Sunday 19 April 2015

A tussle with understanding, Robert Peake's The Knowledge

An American living near London, Robert Peake writes poetry with transatlantic features, as is shown by the rich texturing of his first full collection, The Knowledge (Nine Arches Press, 2015). However, I'm not going to let this review get bogged down in an excuse for a sterile debate on the stereotypes of what might define British and American poetry. Instead, I’ll focus on doing my utmost to capture the qualities of Peake’s verse.

In his collection, the everyday is inextricably interwoven with the abstract, as in “April”. The poem begins by setting a concrete scene:

“Barmaids pull green spiral taps...”

Nevertheless, a change of gear soon takes place:

“Here is the sallow-green heart of things,
sap coursing through like amphetamine,
the sticky truth, its plausible deniability.”

Peake is launching towards ambitious ideas via an extravagant simile. Few of his contemporaries would dare to plant “deniability” in the midst of a poem that started off with a pint in a pub. Big issues are being met head-on rather than being dealt with obliquely.

In this sense, what is The Knowledge of the collection’s title? Well, it’s not just self awareness in poetic and vital terms. It’s a wrestling with how we shape our lives and verse once innocence has been forever discarded and suffering embraced. Peake channels his implicit (and sometimes explicit) debate through the lens of someone who lives as a foreigner. Among the early poems in the collection, “British Matches” hints at a feeling that Peake will explore in depth as the book goes on. The ending reads as follows:

“in a place that will never be home.”

The Knowledge takes the experience of being an outsider, of living within a community while not belonging, of discovering places with a freshness that lies beyond the reach of locals, and it builds towards a crescendo as the collection progresses, culminating in an excellent final section, “The Smoke”. Of course, this very title is cunning: only a person with local “knowledge” would be aware of London’s nickname and all its resonances and ramifications. In other words, Peake is signposting that he is about to embark on an emotional dissection of the capital city of the U.K. from the perspective of an American who knows it intimately.

Throughout “The Smoke”, British readers are rewarded with a view of London that encourages reassessment. However, there’s also a broader vision at work: the poet’s self-awareness is centred on a tension between the individual and the mass/morass via the portrayal of this city. As such, the final lines of “Clapham Junction” provide us with a terrific scene:

“Crowds weave together, and people disappear.
I step back from the edge, into the slipstream.
The train is gone, the moment past, but still
the ghosts remain, black shadows cast.”

Once more, we can see that one of Peake’s stand-out qualities is his ability to bring his poems to an arresting close, as in the following example from “Tap Water”, which seems to bring together several strands of the collection. There’s meticulous observation from an outsider, all funnelled into a leap that risks all in an intensely specific yet universal tussle with understanding:

“Standing at the railing on Blackfriars Bridge, I lean
into the mud-scented wind like a ship’s figurehead.
So much water. So many people. We thirst for our selves.”

I suggest that you join Robert Peake on his quest. The Knowledge engages. Like all top-notch poetry, it renews its readers.

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