Monday, 30 December 2013

The Silence Teacher by Robert Peake

Heart-breaking has become a blurb word – but what is poetry for, if not to represent the breaking of hearts?  This pamphlet carries out its work lyrically, tersely, deftly, in poems that are restrained but also spill, slowly, down the page.  Many could be partially re-lineated into iambic pentameters, and this contributes to the elegiac pace and tone.  They feel formal, even when free(ish), and there’s a pause at each line-end, even when enjambed.  In ‘Apologies to the Insomniac’, Peake writes:

I have cultivated silence like a bush,
pruning away at the edges, finding a shape.

Grief is kept mostly out of view in our culture, borne mostly in silence.  Peake’s is for the death of an infant son, aged three days, to whom The Silence Teacher is dedicated.  The poems both convey and describe something of what this is like: in ‘Double Agent’,

Each morning, I make myself up.
I make up what I like: oranges,
say, or rhubarb…
It’s easy, like being a double
agent, except that both countries
are you,

‘The Haircut’ recounts what happens when the hairdresser asks the narrator if he has children.  In ‘A Kick or a Punch’:

Months later, I found
a toy truck in a drawer, and felt,
not like a father, but a boy
who had lost a playmate,

The ‘I’ in The Silence Teacher feels as at one with the author as could be – no playing around with the reader, but there is playfulness.  Fish take on clients’ characteristics in ‘Aquarium in the Waiting Room of My Wife’s Obstetrician’, or become fortune-tellers in ‘Koi Pond’, a 2-page poem that appears as limpid as the pond:

I went to pay a visit to the koi,
to see what they thought of my life,
and how I had been living it.
Beneath the imperturbable surface,
they mouthed the words, saying
“bleb” and “bleb” and “bleb”.
Some torpedoed, others swung
a lazy fin, like an oarsman,
turning a casual arc. Some lay
like unexploded mines, chin up.

This poem, which can be read here at And Other Poems, is full of metaphor, some of it in layers (at least that’s how I read it); if paraphrased it might sound laboured or over-complex, but the clarity and simplicity of language and syntax carries one through.

And when our paediatrician
bowed his head, that man
of science became ordained
a priest of human religion.
What was his prayer again?

As well as fortune-telling fish, there’s a wild-man muse who comes “down from the forest, smeared with mud” to tell the poet off and command him what to write, and a spookily oracular fisherman.  

Several poems tenderly draw in the narrator’s wife, both before and in time of sorrow.  This is from ‘How You Were Conceived’:

Mockingbird sings all night,
and if she did not answer,

I too would become frantic,
baroque, filling the air with trills,

to shorten the distance between silence
and the silence that has no reply.

Most pamphlets (let alone full collections) have at least a couple of weaker poems somewhere in the middle; this one doesn’t.  Assonance strengthens the elegiac tone and Peake is a deft rhymer, unafraid of mostly full-rhyme terza rima in the title poem, which opens The Silence Teacher, sets the scene for it, explains the title and ends like this.  “Her” refers to a girl who can’t hear birdsong until, with a new hearing aid, she passes a nest.

Grief’s small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son’s tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,

and still as winter in a robin’s nest,
I did not say: I was the one who held him last
until the ticking heart stopped in his chest

or what that silence taught, and how it pressed.

The whole of that poem is here on Peony Moon.   

The Silence Teacher is published by Poetry Salzburg, in their pamphlet series.  I didn’t know they had one, and wonder if the other books are of similar quality; they are presumably as nicely produced.  It’s been reviewed over here in several places, and Peake, an American poet living in the UK, runs Transatlantic Poetry on Air, internet-based readings (the next one has John Glenday and Dorianne Laux).  I met him when we both read at the Troubadour in the autumn – people must have appreciated his reading because they bought the pamphlet.  But I’d like to hear it more talked about.  Maybe if the publisher were UK-based, this would have happened.