Nine Arches Press, 2009
You think you know someone, and then…
That thought kept occurring to me as I made my way through Peter Carpenter’s thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining fifth collection.
Partly that’s because, in many of the poems, he concerns himself with probing the layers of mystery surrounding people, whether they be ageing relatives, former schoolmates, strangers observed in day to day life, or even historical figures such as the long-since disappeared body from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
Sand Person, which deals with the latter, concludes:
Now I’m a shadow curve.
Then people knew my name.
Make me out. I challenge you.
It’s a challenge that Carpenter lays down again and again, not to indulge in intellectual game-playing, you suspect, but instead out of a desire to enable the reader to participate in the difficulties, the ambiguities and, yes, the excitements, of creating or recreating these lives.
The thought also returns when you start to consider Carpenter himself. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on him as a fairly traditional lyric poet of the type that forms the backbone of the UK small press scene, he wrongfoots you with a subtle shift of tone, technique or subject that sets you wondering all over again.
Towards the end, for example, there’s an elegy for his father, called Nightwatchman. I like it, and I hope not just because it describes the sort of low-level club cricket situation I’ve found myself in again and again. But although this is far better realised than most of its type, plenty of poems of this sort get written and published all the time.
It’s immediately followed, though, by a poem called Beautiful Game, which on the face of it carries on the sporting theme, but quickly moves into rather odder, slightly surreal territory – a footnote reveals that it’s based on a dream recounted by the artist James Cockburn.
Or there's the excellent False Oat Grass – A Figure Of Eight Walk, which uses repetition, near-repetition and a structure only half-grasped (by the reader) to turn what could have been a run of the mill piece into something far more intriguing.
It’s a book full of surprises of those sorts – unshowy but expertly deployed, so that things never get predictable.
Beyond those half-glimpsed lives I mentioned, Carpenter is also a fine poet of the urban pastoral. In some pieces, such as the lovely To A Pipistrelle ("...full tilt Billy / Whizz, gut-curving bullet dive, liquorice sheen,/ an even giggle and then back on up…"), or In Brief, with its:
that do for me
and over again
it’s celebratory and even transcendent. Others, such as Settlers, paint a grittier picture, with the chicory which is colonising waste ground inviting “study, scuffed kicks, hurled stones sometimes”, and concluding with the gloomy “You lot might just make it through to September – / a gang-mower and shaven heads the standard fate.”
It hardly needs saying that the resonance of a poem like that goes far beyond botany, but Carpenter is far too good a poet to feel the need to point that out to the reader.
Let’s finish by going back to what I was saying earlier, about Carpenter initially seeming like a typical small press poet. In fact, I think this book helps make the point that there is no such thing, with Carpenter eventually coming across as a subtly distinctive traveller across the various factional boundaries, in the same way as someone like Geoffrey Holloway.
Far from pushing every poet into a homogenised, workshopped middle ground, then, perhaps the scene is allowing poets like Carpenter to find their own niche and flourish quietly. Well that's my theory, and you'll find few better arguments for it than this book.
Coming next week: Full review of Matt Nunn's Sounds In The Grass.