The last time I engaged in poetry—I mean, truly engaged in it, as in reading and trying to write some—was when I lived in Japan. I learned about haiku all over again and even adopted the local custom of composing renga (a chain of haiku poems, from which the stand-alone haiku was born) on New Year’s Day (in English, of course—there are limits!). It made me feel like a kid again.
Thus when American-born UK-based poet Robert Peake sent me a book of his poetry called The Knowledge, I was thrilled 1) to be reading poetry again (a habit I soon dropped upon repatriation) and 2) find it includes a sequence of poems, titled “Smoke Ring,” that reminds me of renga.
When I mentioned this to him, Robert said “Smoke Ring” is in a linked form similar to renga; it borrows loosely from the Western tradition of the crown of sonnets—though in the case of this poem, it’s “not a full crown but more of a tiara.” He added that many cultures have some type of inter-woven speech as a means to perhaps memorize, or at least come to terms with, shared experience.
But while “shared experience” conjures up an image of sitting around a campfire, “Smoke Ring” reports on an experience that is common to people who are living in countries where they might not be welcome at the fire. It begins in the immigration office and then takes us through the Big Smoke from the poet’s displaced perspective.
Thanks so much, Robert, for agreeing to share your work before our virtual campfire of Displaced Nation readers.
Readers, I invite you to be a kid again; as one reader says, Robert’s poems are about things “known in your heart and in your bones as much as in your mind.” Enjoy.
* * *
Home Office, Croydon
Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs,
steaming up my third latte this hour,
gasping into the air-conditioned lounge
of what could be an airport terminal.
The man wearing a topi beside me
forgets to breathe, then gasps, repeats,
while his daughters in the play area
build homes from coloured bricks.
The clerks shuffle paperwork cheerfully
red passport, blue passport, green passport,
brown, jobsworth elves who know the list
of who gets Christmas, who gets coal.
My number up, I flash a tight-lipped smile,
Should I stay or should I go? Stuck in my mind.
Should I stay or should I go? stuck in my mind,
the doors tweet shut with a rubbery thud.
I’d beg for forgiveness, but begging’s
not my business as the train glides away,
to float its fanning delta of branch lines.
Too little, too late, in the middle of a place
never meant to be anyone’s final destination.
Here it all comes together, here it splits
wide apart. One more change, explains a dad
to son, tugging him across the platform.
Crowds weave together, and people disappear.
I step back from the edge, into the slipstream.
The train is gone, the moment past, but still
the ghosts remain, black shadows cast.
The ghosts remain, black shadows cast
on brick, mist over neon-lit cobblestones.
Hard Road is playing the bar next door
There must be something in the air…
The exhaust pipe of a Hackney carriage
respires to the beat of its diesel drum.
In from the glowing tip, it lulls
then curls from a working girl’s nostrils.
Visibly at east, the smoke lounges
in all directions, spreading its arms.
Here is the city’s grit-flecked embrace.
…been dying since the day I was born.
Part your lips, and breathe in slowly,
drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air.
Brick Lane Market
Drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air
from sizzling woks, flat bubbling crepes
we ogle falafel, smirk at t-shirt slogans,
finger the dyed silks and leather bags.
Huguenot chapel turned Russian synagogue,
now a Bangladeshi Mosque, the moon and star
wink down at our worldly commerce
from the smokestack of a silver minaret.
Every brick a different shape and shade,
pecked by the acrid air, specked with colour
from a rattling can, even graffiti is for sale—
Street art area: pay up or close your eyes.
Burning ghee and mustard oil, hissing paint.
Close both eyes, and follow the scent.
Close both eyes, and follow the scent
of marsh grass, salt rope, barnacled wood.
Oil lamps puff, pipe down their leaden light.
Tusk-like, whale ribs embrace a building site.
Spire of Narwhal, great barge upended, now
sea monsters rise up smooth, in cubic glass—
the streets scrubbed clean of tidal mud,
the Thames runs clear as lymph without its blood.
New brick, poured cement, tarmac’s dull sheen,
cranes pick the horizon where gulls pocked the sand.
Shoe black, suit cleaners, flower shop for guilt,
security guards aim mops where coffee is spilt.
From a top-story balcony, an underwriter plans his grave
while admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze.
While admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze,
sun scalds the mist in an oil slick of light
reminding us the ocean is never far, reminding us,
like Turner, like Messiaen, in saturated tones.
Street lamps peer over us, considering our gait, where
the gibbet posts once dangled a peepshow of bodies,
betraying flesh to bake and rot its carmelised smell,
the gloaming air turned treacherous, picking rag from bone.
Beneath our dew-spotted feet, the earth grinds its teeth.
Sealed away like embers in the furnace of the heath,
plague pits chew ancestors’ memories to tar,
the pocked bodies smelt, give off obsidian heat.
Over the vale, the mist descends, sherbet and blue.
Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs.
Published with the permission of Nine Arches Press.
Robert Peake is an American-born poet living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry series, bringing poets together from around the world for live online poetry readings and conversations. He also collaborates with other artists on film-poems, and his work has been widely screened in the US and Europe. His newest collection, The Knowledge, is now available from Nine Arches Press.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.
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Collage at top of page: (top row) Maggie Taylor – Blue Caterpillar (Alice in Wonderland, 2007), by cea + via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Smoke Rings, by David~O via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). The two photos of Robert Peake at the English Falconry School, supplied, were taken by John Eikenberry. Should I stay…: Clapham Junction yard (2), by Les Chatfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “The ghosts remain…”: Soho Smoke, by konstantin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0. “Drawing up the sweet…”: Food stalls at Brick Lane’s Sunday Upmarket, by Brick Lane Food via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Close both eyes, and…”: Reflections on Canary Wharf, by Gordon Joly via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). “While admiring the skyline…”: Blackheath sunset, by rip via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Beneath the surface…”: The UK Border at Heathrow Airport, by Danny Howard via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).