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Poet of the Week – 2: James Peake

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 2: JAMES PEAKE

James Peake lives in London with his wife and son. He has worked in trade publishing for several years, predominantly for the large conglomerates, but also for leading independents and literary agencies. He’s been a reader and editor for small literary magazines in the UK and US, and his own poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His first collection, Reaction Time of Glass, was published in 2019. Several poems, including work from his next collection, can be read on Wild Court.

James Peake writes:

“Like many people who live in cities, I have a love-hate relationship with the one I know best, London. The things you condemn one day – the scale, noise, anonymity – can be the same things you relish the next.

London is a presiding presence in my first collection, Reaction Time of Glass. I’ve been asked a few times about the title and what it means. Easier perhaps to say a little of how it suggested itself. I’d been writing poems for many years before Peter Robinson, the poetry editor at Two Rivers Press, did me the kindness of suggesting that it was probably high time to put a collection together. He’d rightly understood, I think, that if someone didn’t put a flame under me I’d fall victim to the cult of endless revision (remember the description of a busy day attributed to Oscar Wilde: the morning spent putting a comma in, the afternoon spent taking it out).

One of the advantages of leaving first publication as long as I did is that you have a lot of material to choose from. I saw that certain poems in that heap had a natural kinship that, for example, poems written in quick succession might not. They shared an atmosphere and now they make up the core of the book. Additional poems were then written to reprise certain images and ideas so that the collection is, in several places, in a kind of dialogue with itself. But again and again it was images of glass that predominated: an open sash letting in rain overnight, a stranger being watched far below in an otherwise empty street, narrow realities as they unfurled across a computer screen or windscreen, fish in the luminescent darkness of an aquarium. Glass permits – and mediates – all these moments of attention, and given how invaluable it has been for scientific progress (it’s inert, plentiful, entirely clear) ours has even been described informally as ‘The Glass Age’. It can be tinted or painted, sculpted or even sounded, but more often it’s used in such a way that we’re supposed to forget it’s there.

One of the last poems in the collection, ‘The Club’, features a mirrored wall, the sort put up in dingy clubs to fend off claustrophobia in drunken patrons, and into which someone probably walks nightly. In this poem a reflection moves more slowly than the dancer who engenders it. This sort of perceptual lag is of course hallucinatory, typical of the effect it may be of certain recreational drugs or familiar to us as a horror movie trope, itself an imaginative reminder that our senses are being expertly tricked whenever we watch film or TV, or even when we use our phone to record something and ask it to do our remembering for us.

There are many aesthetic influences on the book – Fellini gets a look in, Cy Twombly also – and inevitably I have countless poetic debts. But I can’t miss the opportunity to recommend the shorter poems of a writer whose work I actually don’t know as well as I should even now, but whose clarity and confidence in the little I do influenced the style of the book at the earliest stage, the lifelong New Yorker and so-called ‘Objectivist’, Charles Reznikoff: ‘Along the flat roofs beneath our window in the morning sunshine, / I read the signature of last night’s rain’.

When I first read this many years ago (it’s from his book, Jerusalem the Golden) I immediately tried to write a poem like it. My subject was the deep rainwater and discarded shoes on top of a bus stop, conspicuous to those on the upper deck of the 27 but unknowable to those clustered there on the pavement. The poem was dreadful – nothing of Reznikoff’s judicious eye or lightness – but it helped me begin to get my own eye in, and eventually to arrive at what I hope is the clarity and perspectival play which characterize the poems in Reaction Time of Glass.”

BURIN FOR AN OPEN HAND

Stretch of adland emptiness
and westward from the flyover

buildings begin to shrink, wet
as the teeth in any jawbone.

I overtake my own sideways glimpse,
a lag of the senses

so that yards from where a terrace ends
I see the unchanged mural there darken,

its atmosphere of negative,
of cancellation, spreading like a film

across glass, metal or acetate,
as if to hide colour from a burin

till it scratches down, digs or nicks
the randomised palette beneath

and let stream the glow and afterglow
of a high street, the red, blue, green and yellow

of airless retail, Trade Marks and brands,
a jumble presenting as designed whole,

the last basis for things appearing as they do
on the change-down descent to street level,

level of the human, a sudden pedestrian
within arm’s reach of the passenger seat

and who glides as though drawn by thread,
one I recognise, have held myself

inside a labyrinth with no secret,
heightened friends at every exit,

eyes-within-eyes
or an ideogram for a face,

if only I could draw or paint!
As I vanish back up into third,

cross an out-of-hours bus lane,
I remember or have somewhere just seen

a man in a branded cap (Just Do It!),
the dry plastic hand in his lap

holding to the shape of likelihood.

[from Reaction Time of Glass]

TEMPLE MEADS

Intending to rise as prince of the lonely dabblers
in lipstick and electronics, I plucked a musty kerchief
to become famous with, would bring down into music
those indignities I endured daily until they shrank,
a sea-change my acclaimed late albums would confirm.
I almost began … waterfront never meant to be lived in,
Bristol’s welcoming curvature, promise of departure,
that fulcrum in particular, where you can toe the feeling
of being deserving, having earned uncontaminated time,
the inside of which is dream without waste, turning up
selfhood against westerly, become the owner of knowledge
never looked for, achieving neutrality, a commute most
acutely felt after core hours on a Friday, push through,
tilt like the eye of an attendant gull, then bundling down
from derelict sorting office to high-numbered platform.

[Uncollected]

Read more about the Two Rivers Press Poet of the Week feature

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