John Forth suspects that Peter Bland’s poetic inspirations come to him unbidden – rather as shy creatures will approach nature-watchers who remain patient while waiting for small animals.

bland

Remembering England
Peter Bland
Shoestring Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-907356-95-7
72pp  £9.00

If you’re a baby-boomer (around 50 at the Millenium) and male, you probably knew Peter Bland’s lot (conceived in the slump…utility-grey men) and maybe looked up or down, ahead or back at them (depending on how your eyes were fixed) in your working-life. They weren’t old enough to be your dad but they were significant (post-war conscripts/ who lowered the flag on better days) – their main gifts being ironic detachment, never taking themselves too seriously and the sense of humour that made us. What we lacked was a style says the clubbable voice in ‘Lament for a Lost Generation’. If you like poems spoken this way, then this is your Blandbook – a collection of takes on past times where things happen instead of being described: The factory girls laugh/as a dead canary flies back to its cage (‘The Palaces of Childhood’).

Peter Bland, born 1934 in Yorkshire where he lived until he was 20, has thereafter spent long periods in both New Zealand and the UK. He has said that growing roots is good for vegetables but Remembering England seeks deliberately to evoke a sense of his England in the 30s, 40s and 50s – and there is a group of poems with concerns post-1970. What’s different is the way he gets us there: ….It’s not been easy/ travelling backwards, walking blind,/everyone yelling “Put out those lights!” The poetic tour-guide isn’t new, but the journey is felt and not just talked about.

Several childhood paintings crop up in which light and dark play big parts, as in ‘A Childhood Primitive’ or another using wood-flecked wartime paper and one which opens portals on the surreal, as in

.                     …Will there be light…?
Light everywhere, I mean. Not
the gloom of a wartime room but…
mad Turner’s light…breaking up into more light
like a thousand fiery angels alive
on the tip of his brush. That would do.
.                                       (‘The Way Back’)

Sometimes the trip feels like one we made to Llareggub, inhabitants slowly waking. At other times Heaney’s wells show up as Peter’s ponds which later disappear underground and where the child fishing in 1944 will have art in mind: Mums and dads/ have no time for ponds. But what/ happens here wants to be passed on (‘The Pond’). It’s the word ‘wants’ that characterizes a Peter Bland poem and makes him worth reading. None feel forced or in any way like the outcome of search or research, but rather they are natural visitors to long lost water:

… yet sometimes, when I close my eyes,
small animals gather, waiting to drink
where the last thin trickles leaked away.
.                         (‘Pond Poem’)

It’s all made to look terribly easy, like falling off a log or waiting for a train: all this/ is happening in black-and-white/ where what’s up close/ feels far away.(‘Waiting at Stations’). It’s a world inhabited by superhero parents, who are both colourful characters. Mother especially is larger than the life she leads:

Fatherman tries to keep her in place
but his working-man’s grip
skids off the art-deco gloss
of her skin….
.                          (‘The Fatherman and the Motherwoman’)

The poems are marked by an artfully fluent directness which tries to go unnoticed but creates a lasting effect, their meaning being very much the meat thrown by a burglar for the dogs. In ‘The Happy Army’, what appears to be a child’s artwork is taken at potentially surreal face value, everyone facing the front, not out of discipline or to scare the enemy/ but in frank expectancy of applause. Next to it, ‘Sun-Lover’, a moving elegy for Alan Ross, refuses to shy away from horrors of war and foot-and-mouth but manages to emphasise grace and cool exuberance – values that both men share – and the fact that among its other gifts/a poem should be beautiful, should have a shine on it.

These two mark the end of a beginning, and the final 20 pages are littered with nomads and things broken, urban living and realpolitik, abandoned places and Lao-Tse heading for the hills. There are dates, especially 1979 (several times), suggesting the start of a new climate; and, in the final prose poem ‘Leaving’, the passengers can see over the side of the boat a sunken battleship: It lies like a huge block of silence in the water below – and we’re told that Nothing we’ve left behind will ever grow old. Five years on, the Blands will return to New Zealand.

The fluency of Peter Bland’s work is facilitated by his finding forms that do not draw attention to themselves. In being ostensibly secondary to what is being said in the poems, they become unobtrusively part of what is being said. If you’re still unsure who his ‘lost generation’ are – You can tell us a mile off even now;/ there’s a touch of austerity/ under the eyes…//… a lasting doubt/about the next good time. The effect here somehow leans on the word ‘lasting’, never mind the ‘doubt’ which might seem to be packing the punch. Now that’s what I call style.

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John Forth was born in Bethnal Green and recently retired from teaching English after thirty-odd years. He has published four poetry collections (Malcontents in 1994, A Ladder & Some Glasses in 1998 and The Demon’s Phenomenal Filmshow in 2013 when a collection of early work, Spirits of Another Sort, also appeared). A New & Selected is due next year from Rockingham. He has reviewed new poetry for London Magazine and his poems have appeared in a number of journals.