Peter Bennet’s latest collection, Mischief, takes readers from rural Northumberland to the aisles of Tesco, blending classical references with contemporary wit along the way. Soumyaroop Majumdar reviews.
There is a lot to be said about the ordering of a collection, and with the very first poem, ‘The Place I am’, Peter Bennet pitches into the portrait of a mind inextricably linked with place and environment, a concern that underpins his latest work, Mischief.
It is a habitat where rare plants learn
to live with salt, and birds nest on the ground.
It is the place I am. It should be empty
of any presence otherwise.
We are in Northumberland, Bennet’s home, and hear a voice that finds itself alone. Bennet’s synecdochic turn, where part stands for whole (here dweller for dwelling), means that the voice will soon find only itself: ‘The landscape fades. I fade. I mourn its beauty’. Bennet is awake to isolation being a consequence of solipsism, but he never paints over loneliness:
I hear the bees
in any room I’m in when I’m alone
– ‘Listening to Bees’
However, it is the elegy that allows him to drop sentiment for a more stoic, and at times shamanistic, voice. Wry observations about the benefits of shared experiences and the limitations of communal mourning abound in ‘Auberge’ — ‘We are private people. / If you require assistance, pray’ — and yet there is space for healing:
look past the much-loved face
to greater love, where death cannot profane
its memory, or hog the light.
– ‘The Comfort Service’
The centrepiece of the collection is, undoubtedly, ‘Landscape with Psyche’, a retelling of Aeschylus’ myth of Psyche and Cupid. Bennet’s love for myths and Classical forms rubs against his poetic drive to immerse himself in current human realities. Reminiscent of the Northeast of England, unpeopled knolls and moorlands dovetail with the narrow ‘ginnels’ of its towns. Psyche lives in a house which is a far cry from the capacious quarters of antiquity: ‘The wallpaper is scuffed’. Cupid on the other hand lives in Greco-Roman opulence, wears ‘winged black leathers’, and vrooms around town with his buddies on a motorbike. Amidst it all stands the unmoved poet in the figure of a deer from French painter Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia:
[…] Whatever happens
will not disturb Claude’s contemplative buck
grazing in the seventeenth-century rooms.
He digests myth.
For Bennet, myths are instruments to make sense of the self, and it is within the context of a myth that he voices the conflict between what we have been with what we are and what we want to be: ‘And how would Soul then couple with Desire?’
Across the breadth of the book, modern spaces are haunted by the past and the unreal. We cannot tell the encroacher from the encroached, but experience discontinuities in time and space: Red Riding Hood wakes up in a psychiatric ward, the spirit of a captain hangs around for centuries of unpaid dues, and Arthurian shopping carts shriek when touched by ‘any true king or a king’s true son’ (‘Tales of Tesco’). The frequent short-circuiting produces a synaesthetic charge that whets the reader’s curiosity with sensory derangement. Surprises also manifest themselves formally as in the ludic ‘Boustrophedon Lang Syne’ where the normative reading process is challenged as Bennet alternates between lines written from left to right and right to left. In a run of fifteen sonnets, he is more meditative — ‘Bright sunshine will distort what it reveals’ (‘Virgil’) — and often employs the mandatory turn of the form to arrive at lapidary insights: ‘Objects may be inanimate yet quiver’ (‘The Trouser Button’).
Nothing is what it appears to be, and Bennet appears to wilfully essay the role of a mischievous Puck of poetry, upholding the title of the book. ‘The Gypsy Fiddle’, for instance, is a poem as light as it is rich in dialectal borrowings from all across the British isles, but for those who laugh not with but at the elf-like jester, Bennet delivers a skewering reminder: ‘His lamentations are heartfelt and subtle / and he can grip a tune.’
Bennet often tips his hat to his literary heroes, wielding the instructive tone of Norman MacCaig, the direct address of W.S. Graham, and Robert Browning’s sophisticated handling of the dramatic monologue and acoustic texturing, but it is to the imagining of a poetic place that Bennet gives his all. His is an intermediate sort of voice, one that suggests careful negotiations with his English forebears and Scottish writers both past and contemporary. Additionally, his poems contain deliberate echoes of the French and the Romans, absorbed over time by English art and architecture.
Influence is inevitable in the creative process but what we refer to as originality is perhaps the poet’s arrangement of language and his sensibilities of poetic composition. Bennet uses such tensions, between the old and the new, the collective and the individual, and throws light on how any spoken tongue develops, through borrowing and melding, evocative of the landscape and the history of those who speak it.
Peter Bennet’s Mischief is published by Bloodaxe Books, RRP £9.95.