Scenes From A Long Sleep by Peter Didsbury
There are few poets whose collected and new poems could ever be described as 'essential'. Most poets are good in small doses; collectively, their small poems look crowded and overwhelmed by the company of their fellows. What in a small collection or an anthology stands out as distinctive, gets lost in the company of more-of-the-same. Even big, shouty poems can get lost if all they have is another lot of equally loud poems; individual poems don't get heard above the din.
Peter Didsbury's poems, however, seem to relish each other''s company. There are short poems here and longer, medium length poems (no really long ones), all talking to each other and to the reader, quietly, loudly, but neither fading into the background nor domineering. Thus a whole poem like this:
In The Glass
Pegs left out on the washing line
Catch the light of the moon.
They present a savage necklace
Which the night is taking off.
I look out over small gardens,
Like my mistress.
I see myself reflected
In the glass at the end of the yard.
looks at first glance like just a neat little image; but it sits next to a much more mysterious and longer poem, ‘The Smart Chair’, which starts with a daughter’s remark about a chair ‘wearing’ a smart black tie and goes on to narrate strange tales of funerals, white houses and the bleak coastlines of Eastern England. Then we begin to notice things in the shorter poem too, the 'savage necklace', the 'mistress'; and we no longer know what size we are: are we a cat, for instance, or a human being?
Didsbury's poetry is full of these juxtapositions: you think you know where you (it usually somewhere in Northern England) but by the end of the poem, you’re not sure what century you're in, whether it's real or a dream; or whether what you think you've learnt you really have. He shares with Ashbery that sense that his poems start and end just because he chooses to, not because he's following the thread of a thought or because he's got something important to say. Unlike Ashbery, his poems tend to have something to say: usually about the condition of England, about the strangeness of objects, about the history that lies just inches under our feet.
He's claimed himself that he is not a post-modernist of any description; and I suppose we must agree with him, after all, he should know. However, like a lot of po-mo poets, he's very away of the status of these poems. They are constructs, and he knows it, and he knows he views the world through a literary haze: a large bird in 'Back of the House' 'was running away/ from a poem by Keats, and it failed.' The real world and the artificial get confused, but it never seems contrived as it often does in the more self-conscious of the post-modernists. It's something that troubles him, but he also revels in it; and his poems are always playing with the reader's perceptions. A darkly comic vision winds its way through this book like a river in an estuary: the Humber perhaps, heading for the sea.
Some of his recent poems have branched out from the matter of England, into Kurdistan, into Africa. His landscape, however, is largely the strange nowhereland of the Humber estuary, which seems to infest even the poems that are set abroad. But this brings us to another question: how does he relate to that other Hull poet, Philip Larkin? He's certainly more ambitious, and his influences are much deeper and wider, more European. Surrealism is mentioned on the back cover, which is usually a lazy critic's excuse for 'a bit weird', but here the word has some force: things in Didsbury's poems change size, morph, walk in and out of dream landscapes, and nothing is quite as it seems. His poems twist and turns themselves into strange knots like Arab Turbans, and most of them don't give up their meaning straight.
They don't make me think of Dali, however; more an English surrealist like Roland Penrose. He has, like Penrose, an ethnologist's eye for the strangeness of human objects and places (he's an archeologist by trade): the coffin factory, farmhouses with no front doors, pokerwork nameplates. Even ordinary objects become strange: a bear wants to become a sofa, office memos from psychotics called Brian. The Devil has a day off, and God tries to show off his knowledge of Sumerian. Some poems are funny, and I end up laughing or smiling at least; but they are funny in an East European sense, as if constantly aware of the bone beneath the skin. A bit like a voluble Charles Simic or Vasko Popa. Through it all the character of the poet is wandering, looking into things, making wry comments now and then.
There aren't too many people, or they're always kept at a distance. The occassional 'you'; or the fishermen in 'The Experts', for instance; and sometimes he writes in other peoples' voices: a priest, for instance, but many of his voices seem more like ventriloquisms than real characters. It's a fault, perhaps: but then whose heads are we ever in? Our own, of course. The poet observes, moves on, always a part of and slightly apart.
But there is no-one I can think of quite like Peter Didsbury anywhere else in England. His imagination is both local and European: rooted in the Hull estuary, but ranging over European history, and into the dream places of Rilke, Lorca, Eluard. He's almost impossible to quote from: though his poems are full of brilliant lines, they don't work unless you read the whole poem. And if you read that one, you have to follow it with the next. And the next.
This is a big black bottomless lake of a book. Dive in deep.
© Steve Waling 2004