“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.”-Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas“
What a day it has been. I woke up to the news that my beloved spiritual teacher and friend since childhood, John-Roger, passed away in the early hours at the age of eighty. If there is one thing he taught me, it is to keep doing good, no matter what.
Tonight my sister-in-law and our much-loved little nephew are boarding a plane back to Australia. For whatever I may have been able to impart to him in our two weeks together, he has certainly taught me much more.
In a short while, I will be carrying on with some of the good work I have found to do in the circumstances of my current life, by helping to produce a free, live online poetry broadcast. The show, after all, must go on. It is my way of reaffirming that the world is a small place, and that you and I are not so different after all.
I submitted the following article to Huffington Post Books yesterday, and it has come back to me today with all of these new resonances.
How Bedtime Stories Restored My Faith in Humanity
I never thought a slim paperback of children’s poems, packed with silly illustrations, sing-song rhymes, and bottom humour would restore my faith that printed books will endure. I had rather hoped for the seminal work of some brilliant, tortured Nobel laureate. But those precious few evening moments, while my nephew squirmed beside me in his bed, protesting against obvious sleepiness, confirmed that ours was a shared experience no touch-screen device would soon encroach upon.
Don’t get me wrong — he loves phones and pods and pads of every sort and, like me as a boy, becomes easily engrossed in the challenge of video games. The sense of individual progress, developing skill, and the spectacular multimedia rewards at the end of each level of “accomplishment” are tough for paper and ink to compete with by day. Yet when it comes time to switch gears from wakefulness to dreaming, the last thing he needs or even wants is a glowing glass slate crackling with sensory input.
Instead, we share stories and rhymes about creatures who slither and fart. We laugh. He points at the illustrations. As soon the poem chimes to an end, he asks for another. I begin to read more slowly.
We inhabit the sound of my voice together, a conduit between or two private experiences of the tale being told. As we draw further into ourselves, and into the music of language, we draw closer together. His breathing slows as he slips away fully into his own world, and I creep away, book in hand.
It could only really happen with a book — that portable, flimsy, shock-proof, battery-less, recyclable, spill-resistant, organic launch pad into ourselves. In fact, the more his generation inhabits the realm of flickering data on glowing blue screens, the more necessary the interior experience of a good book may become. Studies have shown that such screens promote a kind of restless insomnia, and even passively-lit pads like the Kindle still click my brain into the skim-and-scan gear I whizz through online. So, when it is time to stop surfing for sensory input, and reconnect with myself, I want paper and ink.
Books bring us back to our own imagination (after all, how many times has the movie of your favourite book disappointed you?), to the innermost experience of a tale being told, and to the music of the spoken word. The love of a good book is conveyed first and foremost as an act of love. And really, who doesn’t still love to be read to, at any age?
Traditions endure and outlast technological “disruption” when they tap into what makes us essentially human. There is nothing quite like reading a bedtime story from a printed book. For this reason alone, I have hope that the next generation, for all the amazing discoveries they will make though high technology, will still share some of their most intimate moments, and profound personal revelations, curled up with an old-fashioned book.
Thoughts? Remarks? Visit the article on Huffington Post.
My friend the Scottish poet Andrew Philip wrote a review of The Silence Teacher that I just discovered tonight. His perspective is one I greatly respect — not only because I hold him in such high esteem as a poet, but because he, too, has walked grief’s road after losing an infant son.
It must have therefore been as hard in some ways for him to read the collection as it was for me to write it. Yet I can also think of no one better equipped to understand, from the inside out, the difficult task of attempting to make art, and thereby make meaning, from such loss.
There were many dark nights of self-doubt for me. These poems often felt simultaneously necessary and impossible to write. Grief is such difficult terrain to navigate honestly without fears of self-indulgence. Yet Andrew himself has done this masterfully, and I rate his own poems about his son among the most moving I have read.
It is therefore greatly affirming to see him write that The Silence Teacher represents “the kind of volume I wish I had written” since, through his support, encouragement, and fine example, in a way he did.
“…what is poetry for, if not to represent the breaking of hearts?”-Fiona Moore, author of The Only Reason for Time
The Silence Teacher has the honour of appearing in what is, sadly, the final issue of Sphinx that will carry poetry pamphlet reviews. This online guardian of the the poetry pamphlet has presided with dignity over its cause for some time, and although its other activities will continue, the reviews will be missed.
In this double-barrelled review, Gill Andrews is drawn to the narrative poems, and finds them interesting, affecting, and precise. Marcia Menter considers the seven years of the pamphlet’s making “time enough to shape the raw emotion into a space as quietly resonant as a stone chapel.” She wishes for a bit more joy overall, but concedes that the work is entitled to its intensity. Both reviewers draw out unique and interesting observations, such as the use of fish to convey a sense of being underwater. You can read the full reviews in Sphinx 42 online.
Fiona Moore is no stranger to grief. Her pamphlet The Only Reason for Time, which rightly found its way to the Guardian Best Books of 2013, is a tender and subtle portrayal of the aftermath of losing a spouse. As a fan of her work, I value her thoughts particularly.
She notes how the vestiges of formal verse haunt even the free verse poems in The Silence Teacher, how there is playfulness in the midst of silence’s weight, and spots layers of metaphor in the animal poems. Just to know that these poems were so carefully read by a fellow traveller on this road is a comfort somehow. You can read the full extent of her thoughtful perspective here.
So, this slim, staple-bound creature continues to take on a life of its own.
“…fresh sweat and sweet / Mortality, he found them on the North”-Thom Gunn, “At the Back of the North Wind”
Paul Stephenson reviewed The Silence Teacher, along with three other pamphlets from Poetry Salzburg, in the current issue of The North. He begins, “If all poetry is essentially about love and loss then there is little need to read beyond Robert Peake’s beautiful and heart-breaking pamphlet, The Silence Teacher”.
He quotes from the book in summary of its themes, and picks up on the “interplay between love and hate” sometimes manifesting in “quiet violence” at various points in the collection. Indeed, sometimes sadness and anger, love and hate, have much in common. He concludes, “These highly-crafted, long-considered poems have so much emotional resonance, from a father who will not teach his son hello, whose son ‘came in waving goodbye'”.
Paul also gives a friendly mention to the Transatlantic Poetry on Air project, and treats the other pamphlets in this series with equally brisk and enticing insights. I look forward to reading the rest of The North, and reading and re-reading my fellow Salzburgian pamphleteers.
Rattle is one of my favourite US literary journals, and Michelle Bitting is one of my favourite US poets, so to have her treat my newest short collection, The Silence Teacher, in their online reviews series is particularly meaningful for me.
As Michelle says, we were together in the first workshop of the first residency of my first semester in the Pacific University MFA in Writing programme. Reflecting on that time, which still plays in my mind like a black-and-white film, I realise how far I have come in my travels with grief, and how essential writing has been throughout.
Michelle makes astute observations about the arc of the work throughout her review, calling it, “a heroic account of a father’s journey dealing with death.”