It's heartening that the Poetry Book Society Choice of Autumn 08 went to Peter Bennet's The Glass Swarm, partly because it shows that small presses can get a look-in, but mainly because it makes Bennet's work more visible to a wider readership. These strange, narrative, wistful poems deserve it.
Bennet's subject is history, and how history and memory determine identity. His poems, historical vignettes and elegies, take place in country parks and houses, populated by ghosts and servants. And though, as poems like 'The Green Corn' make clear, his politics are those of the man rather than the master, he is fascinated by both sides of that divide. His broad sympathy brings life to the history.
Bennet's technique is typically iambic, with some use of traditional form (a couple of impressive pieces of terza rima, for example), but many of the poems do not utilise strict metre, instead varying the number of stresses on a line. This can be off-putting (maybe it just takes some getting used to), but at its best it achieves a relaxed musicality of some power. 'The Naturalist' begins with two lines of pentameter before dropping into tetrameter:
Inland we have another burning day,
but you, I trust, are cooler by the sea
in that calm haven out of reach
– and so on. This poem pits a father's Victorian, religious orthodoxy against a son's modern, Darwinist progressiveness. This double portrait recalls Turgenev's Father and Sons, with the father's conservative wrongness, more loving and likable than the son's inconsiderate rightness, shown thereby to be righter than we thought. The close, humble and pathetic, stands as a gentle rebuke:
Meanwhile, this five-pound note and scribble travel
with love from one no longer young or clever.
Earlier on in the poem the father asks if his son has noticed that 'when one decides to free/oneself from something – duty, or a place/...a pause occurs/sufficient to allow the future/to squeeze into a smaller space?' This ambivalence about liberation is a presiding mood of the collection; elsewhere Bennet writes:
The past is something a wise man discards,
but there are episodes to mention.
The first section of the book presents various narratives drawing on this mood; there are poems about revisiting and recapturing the past, about Alzheimer's. They are cloudy and tantalising, as most attempts to capture the past must be. Bennet makes use of the gothic in this connection, and it feels appropriate: ghosts provide a useful figure for the past and the dead; the big houses which are his habitual setting are typically gothic; and the gothic tropes of the uncanny and of changeableness allow him to overlay times, places and ideas. Perhaps my favourite poem in the book, 'Cuneiform', offers a glimpse of arcane and archaic knowledge – letters in an untranslated book lying on a desk in an empty house. 'A lidless eye has overlaid the moon', and this notion of identity or resemblance continues through the poem. The crows leave prints in the snow which are the letters in the book; the poem's addressee is the blank page on whom their 'inky beaks' will rite the riddle of identity.
The second section, a group of fourteen sonnets, is less elliptical, and more variable. One or two ('Memorabilia', 'The Parting', 'Fancy Dress') are modest in scope and technique; the more interesting ones ('The Deep Settee', 'The Archaeologist', 'The Tourist', 'The Doll') are strange, even violent versions of the form. After this comes 'Folly Wood', a dark, historical fantasy of thirteen monologues, again drawing on the gothic and taking as its theme alchemy, rebirth and transfiguration. Again there is a country house and park; again there is arcane knowledge, violence, sex, power and religion. The house is populated by Goldilocks, an automaton, a floating harp, and the alchemist speaker, who addresses a visitor to his house. The historicised diction, while occasionally overdone, is suited to the material, and enjoyably undercut by moments of comedy and plain-speaking:
but turn your eyes from her beguiling body
and let your thoughts continue dancing
the Great Word with their feathered arms unfurled.
The daft girl has a pretty face,
but such allurements, and the scran she brings,
are merely echoes of a world
through which we have already passed.
The speaker's objectification of the girl is literal: she and the automaton Malkin are 'nothings in the shape of things'. But (and) it's thrilling and unsettling to see his cunning, sinister speeches rise to climaxes of lyrical power:
will be to praise him when he wakes,
as we shall, into paradise.
Unlatch your tongue and then rejoice.
They are in each of us, the thin
dissecting cry a baby makes,
the soothing remnant of a deeper voice.
Later sections of the book continue the themes of identity, class, power and history, and the use of historical settings. I particularly enjoyed 'Lord Blaxter's Apology', a recapitulation of Browning's 'My Last Duchess', and much else besides. It's a charming, unusual, rewarding collection.