Kim Morrissey reviews Counting Eggs – the new collection by Peter Daniels
SEEING THE WOODS AND THE TREES
Peter Daniels has collected twenty years of poems in Counting Eggs, his first full-length book of poetry. Publishing fifty-six poems in twenty years makes other poets seem a little promiscuous about their publishing, a little too easily-pleased with their choices; this first collection makes you wish other poets imposed the same sort of time restrictions on themselves.
Peter Daniels is a poet’s poet: his small poems are perfectly formed; his longer poems have won prizes (Shoreditch Orchid won the Avron Competition in 2008 as well as the Ted Hughes prize for Environmental Poetry, The Pump won the 2010 TLS Poetry Competition, The Captive was commended in the Poetry London 2010 competition). It’s easy to see why his work collects awards. Daniel’s poems have warmth, wit, and energy, as well as a beautifully-crafted elegance. Re-reading them is a pleasure.
Words that are nothing but breath of centuries,
spoken for food, prayer, sex, the jargons of craft;
and hand signals, handshakes, nods and winks,
fashion statements, courtship dances:
all that vocabulary. Why don’t we just
put our beaks together and blow?
Berkeley Square on a rainy night,
wet trees to sweeten the notes of a trill.
Birdsong is complete in itself, but it’s also enhanced by Daniels’ intelligent placing of it between Splendour and The Forge. Splendour leads naturally into Birdsong by ending with the lines:
what makes them
for the splendour of this dawn
and this birdsong?
The Forge contradicts the fragile world of Birdsong, by beginning: ‘Iron smelted in the furnace, poured out’.
Daniels is a London poet, and although his translations of other poets respect their times and cultures, his own poems are gloriously rooted in a mid-twentieth century/early 21st century urban setting. His raspberries and insects come in jars (The Jar), his insects come from hardware wholesalers (Insects) his mountains have pathways (Mountain Ranges), and the landscape includes cable cars, trams, trains, ATMs, and routemasters. Even a poem about Persephone starts ‘Our bus takes us past orchards of citrus and loquat.’ He explores the small ‘slivers of life’ gaps between expectations and experience, celebrating the moments when nature pushes through cracks in a man-made facade. His Shoreditch Orchid flourishes ‘seeded in junk’ and the odd, sanitised bus ride with Mormons in Sicily is subverted and freed by ‘something I didn’t mention.’ The ‘something I didn’t mention’ is the true subject of the poem – turning the focus from touring Mormons to the complication and complicity of keeping secret a local stranger’s casual lust (The Mormons in Sicily).
Other poems also explore the tension within a controlled/yet accidental/yet inevitable world-view. ‘Meeting at unappointed times’ is the opening of Daniels’ beautifully-paced under-stated love poem Liverpool Street. It ends with quiet passion:
We meet in a station, or we coincide in the bathroom,
we cross and merge in parallels less than a pillow apart:
joined-up people, finding the world as wide as our bed.
The test of a book is to leave it, and come back to it several weeks later. Don’t count the poems you have read, but the poems you want to reread. Re-opening Counting Eggs, I find every poem seems like an old friend: The Pump, The Jar, Mice, Insects, Knickerbockers … and each poem leads naturally to the next, to the end. Although many of the poems have a delicious dry humour, Daniels is never just witty, and his poems’ meanings deepen with every reading.
I have one quibble with this book, and one bit of optimistic counting of chickens of my own. The inside right-hand pages’ margins are too narrow, making the right-hand pages hard to read without being tempted to crack the spine, a mistake which will hopefully be rectified by Mulfran Press with the next reissue of Counting Eggs.
Kim Morrissey’s poetry books include Batoche and Poems For Men Who Dream of Lolita, and her plays include Dora: A Case of Hysteria (Nick Hern Books, 1994) Clever As Paint: The Rossettis in Love, and Mrs. Ruskin (forth-coming from Aark Arts, edited by Sudeep Sen). She is the workshop leader for The Purple Poets (www.purplepoets.com) and was one of the long-list judges for the 2012 Mayor of London’s Young Person’s ‘100 Great Things About The Olympics’ Poetry Contest (helping to read roughly 1200 poems to create a shortlist of 30). Her last workshop was Photographs +Poetry = Postcards at the Margate Turner Gallery in April 2012, working with the talented members of the East Kent Mencap Photography Group (www.eastkentmencap.co.uk). Two of her ‘Ophelia’ poems are part of Jo Wonder’s art installation 6 Days Good-bye Poems for Ophelia, on display until June 7, 2012 in The Belfry of St. John on Bethnal Green (www.jowonder.com).