Within the constraints of the format of a blog, it’s difficult to do justice to the complex simplicity of M.R. Peacocke’s poetry. As a consequence, rather than offering up a condensed review of her excellent new collection, The Long Habit of Living (HappenStance Press, 2021), today’s post attempts an in-depth analysis of an individual poem from the book in question. Peacocke’s work very much lends itself to such close attention, rewarding the peeling-off of her delicately applied layers of potential sense.
The poem in question, titled ‘The Path through the Wood’, feels especially significant because it comes to represent something of an Ars Poetica and, by extension, a vision of life itself. The opening lines of ‘The Path through the Wood’ immediately set out the co-existence of opposites. This is achieved via their juxtaposition:
Through the little gate. A breath in,
a breath out
measured the interim between is and is not…
‘In’ and ‘out’, ‘is’ and ‘is not’: both these opposites are interconnected by inhabiting the ends of consecutive lines. And then there’s the use of the word interim instead of interval, which might at first glance seem more natural. Peacocke’s choice underlines the provisional rather than the inevitable, the relative rather than the absolute.
As the narrator of the poem progresses through the wood, so conventional vision has to be put to one side:
…One sense became another: sigh of an
taste of the darkness, fragrance of touch. My eyes found rest…
In other words, the absence of sight means that other senses have to work overtime. The consequence is transcendence via unexpected perspectives and sensations. Is the poet referring to a fresh understanding of the world around us or to a creative process whereby experience and anecdote are turned into poetry? Or to both?
The poem’s last stanza, meanwhile, not only draws these strands together but also opens out beyond the poem itself:
…The self that walked through the wood
knew more than I,
till all that had led me, left me as I stepped out —
part with relief, part with regret — into fields of stars.
The first line invokes the sense of transcendence that ran through the previous stanza, but Peacocke eschews any Wordsworthian exaltation of the natural world. Instead, she uses the poem’s closing lines to relativise the narrator’s experience: led becomes left, while relief blends with regret.
And then, of course, she plants a deliciously ambiguous final image in our heads. Romantic? Stark? Or both once again? That interpretation can only depend on the beholder and the reader. Clarity riven through with nuance: M.R. Peacocke’s Ars Poetica and outlook on life.