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Steve Spence

"A Wind-Up Collider" by Peter Dent, pub. Shearsman Books. 108pp. £9.95

I always look forward to a new collection from Peter Dent as he’s one of the shining lights of modern poetry, experimental to a degree but his work is also located in a world I can understand and his engagement with language is as filled with emotional connection as it is with a playful spirit. He has an impressive backlist now and his work really should be better known than it is. This new compilation is split into two sections: the first, A Surrogate Dream is composed of what I’m going to call prose poems (mainly short, nothing more than around twenty lines with many shorter pieces) and the second, A Broken Angel or A Bundle of Straws, stanzas or blocks of text of varying length which look more like ‘traditional poems’.

Here’s a short piece from the first section, picked pretty much at random, to give any potential reader a flavour of what to expect:


          A day humouring your mentor is a day misspent.     It’s my own
          decision to nurse a rumour and engineer a ploughshare.   I
          expect a living, but don’t we all?    Lies all told are a
          monument to our mystery: what we see in others is
          probably twice what we see in ourselves, don’t underestimate.
          Any story on a good day fires a song worth singing
          for your supper.     Spit it out.    You were a vagrant,
          you carried clouds of anything.    Saddlebags stuffed with life.
          But clarity?    I love a cloud with a conscience, I will hear it out.

Let’s take that a sentence at a time and see where it leads us, even in relation to the whole piece, perhaps. You could construct your own narrative around the first short sentence, for example as there is plenty of scope for invention in a statement which has both clarity and a suggestion of the nebulous. Dent’s work is full of such sentences and the second has a similar feel which is aided yet possibly undermined by the deliberately playful ‘engineer a ploughshare’ which makes you rethink ‘nurse a rumour’, ponder the metaphorical nature of all language and yet note the physical exactness of the usage (swords to ploughshares but all have to be ‘engineered’ in the first place). The jump to ‘I expect a living… ’ also has connection when you think about it and then we are plunged into ‘Lies…. monument…. mystery’ which again suggests ‘the unknowable’ or the complexity of things and particularly of ‘consciousness’ which he gnaws away it in a very satisfying manner. This text is certainly ‘cloudy’ and a story on a good day will fire a song worth singing even when the song is not reducible to full explication or perhaps because of that. I love the idea of ‘a cloud with a conscience’ which perfectly suggests or encapsulates the whole piece which is certainly ‘stuffed with life’.

From Part 2 we get the following poem, again picked pretty much at random yet curiously connected to the previous piece, both by the opening ‘subject’ (‘Clouds know…’) and by the gentle explorations which follow on:

          MAYBE A BIT

              but nothing remotely like this


          Clouds know just what they’re doing.     And my coffee has the
          balance I hardly ever achieve.    Stranger than this, the area of sky
          that’s blue is visibly right for it – for everything we intend.

          Beyond this, you can be (even be in the mood to be) over the
          worst.    Lost, forgiven & right there in the mix.    I like the idea
          of the girl sitting on the bookshop floor, reading The History

          of Us & her friend beside her, untangling her hair.    Both of
          them composing their now.    At once, it’s different again and so
          much other than we thought – as tricky, in fact, as a poem.

Once again it’s that mix of precision and ‘cloudiness’ that is so difficult to achieve and yet so ‘right’. I’m reminded of MacNeice’s famous phrase from his poem Snow, ‘The drunkenness of things being various’, yet Peter Dent has an added sense of playfulness, this is a different kind of poetry altogether for we have ‘The History of Us & her friend beside her, untangling her hair’. The capital H for history implies an important tome, perhaps a treatise of global importance , yet the subject is Us, with the sneakily placed comma after ‘her,’ and might this subject, two girls in a bookshop be every bit as intriguing and complex as ‘the world out there’. It could also be a play on U.S. I suppose but I’m pushing it here and this is not I think what Dent intended.  We have a mix of the micro and the macro, a poem about writing a poem which is nonetheless as light and fluffy as a cloud and as nebulous and shortlived.  

In’ What’s On’ from the first section we get the following – ‘Everything updated and the bushy-tailed / backstory yours to keep; the old have had it, O.K., kids rule’. This may be throwaway but it suggests a mature perspective and Dent’s wide-ranging cultural references, hinting at a past well-stocked with memorable stuff provides the basis for connections and disconnections which underline a sense of the absurd in relation to the multifarious nature of modern life. This is great poetry and Peter Dent is a great poet.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019