London Grip Poetry Review – Peter Daniels

Poetry review – OLD MEN: Paul McDonald finds plenty of verve and imagination as well as mature reflection in the latest collection by Peter Daniels


Old Men
Peter Daniels 
Salt Modern Poets
ISBN: ?978-1784633172

Peter Daniels, poet, publisher, Quaker, and longtime resident of Stoke Newington has been writing critically acclaimed work for decades, and it’s a treat to see that age isn’t slowing him down. Indeed, it’s become his subject in this intelligent and compelling new collection.

As the title suggests, age is the primary theme. There are reflections on opportunities missed in “Encounters with Ron”, which references an old acquaintance who could have been more than just a friend, if only the speaker had indulged his passions rather than ‘remain chaste’. His thoughts are sharpened by an increasing sense of mortality as death ‘closes on Ron/and will continue closing affairs till there are no more people’. This final line acknowledges his own mortality, and perhaps leaves readers to ponder the events and characters who give their own lives meaning, and who, like Ron, could have made them mean something different. He picks up this theme again in “Unknown”, which opens: ‘Of all the unknown people pouring down the other escalator,/one had to be the perfect soul-partner never encountered’. Who knows ‘what it was/the wink in the street would have led to’ had it happened: ‘the one answering the right question, if he’d thought of it’. The tone is reflective rather than regretful in these poems, however, and they seem to come from a place of contentment.

Poems like “Dormouse Summer” address the transitory nature of life, with its allusion to Byron’s notion of a human lifespan being ‘The summer of a dormouse’. It opens:

Missing the small amount of warmth 
and possibility: is it the greatest fault?

Again the question of missed opportunities seems to be on his mind – given the finite ‘moments’ that ‘make up this tiny summer as it folds’, we might assume that making the right choices is everything. The poem lists the things we do to sustain ourselves like eating, nest-building and sex, and then weighs living against not living, specifically the periods of absence he associates with sleep, and which accompany us through life. The poem closes:

I can eat my own weight over again,
I can become a giant in my own field.

Sleep has a call on life: is it the genuine
purpose, to build a darkness where we float?

‘That’s the secret,’ says the dormouse,
‘Falling into the void is the start of flight’.

He’s not the first to speculate about sleep in this way of course, but it’s beautifully expressed here in the mouth of Byron’s dormouse: the diminutive creature becomes a philosopher, suggesting that it might be possible to, in the speaker’s words, ‘become a giant in my own field’, and understand that the ‘secret’ of life may lie in the ‘darkness’, the ‘void’, that creates its context.

Age adds significance to objects as well as people, as suggested in “Rings”, which recalls a pinky ring gifted to the poet by his mother. Where others ‘wear/engagement and wedding rings’, pinky rings signify in their own way: ‘Victorians read them as ‘Not interested in Marriage’’. In later life the ring resides in a drawer, but the symbolism is clear: ‘My mother made me a homosexual’. While he acknowledges that this line is a cliché, it’s employed wittily here, indicative of the playful tone informing many of these poems. It’s also suggestive of a poet who spends time thinking about the relationship between past and present, and its bearing on his identity. While he avoids the rabbit hole of self-analysis, he does enjoy pondering his place in the world, his relationship between it and him. We see his philosophical dimension in poems like “Royal Worcester”, where he’s struck by the ‘chime’ of the crockery he drinks from, its confirmation of time and space, and, in turn, his own reality. The latter depends on his ability to ‘connect thing to thing’; he deepens the metaphor by extending it to the notion of connection in a broader sense, which includes human relationships.

Daniels is a scholar as well as a poet, and, while he doesn’t make a show of this, many poems have considerable allusive weight. Relationships are viewed through the lens of Don Quixote, for instance, in the excellent sequence “Happy and Fortunate”, and Yeats features heavily throughout the book, both in terms of verbatim quotes, and indirect allusion. There are echoes of “Easter 1916”, for instance, in the gorgeous coming-of-age poem “Moseley Park”: we see it in the phrasing employed to describe his experience of change, the speaker and his gay friend are ‘changed awkwardly’ as they emerge from the closet in their Birmingham youth, ‘changing/and changing differently’ when they move to London in later life. When he re-enters Moseley Park as an older man he finds that, in the midst of change, some things endure, ‘our old selves: still/enclosed deep inside us’. Thus he is not, we might assume, ‘changed utterly’.

Something else that endures is what Gregory Woods describes as the poet’s ‘erotic interface with the world’. Daniels has a pleasingly candid approach to sex and the body, which features in the opening poem of the book, “My Dirt”:

I have it in me. It’s a speck of dirt that grows
and lives on pleasure, from down low, inside 
my dirty place. It likes that unholy fact.

He doesn’t quite know what this is, and he doesn’t ‘know its intentions’, but we sense that his ‘unholy’ id is a creative spur as well as a torment, and the poet would be reluctant to dispense with the grit that makes the pearls. Erotic imagery abounds in poems like “City of Mouth”, with its less than positive reflection on mayoral motivation: ‘Three more times Lord Mayor/up on the hill with the pussycat rubbing his leg, tail/erect, and his own ambition making him hard again’. We have glimpses of his own erotic life in poems such as “In the Shower”, where the speaker and his online lover exchange livestream action from each other’s bathroom. We learn that the two have never touched in the flesh, but now they ‘watch each other shower down/whatever held us back, and the water takes it away’.

While many of the themes and preoccupations here are those of an older man, there is a vigorous and irrepressible creative presence at the heart of Old Men. Daniels seems to possess all the benefits of age: a breadth of reading and an abundance of lived experience, with none of the drawbacks; certainly there is no lack of verve and inventiveness here, and I for one eagerly await a further instalment – Even Older Men – in the fullness of time.