Reviewed by Jeff Bursey
Best known for penning the splendid, unpredictable, and lushly written novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959), Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) earned respect, prizes, and even a living with his abilities as a painter, illustrator, novelist, playwright, costume designer, and writer of light verse. The Titus books contain a language that compels one to read passages aloud, to delight in the sounds matching the scenes. They also feature a fairly hapless Poet whose verse appears here and there. Yet that verse won't prepare one for the strength and depth of Peake's Collected Poems, assembled by R. W. Maslen.
Collected Poems contains all of Peake's poetry save for his nonsense verse and "one long poem from his adolescence." The straightforward introduction provides illuminating context for the poetry, and the notes at the back indicate where Maslen has stepped in to attend to unpolished poems. To Maslen's credit, he refrains from special pleading and lets Peake's lifetime of poetic work speak directly to our sensibilities.
Peake's poetry is well-crafted, intense, and investigative of states of being, occupations, the hellishness of war at home and on the battleground, and domestic life. "If I Could See, Not Surfaces" sums up his stance:
If I could see, not surfaces,
But could express
What lies beneath the skin
Where the blood moves
In fruit or head or stone,
Then would I know the one
And my eyes
Would give the worm
No hollow food.
Other poems, such as "Rhondda Valley" and "The Glassblowers," illustrate Peake's fascination with and understanding of the working lives of miners and glassblowers. "We do not see with our eyes but with our trades," Maslen quotes him as saying. Indeed, his own vocation as an artist compelled him to celebrate, or allude to, artists such as Jacob Epstein, Robert Frost, and Vincent van Gogh.
Assembled here in chronological order, the war poems treat the theme from different angles, over many pages, and have a cumulative power. "Before Man's Bravery I Bow My Head" begins:
Before man's bravery I bow my head:
More so when valour is unnatural
And fear, a bat between the shoulder-blades
Flaps its cold webs -- but I am ill at ease
With propaganda glory, and the lies
Of statesmen and the lords of slippery trades.
while "Fort Darland" contains this passage of muted anger:
If my head droops, or my hands are not forced
Into my sides at the exact parade
Upon the asphalt square where men are made,
I am insulting England and am cursed.
The failure of the soldier to master the simplest martial maneuver and its repercussions, matched with the unease felt towards what war requires of men to whom fighting is anathema, keep the humanity of this figure intact despite the demoralizing circumstances. Challenges to one's integrity come in forms other than combat, though, as the first section of "The Consumptive. Belsen 1945" spells out:
If seeing her an hour before her last
Weak cough into all blackness I could yet
Be held by chalk-white walls, and by the great
Ash coloured bed,
And the pillows hardly creased
By the tapping of her little cough-jerked head --
If such can be a painter's ecstasy,
(Her limbs like pipes, her head a china skull)
Then where is mercy?
Is this my traffic?
The narrator's conundrum -- should he depict a woman who is wavering between being a subject and an object? -- recalls an earlier poem ("Is There No Love Can Link Us?") where "There is no other link. Only this sliding / Second we share: this desperate edge of now." The "now" is slippery to the touch, and ambivalences fill the artist as death consumes "this doomed girl of tallow."
Most of Peake's war poems are somber, but "To the Illegitimate of War" delights in the children born as a result of "the hedgerow lust / The hay-rick love / The hillside play / The blackout opportunity." Children appear in some of his most affecting work, such as this passage from "Grottoed beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving":
Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.
Present throughout Collected Poems are forces inimical to life: the grey shadows of the 1930s as war approached, its bloody arrival, the bombing of England and destruction throughout the world, the awareness of which is present in "If I Would Stay What Men Call Sane":
Now, now, the bomb strikes, and flung limbs are strewn
Severed and fresh since this short poem started
In (who cares what poor country).
As well as his wartime experiences, Peake's nervous breakdown in 1942 and the onset of Parkinson's in 1958 color most of his later poetry. Those poems which feature his wife Maeve Gilmore or his children stand out for their tenderness. Some were found in notebooks and never did get a final polish, as Maslen explains, so we must balance the occasional rough-hewn draft with the access it provides to a mind circling around the exact way to say things. Collected Poems helps us appreciate an aspect of Peake that lay dispersed in various publications, establishes him as a serious, vigorous poet, and, crucially, provides us with a way to re-evaluate his literary value. For all this, it deserves high praise.
Books mentioned in this post