Knowledge of Trees

Thumbing from Lipik to Pakrac, Peter Street (130pp, 8, Waterloo Press)

Had Peter Street set out to be a poet, he could not have prepared himself any better. He has worked in a slaughterhouse, as a gravedigger, a tree surgeon and a chef. All of these former incarnations inform his writing, as do some of his personal experiences. This latest collection is organised in sections which reflect his different experiences. For my money, the best sections are 'The Graveyard Shift', 'Just Trees', and the title section ' Thumbing from Lipik to Pakrac', which charts his impressions of war-torn Bosnia when he travelled there as part of a humanitarian convoy in 1993. The strength of this last section is that he tells it as he found it, with no trimmings or overt poeticisms, just gritty life in all its squalor and determination to survive. For example, the young mother who picks through a rubbish dump to feed her children is described as 'a sparrow in a red dress', in 'Homeward Bound', and in 'Zagreb Camp', after giving the reader his impressions of the people who live there, one young man is given a close-up shot of words:

     Our interpreter - an English Lit. student,
     his family wiped out,
     is talking of Shelley in a waste land
     such as Eliot never saw. 

The juxtaposition of war and Romantic poetry is not new, but here it shocks the reader. It enforces the realisation that even amongst the effort to survive, having lost everything, including one's books, poetry still has the power to comfort and embrace everyone, provided the verse is committed to memory. The unexpected reference to Eliot's 'The Wasteland' says it all.

Street has to guard against a tendency to seek for sympathy from the reader. There is no doubt that he has overcome difficulties and disabilities to be a writer, and he has done some excellent work to promote the writing of others in a similar situation, but there are times when the work can be a little sentimental. The weakest section for this is the first one, 'Not Being Me', but even here there are some astonishingly good images, such as the idea of bacon and eggs 'applauding in the pan' in 'Dinner's Ready', which is about a camping trip in childhood. Street is imaginative, often strongly evocative and vivid, his imagery helped along by his dialect words which have a power of their own, for example in 'Ring Mistress' a pig's head on the table is 'gobbing an orange', and 'Looking For A Sunday' celebrates the Sundays of the past, where working class people would, dressed in Sunday best, take a constitutional, a 'day for trilbies, /polished shoes, 'Evening in Paris'.

The best section is 'Just Trees' where Street draws on his encyclopaedic knowledge of trees to create voices for them. The close observation and affection for nature is reminiscent of John Clare. Street, like Edward Thomas, loves waste ground where nature can flourish undisturbed:

     Back, from goodness knows where,
     maybe five hundred orchids,
     the other side of the willows;

     running rings round an old car bonnet,
     as if thinking it's their turn
     to get their own back.
          ('Prenton Dell, Ellesmere Port')

This is well-made book which is nice to hold: all books should be a physical pleasure to handle. Street's poetry appeals to everyone, it is plain talking, not full of fancy words or clever ideas. It is readable and accessible, yet has its own verbal tricks up its sleeve.

        Angela Topping 2009