Richie McCaffery gives particular attention to the new section of M.R. Peacocke’s recent New and Selected
Finding the Planes: New and Selected Poems M. R. Peacocke Shoestring Press, 2015 ISBN: 978-1-910323-31-1 152 pp £12.00
Even before I touch on the contents of this ‘new and selected volume’, it is worth pausing for a moment to mention the book as aesthetic object. I have always enjoyed publications from Shoestring Press, but this is easily one of the handsomest books they have produced to my knowledge. The pages are broader than usual, leaving plenty of breathing space for the poems and the cover image of a stylised rendering of a swan by Pip Hall is attractively apt. The swan is apt because these poems are elegant units that glide from mouth to ear or page to mind’s eye but, like a swan’s webbed feet underwater, there is much movement going on beneath the surface.
Although I have read all of Peacocke’s previous collections, I think this volume, selected by Peacocke herself, is overdue and I am pleased Shoestring have done such a fine job on it. Naturally, I was most interested to read the most recent work (written since 2011’s Caliban Dancing) which is represented here by a sheaf of twenty recent poems. Quite often such volumes as these contain a cursory grouping of recent indifferent poems to justify the ‘new and selected’ subtitle but here there is no evidence of any diminution in Peacocke’s powers as a poet but rather a clear display of the consistency, necessity and quality of Peacocke’s work since her debut in 1988 with Marginal Land. I do not mean to suggest the poetry has been static, but rather that Peacocke did not begin to publish as a poet until her fifties by which time she had achieved her mature poetic ‘voice’. The only difference I can detect between her most recent work and the poems published in 1988 is that the earlier work had more narrative and balladic elements whereas the new poems here seem more emotive, pithy and lyrical. Take for instance the first poem in this book, ‘Memories of the Garden’ with its moving closing stanza, where time undoes the childhood idyll of a garden:
The sundial’s beak has stabbed my bees my fish and golden lamb. My sisters have been given in marriage to men with red whiskers. They have shot my Gyp. [the speaker’s dog] He is buried at the end of the alley. Leaves have filled his mouth.
Speaking of the narrative and balladic strain, this poem reminded me strongly of a poem (‘Hamnavoe Market’) from George Mackay Brown’s first mature collection Loaves and Fishes where hopes early on in the day are slowly undone by time and circumstance and the poem ends with this image:
A gypsy saw in the hand of Halcro Great strolling herds, harvests, a proud woman. He wintered in the poorhouse. They drove home from the Market under the stars Except for Johnston Who lay in a ditch, his mouth full of dying fires.
Melancholy and loss underpins much of Peacocke’s work, but also a sense of unfastidious wonder in the natural world, without ever once sentimentalising it. I want to turn to Peacocke’s most recent poems, for while there are many excellent poems here, it is the most recent work that I believe needs attention. The title poem ‘Finding the Planes’ is as close as we get to Peacocke’s ars poetica where the speaker resolves the find their plane despite going against the current, despite mutilated Rodin-esque figures and despite great losses, most notably that of her brother, the composer Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012). Bennett is remembered painfully in ‘Committal’, a short poem about the scattering of his ashes:
[…] Memory conducts painstaking reinvention: eyes, voice, hands, uncounted images of one countless man.
The music of Peacocke’s recent poetry is much starker, less narrative and more ruminative as Peacocke has been forced by external events to look more inward to her own life, always coming back to an awareness that life is always worth living and having:
[…] We’ve been puppeted about far too long, say the bones. All angle and dangle. Wind, rain. Let’s do without this day. And yet the workhorse body does what it does […] [‘The Weight of a Day’]
Elegiac and stark but not without moments of humour as above, Peacocke’s newer poems are able to find solace in the natural world. The speaker is grateful for even the smallest of gifts or blessings:
A loss, a death, was stuck hard as a gall in my throat. I was foolish for consolation, wanting a god to be angry with. Shadows; December sun; oak apples, twigs, dry leaves, a bird. Nothing but this, it said. [‘What the Bird Said’]
In the closing lines to the final poem (‘Paddling at Lake Aziscohos’) in this book, the speaker offers us a serio-comic zeugma: Unexamined life / not worth living. / Unlived life not worth / (Flip!) examining. Peacocke’s life is patently worth the living and the examining and I am glad that this poem playfully acknowledges this. These are poems of tremendous value that always find their planes, in spite of it all.