London Grip Poetry Review – Peter Sansom

Poetry review – LANYARD: Kate Noakes enjoys the wide range of recollections in Peter Sansom’s latest book

Peter Sansom
ISBN 9781800170209

They say the dead surround us all the time. This is never more true than in Peter Sansom’s many elegies for friends, like Gerard Benson and Sarah Maguire, and the many members of his family, and town-life long past. Here too are poems for writers: Koch, Lawrence, Emily Brontë. This is not a book to pick up if you are feeling melancholy like Sansom: ‘I’m tired of everyone being dead’ (‘Mini Van’); but on a sunny day it is a treat to read his clear writing and finely detailed observations, and walk the paths of his recollections.

The collection opens and closes with two long multi-part poems. ‘Kings Mill’ uses the device of a map to make a psycho-geographical tour of familial locations and events: ‘Map of the back of my hand, of my head/ the me my me my of an ambulance.’ ‘Lanyard’ similarly tours the locations of childhood, later life, and memory making for an autobiography:

Look down that road you used to know
and there you are with you mum, wheeling her tartan bag
from bingo or sitting in the indoor market…, 

where the lanyard of the title and the poem is both a noose, and ‘a badge of office,’ metaphorically perhaps it is the thing you have about your neck, the weight of the dead.

There is much coming to terms, such as to a half-brother’s mental illness and treatment (‘Brian’), as well as giving thanks to friends, however late, as in to ‘Barbara and Derek, Derek and Barbara.’ A good device for an elegy is that of ‘Phone Call’, where Samson’s dead sister is on the line, or so it seems, and the thing he wants to say to her ‘of course/ it’s her daughter [he doesn’t] say it to.’

And Samson worries too about his own health: ‘Then I wait for the specialist in hearts/…to tell me/ what I don’t need to know’ (‘ECG’), or ‘And so I went to bed and didn’t die/ of pneumonia, the old man’s friend’ (‘Pneumonia’), even though it killed his brother, and Louise MacNeice whom he mentions in the poem.

Sansom’s politics is lightly worn but is there in almost throw away comments like: ‘I wonder how many have actually died/ in an underfunded waiting room’ (‘At the Doctors’), or ‘Poverty doesn’t bear thinking about…’ (Halifax’).

But all is not gloom and doom. Sansom’s lightness of touch and sense of humour is here too. I enjoyed the response to an American in Whitby cemetery asking where Dracula’s grave was (‘Whitby’) and the subversion of ‘On First Hearing ‘Careless Whisper’’, where grandeur is not a peak in Darien but a more prosaic rainy drive home from camping. ‘Beyond Harlech’, which has ‘For twenty minutes/ a nice man talked to me in Welsh/ and I found myself nodding in complete,/ baffled agreement…’ made me smile with recognition. Mis-speakings for you to enjoy include penguin instead of pigeon (‘Pigeons’) and ‘Sheffield Halloween University’ (Alfie is a Train in the Duck Duck Park’) in one of several delightful poems for his grandchildren.

Further references to the Romantics and the Lake District include Wordsworth in ‘Ullswater,’ which is as much an exploration of the difficulties of writing — perhaps of writing this collection itself — as it is a description of rowing on a lake at night:

…Listen to the night, your back
to the water. Listen, your face to the rising fell.
The sky’s black or the sky’s awash with stars;
the moon’s full or there’s no moon. Set your mind
to it and your heart, feel the smooth roughness
where your palms will blister, and now, come on,
keep going, back to those you love, it’s endless.