Tuesday, 20 May 2008

REVIEW: The Peregrine, by JA Baker

The Peregrine
JA Baker

Every now and then, you come across a discussion online, or in a poetry mag, about exactly what constitutes that apparent contradiction in terms, the prose poem.

I usually stay well outside the debate, being far too confused about the whole concept to add anything useful to it, and have always been content to tell myself that I know one when I see one.

Well this book is most definitely one, all 190-odd pages of it. Written by a retired librarian (and, in fact, rewritten five times before publication in 1967), it’s absolutely one of a kind. The author spent 10 years closely observing the Peregrines that wintered on the estuaries near his Essex home, and the result is something quite unlike any other book on nature I’ve ever come across.

The writing goes way beyond mere description, and steers clear of awe-struck wonder, anthropomorphism or sentimentality. Instead it borders on the truly metaphysical, and succeeds in painting a ‘real’ picture of these birds. Nature is cruel and unforgiving, but there’s a real sense of it as a single vast organism, each part of it wholly (but often invisibly) dependent on everything else. And so there’s a real, ahead-of-its-time ‘green’ message there, although there’s never any attempt to lecture or even spell it out explicitly.

It’s structured as a diary of a few months, and quite apart from the bird descriptions, it’s a superb evocation of a hard British winter (remember them?), with the whole of the countryside constantly transformed between liquid and solid states.

There’s loads of superb material in there about behaviour, too, which adds hugely to the sort of thing you get in fieldguides. They would tell you that Peregrines hunt other birds using their famous ultra-high speed stoop, but this shows the sheer range of prey they take, including plenty of ground mammals, as well as the range of hunting methods used. It’s the sort of thing that, as a birder, you see sometimes out in the field, but that makes you doubt yourself because it’s so far away from what the books say.

There is occasional genuine drama (the moment in the barn towards the end, for example), but generally it just slowly builds tension towards a climax that you don’t really see coming but that never overstates its case. Masterpiece is an overused word, but here it is wholly justified.


Frances said...

This sounds fascinating and wonderful. I shall definitely get a copy.

Prose poems do seem to attract controversy, don't they. Quite often someone brings one along to a workshop and we're often again - why is this a poem and not prose, etc. Perhaps we should just have a category entitled 'beautiful writing'.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, you're right. I don't think the definition should really matter at all.
Do get a copy, though - it's well worth it.