D A Prince analyses the component parts of a complex collection by Robert Peake

The Knowledge cover webThe Knowledge 
Robert Peake 
Nine Arches Press, 2015 
ISBN 9780993120114
84 pp     £9.99

We wait a long time for the title poem. This collection is organised in three sections – ‘The Argument’, ‘Postcards from the War Hospital’, ‘The Smoke’ – and the title poem appears only when we are three poems away from the end of the final section. It’s as though all we have read up to this point is being drawn together, giving a view back, across where we’ve travelled. So a closer look seems a good place to start a review of this complex collection.

The title needs no footnote; most readers already know that ‘the knowledge’ is the colloquial term for London taxi drivers’ inner road map, the one learned the hard way – crossing London on a wobbly L-plated motorbike. Peake slips in this information with a light touch; the poem starts in a secure space, with a taxi driver (the ‘you’ addressed in the poem) smoking casually as he leans against his cab. It’s almost too easy to overlook the third line – Something rotten wafts up sweet from a nearby grate. But the juxtaposition of opposites is something Peake has used throughout this collection, not just in this poem, often as a way of searching for a balance, an equilibrium of sorts – and he has already described the driver is a fulcrum. He brings opposites to the surface of this poem with great effect –

 ... a medial fissure called The River, which flows sin-black,
gorgeous, the crease in the book between Alpha and Omega,
A and Zed, horizon dividing sea from sky and light from dark.

This is London’s geography overlaid with ideas; the Thames is now The River, dividing not simply north and south but becoming something more metaphysical. It’s sin-black; there’s a more than a hint of the Styx. The idea of something rotten from the opening lines returns, now as the slits into hell – the grid where the driver taps his cigarette ash – and in the final two lines we meet the original knowledge, of Good and Evil –

 and this thought makes you look up to reveal a smile, the one
Eve first saw on Adam’s face, wiping the juice from his chin.

The relish in recognising knowledge-as-sin, and how to find the balancing point between opposites: it’s a question underlying many poems in the collection, touched on with a variety of tone and viewpoint. In ‘Matins with Slippers and House Cat’, where the poet is attempting to find a silent position in a squeaky chair, Peake acknowledges it as a common problem –

 Whole nations are attempting the same:
how to occupy the space between squeak
and no-squeak, that is the question.

In ‘Nocturne with Writer’s Block’ – which achieves the seeming-impossible, the creation of a poem about not being able to write a poem –

 In my dreams I am both wind and tree, the sound
and the feel of it. Each leaf I am is turning,
my only goal to catch the sun, to catch the sun.

Peake explores the dichotomy of the self (in the real, mundane, non-writing world) and the other self (which writes poems, and is like the wind which cannot be commanded). For five days I have been nothing but real he writes, unable to write the poem that is taking shape in the looser, freer, wind-swept places that also stand in for the subconscious.

‘The Argument ‘(the opening section) establishes a grounded world, teeming with the details of wild life – white pigeons, fleas, mites, ants, woodlice, flies, bees. This is close observation, as in the poem ‘The Argument’ –

 The bees make a mask, rippling like sauce,
covering the beekeeper’s eyelids. He shaves
them off with a credit card, the stench 
of pollen clotting his nostrils ...

It is time to ‘Do nothing’ – the opposite of argument: a time to find the balancing point between acceptance and rejection. Even though I would dread this degree of proximity to insects I recognise the power of the image, explored in unflinching detail.

It’s the central section (‘Postcards from the War Hospital’) where I have difficulty in discerning the unifying thread even though the subject matter is clear enough: Iraq (with the first poem set on the date of Saddam Hussein’s execution), despotism, military campaigns, YouTube killings, the turning of human life into commercial transactions. Perhaps it is because this group of poems never engages in the same search for that fine point of balance as those in the surrounding sections. At times it reads as though a separate pamphlet had slipped itself in and taken up residence.

I’d make an exception, though, for ‘The Rouchomovsky Skeleton’. A poem about an artwork made in 1896, it needs no supporting photograph: Peake uses the opening eight-line stanza (the first of five) to sketch it lightly for us – a human skeleton, gold, perched casually on the edge of his coffin. It’s all we need because Peake then uses the second stanza to change the focus of the poem, questioning not only it but us.

 What does it say about vanity to replicate
our own human bones in golden filigree?
A Roman general once forced his slave to march
behind him in his triumphant hour, whispering
above the roar of the crowd: You will die.

A return to the filigree memento mori and a description of skulls, Death with his scythe, the shields and armaments of war – all details for the imagination to recreate – only serves to increase the tension when Peake returns to the slave’s insistent whisper from the second stanza –

 He strikes his pose effortlessly, this priceless
man-made skeleton-in-the-box. But was the slave
pouring humility into the general’s ear? Or was
his reminder to make the moment somehow sweeter,
more precious for its transience ...

This subtle questioning would be equally at home in the concluding section, ‘The Smoke’. ‘Smoke ring’ is a ring of five sonnets, all in London locations, beginning with ‘Home Office, Croydon’. Peake’s roots are in the USA so I would guess he has firsthand experience of the jobsworth elves who know the list/ of who gets Christmas, who gets coal. It’s not only the connecting lines that link the poems, but lines from songs stuck in the brain, and ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ (by The Clash) plays with the notion of travel, as does the use of ‘Hard Road’ in the sonnet ‘Soho’. This as close as Peake gets to form; I’d be happy to see more like this. ‘Seraphim’ imagines the angels who watch over potential suicides on the Thames bridges – We are the shiver of thought, that the money or lover/ might return, the painful illness be cured. It’s a haunting poem.

As ever, Nine Arches has produced a good-looking book; the new design – matt cover with flaps – sits well with their clean page layout. Peake is lucky with his publisher – and they are lucky to have him on their list.

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D A Prince
lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection Common Ground appeared in autumn 2014.