Oasis Books, 1999 | 20pp. | €5,04
By HARRY GUEST.
YOU ARE MORE on your own reading Peter Dent’s work than with perhaps any other contemporary poet. Yes, you are reminded of W.H.Graham’s pursuit of the sayable, but Dent, asking “what thought thinks about”, is in a curious way both more lucid and more elusive – or you may compare him with a novelist like Pinget who is simultaneously precise and baffling, although Dent with his “wish to find perfection in the incomplete” gives us recipes for complicity in his research. His admiration for Lorine Niedecker’s “eagerness to know and learn” is understandable and he shares her sense of wonder plus her intensely delicate focus on the immediate – in his case, red bars of an electric fire that “glow and hum” or a woodlouse “rolling up”.
Simple Geometry contains eleven prose-poems of an extraordinary beauty. A painter studying blue vessels on an old oak table says “You almost have to take your mind off it. . . to get it right” – a paradigm for Dent’s own method since he too looks sidelong at reality so as to get it into focus. In the poem called Transition, “The ‘place’ tonight’s a word that loses meaning even as it calls for it Becoming something other Like a long-lost song but darker”.
In Adversaria he uses exactly the same form for every poem – six couplets beneath an enigmatic title. In these, questionings are partly answered, each investigation becomes perpetually queried and seemingly irrelevant tangents arrow back in in order to construct a fresh, intriguing whole. This splendid collection fascinates and delights in equal proportions, glinting with sudden humour as the eye leaps over those blanks between phrases to discover a contrast, a wayward reflection, a passionate desire to hone in on the absolute – even though, as he ruefully decided in Simple Geometry, “My thought’s eked out in echoes and approximations”.
Handmade Equations (with a handsome design on its cover by the author) is divided into two sections – Horizons and Façades and Faith and Valediction. New Register, the first poem in the book, introduces the poet in autumn “anxious at the wheel of an empty sky”. There is an unexplained task, tricky because he finds “familiar easy roads now just / Impossible to read”. There is a hint of ”an interim account” and “an illusion trying / To see him off and minus belief”. But the poem concludes with cautious optimism referring back to the striking metaphor of the start: “he’s steering clear he’s ready to go.” This excellently achieved poem exemplifies what is individual and exciting in Dent’s writing – the genuinely romantic celebration of “the new blues”, “October reconstructed” and “woods high on the skyline” – the mosaic of disjointed or allusive word-groups – the sure control of memorable imagery: “quick immaculate machinery” or “starmaps left for night”.
Each poem is a brand new exploration. He writes about writing (or about not writing) with a wry focus on the slipperiness of vocabulary, though never in an arid or abstract fashion. “Real” life – the sound of a siren, “a pedestrian in a street of wilful delirium”, “the syringa’s whitefall”, “a workman scraping out his mixer” – is brought into play because he is “making it not making it up” because “the facts do agree on it” but we concur that it is pointless to expect a pat solution or a facile clarification because Dent’s purpose in creating these delightfully complex enquiries into the nature of thought and perception is to make a pattern which embodies the very business of attempting to encapsulate or comprehend – but not reaching anything less complicated than the methodology of these attempts.
The second section includes two meditations on the First World War as a woman recalls someone “making / for the front shells falling” and, as in “Close Disorder”, “last night’s kills come / Begging” as well as a personal memory of a Field Trip in 1955 riding “a one-gear bike tyres grumbling” and hearing “that farmgirl blue-eyed saying her be for is”.
I very much admire Peter Dent’s skill, his utter sincerity, his refusal to opt for the easy way out and the way he offers the reader so much in each poem that is intriguing, honest and richly wrought. The very titles like Dry Spell (In Italics) or Dreamed-of Extremes (questions on a day out) promise such pleasure and do not disappoint when we encounter “outlandish almost turquoise trees / In a certain kind of light”.
Harry Guest’s latest publication (from Impress) is A Square in East Berlin, a translation of Torsten Schulz’s acclaimed novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed). He reviewed ‘Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer’, silent conversations, for the Fortnightly here and Peter Dent’s latest work here. Harry Guest was born in Penarth in 1932. He read Modern languages at Cambridge before beginning a career as a teacher in schools and universities in France, Japan, and England. With his wife, Lynn Guest, the historical novelist, he now lives in Exeter. His collected poems, A Puzzling Harvest, was published by Anvil in 2002. A subsequent collection, Some Times, appeared in 2010. His poem, ‘Links from a forgotten chain’ is here and his tribute to Peter Redgrove is here.
A poem by Peter Dent, ‘In close formation’, appears here.