Critique with Celebration

Quite Frankly - After Petrarch's Sonnets
, Peter Hughes (Reality Street)

I've come to really like Peter Hughes' poetry during the past few years and this new collection, previously released in sections, I believe, may well prove to be his masterpiece, if we can still talk about such things. I'm sure that if you're seriously au fait with Petrarch's sonnets you'll find additional pleasure in reading these modern versions - all 317 of them -interpretations rather than translations, I feel, which take the basic premise of a muse, of unrequited love and the notion of forbidden love (due to a class divide) and give it a contemporary blast. Though you get the feel of one 'renaissance man' speaking to or through another here, make no mistake, this is modern poetry with a capital M and it's wonderful stuff. The poems are split into sections, numbered with each given an original title in Italian. Each poem is split into two quatrains and two tercets, they don't rhyme, except very occasionally and most of the rhyme when it comes is internal. That's all you need to know about the 'technical details'.

I love the way that Hughes manages to combine snatches of song lyric or titles with a snippet of political commentary and a host of other information, which feeds into the poem to produce an ongoing sense of immediacy fuelled by memory, both collective and individual. These poems speak to us both as recollections and sensations of a protagonist who is struggling with 'the pangs of love' and with the difficulties of keeping afloat in a political and social environment which is not entirely friendly, yet the individual experience meshes with a wider concern which combines critique with celebration:

     15 / 195

     I'm mi vivea di mia sorte contente

     yesterday all my troubles seemed so far
     so good but now I'm wringing my iambs
     & pacing every stanza anxiously
     as I await more bad news from the muse

     they say she hasn't come down from her room
     & the postman swears her curtains are closed
     the family have sent out for assistance
     an expert is on the way to see her

     a half-empty book left out in the rain
     the kindle fades & goes under the wheel
     I write and am written & write again

     to be almost unwritten by the page
     its vacancy wrinkled by damp night air
     dropped in the dust by the side of the road

          (from second homes from earwigs)

References to contemporary poets abound - Tom Raworth, for example - both as suggestions of style and influence and in terms of snippeted quotings: I'm pretty sure for example that 'the heart's uneasy engine still bangs on', from 'Snowclone Detritus' is pure John James though whether this is quoted deliberately or by 'memory slip' I'm not entirely sure. These texts appear to be made from a multitude of borrowings and imaginings - they are as colloquial and vernacular as they are erudite and scholarly, yet so, so easy and pleasurable to read. If you get stuck or don't pick up on a reference - inevitable, I'd say, unless, like John Milton you set out to read everything that's ever been written, which was crazy even in his day! - just carry on and go back later and google if you feel so inclined. There is both depth and surface in this writing, which is one way in which the smart contemporary poet deals with the ever-present problem of information overload:

Hughes' compositional process seems to combine the considered with the aleatory, both in terms, I suspect, of a deliberate 'veering off the subject' with a more 'subconscious' word or theme association which at times becomes manically hilarious:

     23 / 203

L'alto signor, dinanzi a cui non vale

     you can't hurry harry or hairy love
     as it makes no sense & all your feelings
     morris dance in banks & do musicals
     about alps & improbable heirlooms

     the manic aches & joy of love are joined
     by pangs of anxiety regarding
     the health of her kittens & sinuses
     or any other parts of her that twitch

     thus when genuine illness sidles in
     there's insufficient vocabulary
     remaining to express sincere concern

     hence the rise to fame of the saxophone
     especially with scurrying percussion
     feeding off an unpredictable bass

second homes for earwigs)

On re-reading you start to pick up references which resonate throughout, from melancholy song lyric, as in
She Walked Through the Fair, to film and musical topics, as in the phrase in stanza one above which hints at The Sound of Music, for example. This is the sort of poetry collection which can be dipped into at random for you are sure to come across some treasure on every page, yet it's also a book which you will want to read again, both to experience a fresh pleasure rush as you pick up on some previously unrecognised pointer or are simply bowled over by the mix of lyric intensity and 'throwaway' abandon of its (sometime) aleatory composition. I could say a lot more about this terrific book - I keep being reminded of Ed Dorn's epic Gunslinger, though this may be partly because I've been reading the two in tandem - but I know that it's one I'm going to go back to and it's also the most stimulating and invigorating collection I've come across for quite some time. Wonderful stuff.

    © Steve Spence 2015