Like the poet we can choose to accept that this is how it is.
(Barbara Davey, Julia Prescott, Peter Jarvis, Anna Crowe, Robin MacKenzie, Helen Nicholson, Lindsay Macgregor and Jenny Elliott)
The Attraction of Pauses
The title poem opens with an image that shows the fast pace of life. The first line runs over into the second like the world whizzing round, faster and faster, when ‘all that’s familiar sweeps from touch’. A love of life shines in the determination to keep up, keep one’s balance, but it is the pauses that catch my interest. Here a slowing down comes with parenthesis and line-break:
You can’t know how deftly I’m spinning
or how I love anything that hesitates — pauses —
sticks with me a minute […].
The body ‘pauses, puzzled’, in the following poem ‘Running’, and this offers a sharp contrast to the electric switched-on joy of action in the opening lines. Then there’s the quiet stillness in ‘Afternoon’, when ‘The wool rolls down. The needles droop’ to the soothing sound of ‘dull doves in a neighbouring wood’. The poem ends with a delicate, barely perceptible movement, a pausing insect — ‘One lacewing trembles at the netted glass’.
‘Lunar’ makes me think of other well-known moon poems. But it holds its own against them all — even stands out — because of the loveliness of the look, the sound of the line and the image of a mid-morning moon ‘leaning becalmed in a lunar dawdle’. The phrase ‘lunar dawdle’ is unforgettable. The ‘dawdle’ creates a compelling pause, completely unlike the night before with ‘Moon [...] racing round, handed cloud to cloud, ice-hot’.
The penultimate poem ‘What the bird said’ reminds me of the declaration in the title poem: ‘how I love anything that hesitates — pauses — / sticks with me a minute’. But now the ‘little parchment leaf’ of ‘Honeycomb’ is replaced by a bird that pauses to sing. The immediacy and directness of the image is a corrective to the ‘death [ ...] stuck hard as a gall’ in the poet’s throat:
A robin came, glancing,
turned the puff of himself
towards me, rosehip or copperleaf
according to light;
opened his beak on a winter breath,
shook out tremors of music.