Reviewed by Sue Butler, Richie McCaffery and Matt Merritt
In ‘At the forest pool’, Peter Daniels could be speaking about himself when he tells us:
.......There’s a fiddler—he’s in a village band, but he’s more than that.
.......He can strike up truth, he’s honest with his honey tone—
The poem then goes on to remind us that telling forest-pool deep truth takes courage and determination:
.......Don’t expect to find your tune like anyone
.......tapping a foot and following a line. Pick it up and play it
.......when the glasses are empty and the night opens the door.
And taking the advice to “use your elbow to guide what’s there” Peter Daniels spends this pamphlet doing just that. He may not be playing a fiddle, but even the tone-deaf can’t fail to hear music in these poems. Sometimes the pen is scraped harshly across the page, as in ‘River’, where speaking about a relationship
.......My nerves have decided it was
.......your fault. It’s dark and I resent that
.......[ . . .]
.......the swans are still out on the bank, standing
.......like dinosaurs, glad in possession.
.......I’m alone with this mess in the mud.
Sometimes the music is much more lyrical, much more contemplative, as in ‘Incantation’ where Peter Daniels asks us to consider “Every soul has one beginning, in three places:/ the one giving, the one getting, the one going.” Then we are shown:
.......An old one is waiting for the three buses,
.......the one missing, the one coming, the one going.
.......There you stand, sullen in the shelter. One of them is yours,
.......One of the three ways out of here,
.......when it comes along to be chosen.
These lines so took me back to my teenage years when I used to hang around with my friends in bus shelters and on street corners. As they discussed boys and how to get enough money for cigarettes, I was plotting my escape—on foot, by train or bus, through education or a job. I had no idea which would provide my Great Escape tunnel, only that I was going.
And like all good fiddle players, Peter Daniels also knows when his audience needs a lighter tune. I had to smile at Darwin’s exasperation with the origin of peacocks and also when I read about ‘The monkey of forgetting’, who
........ . . starts with a will to rummage
.......in this wreck of my past, and I cringe.
.......No one should know about what I loved.
I fear the only way to stop this is for Peter Daniels to stop writing poetry, because these poems are overflowing with the things he clearly feels passionate about. In the poem ‘To Ted Burford’, we are given
.......a quiet reminder that words enter
.......through bathroom windows and odd
.......crevices, they don’t belong to us.
I beg to differ. Peter Daniels takes a handful of words, lines them up and makes them belong very much to him. It’s a rare skill and one he has in bucketfuls.
.......The city loves us however we failed; it’s a great heap
.......of love, of lovable people, truth and respect
.......held in banks of integrity, streets covered in glory and fame
.......but also some dogshit.
..............(‘The naked city’)
For such a wide-ranging collection, one of the recurring motifs is of the city against the lure of the countryside and their inherent immiscibility. There is something of a flâneur’s world-perspective in poems such as ‘The naked city’ with its detached but sardonic tone, and the seedy demi-monde captured in ‘Paris Drive with Joan’ with its “street of shameless men” where “she shows us what they show us, trousers open”.
Similarly the sense of an ontological lack of destination comes across in ‘Mr Luczinski takes a tram’ where the tram has “nowhere to take him” but “somewhere at the end of this line/ is a field of dandelions and a bluebell wood”. In ‘The retreat’, a city wage slave escapes to the country and slowly becomes a wild wodwo figure only to come back to a place where “your future biographer is proud of you” and the only option is to “get ready for work”.
However, this collection cleverly does not fall into the usual binary trap of portraying the city as de-humanising and malign and the country as georgic and salutary—in fact, in poems such as ‘Saturn Flowers’ and ‘River’, images of nature are shown in an otherworldly and sometimes estranging way, and in ‘Moon Candles’ there is an attempt to get out of the world and push at the boundaries of space so the speaker can “carry the world as seen from the moon/ on a postcard”.
This is a collection of great contrasts, from the worldly-wise voice in ‘Incarnation’ that takes every decision, the big to small, and distils it to an act of selection from three choices to the amusing faux-naif study of the ‘Policeman, Stoke Newington’ who takes his money from a cash machine and stows it “in the safest pocket in the street”.
More often than not, however, it is the outlandish imagery that sticks with the reader: the incongruity of the peacock in ‘Peacock train’ “prowling/ in cornfields, being himself, glittering/ in a hedgerow” and the sympathy for the destructive monkey in ‘The Monkey of Forgetting’ who has endured “the babyhood of clinging to the hard wire chest”.
Peter Daniels is one of those names I can remember having seen in all manner of poetry magazines since I first started reading them—reliably high quality, and with a distinctive style that’s both very slightly off-kilter and resolutely unshowy.
I’m not sure if it should have been a surprise, then, that it took a while before this collection really grabbed me and refused to let go. Reading it again, I think it happened at the point when Daniels moved beyond description and evocation (both of which he does very well, mind you), and became more assertive, more willing to make suggestions to the reader, issue directions, even.
So, for example, ‘All you need’ suggests:
.......You can attend to each arising moment,
.......and edge where you stand that gives
.......back-country behind you, and rough ocean
.......to launch across, when you finish with land.
Now that’s fine, and it sets out a possible manifesto for the poet that you know, if Daniels stuck to it, would produce consistently readable results.
But two pages later, ‘The naked city’ opens with the splendid:
.......Open your heart and harden your ego to disillusion,
.......pose in the nude on the height of the doric frontage,
.......watch them point at you starting the genuine city of joy
.......right here in your heart.
You know that Daniels knows and can recreate the real city at will, but it’s this willingness to move beyond mere reportage that makes this such a good read. It’s not a matter of Daniels telling the reader what to think or feel, either, just that he suggests new ways of looking at the world.
Throughout the book, there’s a restrained wit that’s often used both to deflate any risk of sentimentality, and yet paradoxically intensify the very real emotion contained in the work. The lovely ‘To Ted Burford’, for example, contains lines like “The afterlife can’t be/ all of it, my theory is you’ve gone/ to Leeds.”
So, don’t expect instant results. Allow time for it to sink in, and this is poetry that will stay with you for a long time.