David Cooke Reviews Peter Daniels and Roy Marshall

Bringing together poems written over a period of more than twenty years, Counting Eggs is Peter Daniels’ first full length collection which he has now published at the age of fifty seven.  However, Daniels is no late starter. Since the early nineteen nineties he has been honing his craft and had some conspicuous successes. He has won first prize in both the Arvon and the TLS Poetry Competitions and been a winner in the Poetry Business Competition.  Moreover, many of the poems included in Counting Eggs have appeared down the years in various pamphlets from Smith/Doorstep, Vennel, Mulfran and Happenstance.

The collection opens with ‘The Pump’, Daniels’ 2010 TLS prize-winning poem. Understated, colloquial, and reminiscent of Philip Larkin, there is something very appealing about its blend of discursiveness and precise observation:

 

After piped water, the pump becomes redundant,

the handle chained down at the side: at rest, if you like…

 

It’s what they call “the vernacular”.

Flowers in tubs do brighten it up, the pump

redone in white, the name of the foundry and the date

picked out in black.

 

Successfully evoking the actuality of an object, the poem also memorializes the stoicism of those whose lives were in many ways tougher than ours: ‘now the redundant pump can stand for / all the strength it took the kitchen girl to crank it / and crank it till the steely water came at last.’

However, if in ‘The Pump’ Daniels might be thought by some to be indulging in a typically English sense of nostalgia, this soon changes with ‘The Jar’, the poem which immediately follows it. Again the tone is matter of fact: ‘Covered with raspberries bigger than any raspberries, / the vacuum-sealed lid is a hard lid to open, / but using knees and much clenching, in the end / I wrench it free.’ Then the protagonist is shocked to discover that an unidentified creature has been living in the jar.  Although the incident has been traumatic for the shopper it is the creature who ends up dead. Moreover, any anthropocentric view of the incident is undermined when the protagonist acknowledges a responsibility to keep the creature ‘alive / in its environment – whole raspberry preserve.’ A similar theme is outlined in ‘Insects’ where first of all the existence of insects is more or less denied, or at least ‘existence’ as it is understood by humans. The argument is then developed in terms which are very funny and increasingly surreal:

 

Hardware wholesalers

in Birmingham have

big propylene

bins of them in racks.

Women in Singapore

are going blind assembling them.

I don’t know why we should

put up with them at all.

 

A less ironic exploration of man’s relationship with the natural world and one of Daniel’s most sustained pieces is ‘Shoreditch Orchid’, a poem which was a double prize winner in the 2008 Arvon Competition and the Ted Hughes Prize for Environmental Poetry.  Surviving after some catastrophe, the delicate flower symbolizes both the beauty and the resilience of the natural world as it rises from the wreckage of civilization:

 

and as I kick an old kerbstone

I’ll find you, Shoreditch orchid, true and shy,

rooting in the meadow streets

through old cable, broken porcelain rivets and springs.

 

In other poems Daniels observes with a bemused and sardonic eye the foibles of contemporary society, both here and in the United States.  In ‘Dull Funeral Home’ he revisits the territory of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; ‘And whenever you need it, they have time. / Visit for a drink with the embalmer, / take as long as you like.’ In ‘City Boy’ and ‘Wall Street’ it is the short-sighted materialism of our values that is called into question: ‘Life is money and the buildings are bigger here.’ ‘Mall of Mammoths’, dated Minneapolis, 1992, must presumably be rooted in some observed reality and yet it evokes a world which seems completely off-the-wall and surreal:

 

They’ve built the Mall of America

on a prairie near the airport…

 

The big attraction is

the whole baby mammoth, who lost his mother…

 

Glass tanks of fluid

contain his heart and his penis, on display.

 

Although in some poems Daniels may have a point to make, there are others in which he has no purpose beyond capturing a moment as accurately as he can. ‘Breakfast, Palermo’, is a wonderfully precise vignette in which a smartly turned out young soldier eats with one hand a rather opulent sandwich, leaving ‘not a speck on his trousers.’ In ‘Fountain of Arethusa, Syracuse’, a striking woman in ‘red high heels… and in a tight red cone of a skirt’ stops the traffic as she licks ‘a deep strawberry ice-cream.’ ‘Policeman, Stoke Newington’ is a wittily observed portrait of a police officer going to a cash machine to extract some money which he then stows ‘in the safest pocket in the street.’

Although Daniels has a sharp eye for the telling detail there is more to his work than social commentary. Like Larkin he is adept at evoking the humdrum reality of daily existence, but he also has the metaphysical panache of poets like Michael Donaghy and Paul Farley. ‘Flying’ and ‘The Experts’ are skilfully executed parables which have the astringency of certain East European poets, while ‘At the Forest Pool’ reads like a folk tale in which the protagonist, a fiddler, tries to make the connection between art and life. The pool, his oracle, tells him: ‘Here’s your life in a long scrape of the bow.’ In ‘In the Deep’ the vision is even darker: ‘Were you down in the deep / and they had to drag you up / gasping for air in the night, / holding yourself in the grim bucket?’

Peter Daniels is a poet who has bided his time before bringing out this definitive collection of his work and the wait has been worth it. Counting Eggs is a wide-ranging and impressive collection in which a very English sensibility has been fused with an East European ostranenie.  In Daniels’ world Mr Bleaney has been reinvented as Mr Luczinski who dreams of ‘a field of dandelions and a bluebell wood’ as he rattles along on a tram that seems to be taking him nowhere. This is a collection which needs to be read carefully. Enigmatic and complex, the poems it contains offer

glimpses of a reality that lies beneath the surface of things.

 

Gopagilla is a debut pamphlet from the Leicestershire poet Roy Marshall.  The third in a handsomely produced series by Crystal Clear Creators under the editorship of Jonathan Taylor, its somewhat obscure title is soon explained when the poet reveals in an epigraph that it is a word invented by his young son, ‘who was beginning to speak’: “What did you say, baby?”  I asked. / “Gopagilla,” he replied, and he meant it this time.’ Adumbrating the idea of poetic creation, it also points us in the direction of one of the collection’s principle themes:  the importance of family.  In ‘Rose’, its opening poem, we are offered a convincing portrayal of a mother and her new-born child, but one which also gives an indication of Marshall’s mixed English and Italian ancestry. The wife here is an ‘English Rose’ and the balance of genes in the child is beautifully captured in the poem’s final lines where we learn that he is

 

a mirror of his mother.

 

Their murmurs and breath

float from open lips

 

his a perfect miniature

of her own sleep-slackened rose.

 

In ‘Dandytime’ fatherhood gives the poet an opportunity to relive his own childhood: ‘His gift to me, / the long forgotten tempo / of a boy’s life, while in ‘Ghost Walk’ we catch glimpses of a young boy playfully on the rampage who wonders ‘Who to be today: / ‘Zorro, The Flasing Blade, Robin Hood?’  This is of course all very familiar territory, but handled by Marshall with a lyrical concision that is quite his own, as is his use of Northamptonshire dialect in ‘The River Swimmers’:

 

Across the yard we skivers skip, but as she tries to catch us

to cuff, and we ort falter, stead we sturt for swaily water,

to lose boots and clothes and so

 

go in; to lift a shock of tadpoles from the shallows, to sosh and turn

as riving otters, at swirl, swash, spout and lather, become of us

one river matter.

 

Other memories of childhood involve his Italian relations and his discovery of the Italian landscape, as here in ‘Arrival’: ‘Brush of stubble on peach, kisses planted / by sun-dried lips, Massimo in a vest / and me just six, climbing / from a Ford Escort onto a mountain.’ In ‘Arm Wrestling with Nonno’ his Italian grandfather is evoked in terms which seem almost legendary:

 

My mother told me how he altered

the river’s course, how those muscles

were forged in the icy torrent where

he shifted boulders.

 

Other poems such as the Heaneyesque ‘Egg’ evoke that loss of innocence which is experienced when a child has to face up to the consequences of his actions: ‘The baby bird will die’ she says, / ‘its mother will leave it because of your scent.’ ‘In Passing’ is a exquisite lyric on a not dissimilar theme. It is brief enough to be quoted in its entirety:

 

Through high windows

he hears a choir of children,

their voices soaring:

 

recalls how sweet his own voice was,

how sweet he was, and cries

for all the sweetness lost.

 

Here Marshall’s minimalism and his pitch perfect cadences are reminiscent of and on a par with the work of Ian Hamilton and the early work of Hugo Williams. By and large Marshall does tend to concentrate on capturing fleeting lyrical moments. However, ‘Hawk’s Eyes’, a winner in the Ledbury Poetry Competition, shows that he is capable of writing at greater length. There are also poems here which show that he  can cast his net beyond the narrow confines of childhood memories and family history. ‘Records on the Bones’ is a fascinating poem in which we learn that in Soviet Russia underground presses printed flexi-discs of American jazz on discarded x-ray sheets. ‘Telepathy’ recalls an early romance, while at the same time it wittily reviews the recent history of telecommunications.

For some time now, Roy Marshall’s poems have been popping up regularly in journals. Above all they are memorable for the quality of their images.  In ‘No Signs Available’ ‘sparrows rip a double helix of midges.’ Viewing a dead fox in ‘Wessex Wood’, we learn that ‘death has come to steal a breath / from the mouth of spring,’ while in ‘Presence’ the memory of the poet’s father is reduced to ‘your weather-cured shoes, still two sizes too big for me.’ It is to be hoped that before too long Marshall will be able bring out a full collection of his work. It is certainly one I will be looking forward to.

 

Peter Daniels: Counting Eggs. Mulfran Press.  2012. ISBN: 9781907327155.  £9.00,  available here.

Roy Marshall: Gopagilla. Crystal Clear Creators. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-955180095. £4.00, available here.

 

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