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Martin Stannard

"Mutant Summers New Histories", Peter Dent (Red Ceilings Press, 50pp, £6.00)

In 2005 I reviewed Peter Dent’s Handmade Equations, a full-length collection from Shearsman, and I’ve just re-read that review because (a) I suspected that this time around I might end up saying the same things using different words and (b) I have been slumbering, and feeling weary of poetry that seems determined to make me work, poetry full of earnest intent but little or anything in the way of reading pleasure, and I needed some prodding to stir from the sofa.

Because (a) turned out to be not far from wrong, here are a couple of chunks from that earlier review:

One certainly has to be prepared to read them [the poems] in the way the best poems demand you read them, which is not on your terms, but on theirs. And to know also that a personal, individual reaction to whatever goes off in them is perfectly fine. You may never know exactly what the poet is getting at, or understand exactly where this stuff came from. They are, I suggest, intelligent things that ask only that you treat them with intelligence and the kind of openness and examination and exploration with which they were made. Reading poetry isn’t a science. It may not even be an art. But it is demanding sometimes.

[The poems] are about, if “about” is the correct word, how we are, in a world of thought and things. That seems so bland, put like that, as to be almost wholly meaningless. Perception and experience may be better words, but I’m starting to think a crash course in philosophy might be on the cards. Dent is engaged in a tremendous attempt to place thought and the world on to the page, but it’s far from being a didactic project. The reader is asked, rather, to engage with the poems and join in the attempt. He or she has to do a great deal of work – sometimes, to be honest, simply to get a handle on a few lines. But when you have a hold of that metaphorical handle, even if it’s only briefly, it’s singularly interesting. I only wish I could describe it. No way are these poems for that unlikely animal, the general poetry reader who, perhaps, would prefer a recognisable subject matter and some kind of narrative resolution. But there’s lots of other places that reader can go. The poems are a challenge. As challenges go, I think this one is worth taking up, but you have to want to be there.

Please forgive this recycling. I am rather lazy, and recycling is so “now”.  Here’s a poem from the book currently under consideration – one of Red Ceilings’s beautiful little A6 things. All the poems in the book have the same form.


          Stealing      so easy easier than she thought she’d put the hour
          Back later     and where she found it     how muddy it was

          Doubt like a stranger with the possibility of revision     as long
          As ingredients stayed the same her pictures would be safe

          From the world       failure to condemn incitement earned her a
          Survival against the odds     days grew round like weeds

          Please not now she said      negatives & shadows denying the
          Time that held her       a field of memory all there was to tell

Here you have (probably) a slight hint of narrative, but it’s too slight to be of much practical use, a suspicion that some words may have been deleted (assuming they were there in the first place), and some “thought”, although quite what the thought is, or whether it can be summarized, is questionable. And that’ s only a very (very) cursory take on what I think might be the process or procedure going on here. This poem has a footnote, as do several of the others in the book. Here it is:

          ‘weeds’ : (of highways and byways): rustwyrt and glaswyrt, ladies’ underlace,      oddstreak and           esser quickpea, and more

This, unsurprisingly, is of no immediately discernible use in understanding the poem it’s not as if “understanding the poem” matters, after all – but instead it shows us how much pleasure (that word again…) Dent gets from words. And so should we, otherwise, why are we here, reading poems? I’m aware some people read poems to be reassured about what they think, but I’m on pretty safe ground when I say that Peter Dent is not  in the business of writing poems for those people.

There’s a good deal of innovative or experimental or call-it-what-you-will poetry around these days, but a lot of it is witless i.e. without wit. Dent has wit, and a way with a phrase that makes him very readable even at his most opaque:

                    the way out is through

          The cat flap     (consider how few were the recordings of
          Dick Twardzik)     I come and go as I please

– at which point in “Remembering April” I had no idea what was going on but smiled anyway. One surely cannot help but like poems that make one smile. Lots of stuff is going on in these poems, some of which has become clearer the more I read them, even though I can’t say quite what it is, and some of which still remains a mystery to me, and will probably remain so. That’s alright. That’s perfectly alright. Carry on, Mr. Dent. We need you.


Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2019