Poetry Salzburg, 2013 £4.00 (+1.00 p&p)
Reviewed by Andrew Philip, Gill Andrews and Marcia Menter
Normally, I wouldn’t review a publication by someone I know as well as I know Robert Peake, but there is a particular reason for making an exception with The Silence Teacher. The poems in this pamphlet were all written in the seven years following the death of Peake’s newborn son James, to whom the book is dedicated. Like him, I have lost a newborn son. Indeed, that shared experience was the initial impetus for our friendship.
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that I recognise the texture, if not the detail, of my own experience throughout the pages of The Silence Teacher.I would happily go so far as to say that it’s the kind of volume I wish I had written. In each ofits 24 poems, the reader feels the absence of James, whether his loss is tackled head-on or in subtle, more oblique ways. That, of course, means that it is a very achy book for me to read. But, despite the depth of the grief at its core, the pamphlet is never anything other than life affirming. This is due in no small part to the integrity with which Peake approaches the subject.
Take, for instance, the poem in which he describes squashing a spider. Here, his considerable skill is on full display as he brings together the tumultuous cocktail of anger and love that grief shakes for us:
Whom have you loved this much?
Loved with a veterinary needle,
loved with a coup de grâce,
loved by saying, No, that’s
enough, loved by saying, Yes,
it is time to unplug the tubes?
Elsewhere, he gives us “12 Reasons to Go On”, such as: “4. The way bad jokes make my side hurt when I laugh” or “7. The one brave pigeon that won’t be shooed.”
Rereading the volume for this review, I was struck by the clarity of line that it displays. It is a clear mark of the care and attention — and, to be clear about it, love — that has gone into the creation of these poems. The pamphlet is full of moments in which the line breaks add to and open up the meanings of the words, such as this one from “Koi Pond”:
[ . . .] my son, who lived
too briefly for my liking
That line break proclaims that, although James Peake’s life was all too brief, it was no less a life. In less skilled hands, effects like that run the risk of seeming obvious or clunky but, here, the impact is finely judged and full of emotional punch.
The Silence Teacher shows Robert Peake to be a gifted and courageous poet, unafraid of being straightforward and happy to explore more oblique territory. Moreover, it demonstrates that he is completely unafraid of being vulnerable to his audience. These are poems that demanded to be written and now they insist quietly but firmly that they be read, reread and read again.
This is a very good pamphlet. Most of the poems relate to the poet’s son, who died at only 3 days old. From ‘You Are Not Here for Winter’:
Now we know you never felt
my thumb on your foot, covering it,
the procession of miniscule needles,
the incubator light, a little fireplace
stoked in an effort to tempt you
Peake’s straightforward words show us the scene precisely. The word “covering” tells us just how small the foot is. “Fireplace” is a perfect word here, conjuring up the idea of home. Although the words appear simple, the repetition of consonants make it sound beautiful – for example, repeated ‘n’ sounds: Now / know / never / needles; ‘t’ sounds: felt / foot / it / light / little / effort / tempt; and f/v sounds: never / felt / foot / covering / fireplace / effort.
Peake’s stories are interesting and affecting. I particularly liked ‘The Haircut’. Again, the scene is set by economic use of precise details: “The place is no beauty salon: football pennants, / the head of a moose, the sports channel”. The poet, slightly reluctantly, tells the hairdresser about his son. When the haircut is finished:
When I twisted my hand into
my jeans to fish for my wallet, he said,
“That’s OK.” And then, “Maybe somehow it helps.”
I could have told him about my hi-tech job, my
college degree and retirement plan. I said, “Thanks”
We are left to decide for ourselves why the two men act as they do – this allows the reader room to think about the situation, and to engage more deeply with the poem. Some of Peake’s poems lean more towards the supernatural. From ‘Visitation of the Wild Man’:
He came down from the forest, smeared with mud, naked
but for a wild accusing stare and spoke to me:
[ . . . ] While the body of your child withered under incubator lights
his spirit blazed on the horizon like sun upon the sea
and still, you knew him, in your humbleness
This is less to my taste than those poems which are more rooted in the real world. But (like a few of the poems in this collection), it is a skilfully written terza rima, and I admire Peake’s audacity in writing in this fashion.
I feel the need to tread carefully in reviewing this pamphlet about the death of Robert Peake’s three-day-old son. The poet himself has trodden carefully, waiting seven years to publish these poems limning an enormous grief. It is what might be called a decent interval, time enough to shape the raw emotion into a space as quietly resonant as a stone chapel.
That’s the thing about this collection: the poems are filled with sights, sounds, events, but their underlying silence is enormous. On one hand, this is deeply appropriate, because the loss of this child has created a void nothing can fill. On the other hand, there is a portentous solemnity, an elegiac tone that never lets up. It makes me wish for the tiniest leavening of joy to light the tiniest corner of the tiniest poem, even though saying so feels like giggling in church.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can say how much I admire the way Peake sustains a sense of having stepped out of his former life into a strange and silent universe. The title poem, the first in the pamphlet, establishes this:
Grief’s small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son’s tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,
and still as winter in a robin’s nest.
These images — cupped hands, water, winter — show up again and again, but subtly varied, so you move in their atmosphere without being clobbered by Metaphors At Work. In ‘Yosemite, Early Spring’, Peake and his wife see “snowmelt / cupped in the hands of the cliff”:
You boiled water in a pan for morning tea, while I sat
at the fogging window, tracing letters from the name
we gave him (revealing the movement of snow).
‘Traction’ describes a bus ride on an icy Oregon road, a widower shares too much about his life as “The trees hold out their branches sleeved in snow [ . . . ] The bus lets out its sigh. We’re back on ice.”
More than once, Peake uses fish to convey his sense of being under water. In ‘Aquarium in the Waiting Room of My Wife’s Obstetrician’ –
The ivory one with the deadpan expression
bobs sinuously through plastic plants, in time
to smooth jazz and daytime soaps. His lips mouth
our words to the nurse: “Yes, we are trying again.”
So yes, sustained through twenty-four poems, the tone is intense. But the poet is entitled to that.
And I can say I understand something of a grief I might not otherwise have understood.