Build Your Own Narrative

Tripping Daylight, Peter Dent (112pp, £9.95, Shearsman)

I've been an admirer of Peter Dent's poetry for some years now and have been anticipating a new collection with relish. Tripping Daylight certainly doesn't disappoint, from a first viewing of its wonderfully harmonised cover - a fusing of the 'abstract' and the 'natural', very germane to the book's content - to a gradual unfolding of the material itself, split into three sections, each being presented as tight formal structures, each poem discrete yet having association and resonance with those in its company. If there's a general comment I could make about this book it's that there's a greater sense of anxiety underlying these 'fractured narratives' than I've noticed in Dent's work before. I imagine that the causes for this are both personal and public and the 'times that we live in', to rehabilitate a ripe cliche, certainly intrude into the textures and content of this intriguing writing.

The first section, 'Tripping Daylight', is made up of 80 14-line blocks, with a substitute for line-breaks indicated by spaces between phrases and sections of sentences. In this respect and in terms of its jagged lyrical disconnections, I'm reminded of Nathan Thompson's recent work. These poems have the feel of a silent monologue, the mind embracing thoughts and materials 'imposed' from without, the detritus of the day encapsulated in snippets of language, including the clichˇd and the fresh, which meshed together into this well-balanced and texturally harmonious whole give the impression of being 'smoothed-out', even where, as I've suggested, there is often an abruptness or sharp change of gear:

     Not that this morning's light is too intense.    I
     have a scheme that interests itself in 'desirable'
     structure'    in evocations of a promising site
     illusion is proving less than useful    no security
     no substance I know of can help the sequence
     forward    the plot if it really is a plot excites
     more fear than hope    I'm presently unprepared
     to entertain such a climb ..............
              (from '2')

The 'aboutness' of this writing is, of course, unknowable. There's a suggestion of a project about to be attempted, a journey - whether in the mind or in 'actuality' - to be planned, yet there's a fearfulness about the enterprise, which may be a self-reflective comment on the nature of artistic creation or perhaps a more 'solipsistic' withdrawal from the 'world out there', based on a not unreasonable anxiety related to news items and/or information overload. We don't know, yet there's an intriguing element to this uncertainty, which sends the reader into a space of his/her own, creating or projecting imaginative fictions into the gaps which Dent hasn't filled in. I'm reminded of the somewhat paranoid and claustrophobic world of Kafka's short story 'The Burrow', and the last line of this poem refutes such a determined and 'closed-down' ending as might have been expected:

     'I shall scale the great unseen'.
            (from '2')

There are references to light - hinting at the book's title - and to paintings and to the artefacts and procedures surrounding the life of a painter/visual artist which also imply a more expansive environment, if an 'artificial' one, and also suggestions of a more carefree attitude - 'a lazy Summer's day kept endings/quiet' - yet there's also a calculated vagueness, a distancing process, sometimes underlined by the use of 'reported thought':

     Did he go to the attic often    am I meant to say?
     his last word as I have it is surely the perfect
     introduction    'tomorrow's done' with boxes like
     no one's business all unsealed    did he mean to
     pry I wondered    though he never meant to hide
     there was seldom a page where all was said    less
     signed    a still air    a musty invitation to settle ....
             (from '36')

which again builds up a backdrop of mystery and an almost claustrophobic sense of quiet unease. You can build your own narrative into the gaps as Dent gives the reader the space and permission to do so.

Part 2 - 'Arithmetic  & Colour', is made up of 7-liners, 3 to a page, and has a slightly more active feel, somewhat frenzied yet also evoking the landscapes of a De Chirico or the game-playing descriptions of Paul Auster. There's a more foregrounded sense of wordplay here, which creates a different mood and for this reader, at least, made the poems easier to engage with in a less cerebral, more playful manner:

     Brand leader or companion in arms?    out in the
     square he did everything he was told    hard as it
     was he remembered carrying favours    to safety
     to the last affray as his lady smiled    but streets
     were deserted and his dissertation left much to
     desire    how unrehearsed it was yet how sweetly
     bought    her colours captured a likeness to like
           (from '36')

The overt use of alliteration - deserted, dissertation, desire, together with the possible intentional play on 'currying favour' (sometimes unintended puns are as good as those which are intended) creates an environment which is more open to speculative creation and the reader really comes into his/her own. We are also invited, it seems to me, to ponder the possible origins of phrases such as 'how unrehearsed it was yet how sweetly/bought', which feels more like a lifted, or partially lifted phrase, as does 'to safety/to the last affray as his lady smiled' and adds a possible hint of the 'incongruous' -'his lady smiled' - which seems like something borrowed from the realms of courtly love.  

The final section, entitled 'Theatre', has titles rather than numbers and each poem is made up of quatrains, with, in most cases, a final single line. This heightening of the 'artificial' formal constraint points openly to the poem as a constructed game and once again, there's a strong sense of 'the visual' within these pieces - painting appears to be an activity which is of some importance to Peter Dent:

     Pestered on and off through the night by patches
     of moonlight and changes of angle    it's not the
     first time a still life has got the better    there is
     much more serious industry under a cloud    for

     The life of me    presenting tokens cracks no ice
     nor does a waking dream when dark things out
     of nowhere get in first!    conspiracies?    I can't
    say I've given them a chance    still my daytime

     Has a way of engineering thought     which come
     a certain mix of habits can set me up    have you
     seen it yet?    the yellow half-light or that silver
     stream?    all conscious matter is a man's delight ...

     Of thunder    or who is it out there under trees?
           (from 'Disappearances')

The hinting at a mix of registers here is intriguing. This poem almost reads as an updated Shakespeare soliloquy, where the villain/protagonist is racked with guilt and doubt yet plotting further dire machinations. How much, if any? of this poem has been directly lifted. I'm unsure but its pictorial ruses and Dent's suggestion of the artificial and the dramatic ('Theatre') combine intriguingly with a more introverted sense of withdrawal and obsessive reading. I found these poems fascinating, not always a comfortable read but engaging and thought-provoking and thoroughly stimulating in a variety of ways. Excellent.

     © Steve Spence 2012