In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of following one’s nose in terms of developing a taste in poetry. This is how I first came across the work of Peter Sansom. As I remember it was a piece by Ian MacMillan in Poetry Review, in which he compared Peter’s work with that of Alan Jenkins, which sparked my interest in his work. In amongst talk of the TLS, The Northern School and The North, MacMillan spoke with both delicacy and power of the sensibility at work in Everything You’ve Heard is True, Peter’s debut collection for Carcanet. His point was that however slight the poems appeared, there was a much more subtle and restless spirit at work than the easy-going surfaces of the poems gave lie to.
A week or two later I found myself with a half-hour to spare in a bookshop, fell in love with the book’s cover, and snapped it up on spec having read the poem below. At the time I did not understand the references to the music and life of Mozart (the title of the book is the tag-line used on the posters for the film Amadeus), but this did not put me off feeling compelled by the delicious feeling of witnessing scenes from my own life flash in front of my eyes.
The poem is about the end of an affair, but as I have returned to it over the years I increasingly think it both fits with and prefigures many of the themes in Peter’s subsequent work: the place and ‘use’ of art in everyday life, and the cost of making such artefacts (music, books, poems) in the lives of individuals and their families and loved ones. His third book, Point of Sale, is particularly interested in descriptions of ‘the money coming in/[not] covering the bills’, for example.
The poem’s speaker appears not to have a choices: he can neither prevent himself from nodding off, nor the arrival of ‘someone new’. The poem’s energy is derived, it seems to me, from the tension set up by these descriptions which are in contrast with the choices the speaker is very explicitly active in presenting to us: ‘the cat,/who will be staying, stalks a daytime moth’; the churchbells tolling exactly ‘eleven’; the poppies’ ‘splash of colour’. The finish of the poem is indeed ‘very civilized’. But what it seems to be doing, however, is questioning the work of the artist in noticing and articulating these details, as it were celebrating while cautioning its own artistry.
As on most fine summer Sundays
we are breakfasting outside with our books.
This morning it is one of the Divertimenti
keeps the neighbours to themselves.
Now I can remember that man’s name -Puchberg-
who funded Mozart when his wife was ill
and the money coming in
wasn’t covering the bills.
This is Vienna in 1788 in sunlight.
What are we supposed to do?
I open a connversation about Mozart
and you look up from the Penguin biography.
The sky is a Prussian blue
and our back-yard garden is lit with music.
We are not yet thirty, and our lives
are just about to start.
There is someone new, but that
is not why you are leaving. The cat,
who will be staying, stalks a daytime moth;
two stray poppies add a splash of colour.
It is very civilised. We are parting like friends.
On the breeze the churchbell tolls eleven.
Coming so far he won’t arrive till three,
but your cases are already packed in case.
I’ve not slept properly for days
and now I need to be awake I find I’m dozing.
When the record finishes
it is the hairfine crack in a teacup, ticking,
or a clock, perhaps, loud and very exact.
Peter Sansom, from Everything You’ve Heard is True (Carcanet, 1990)
I’m so happy to be reminded of this poem. Like you, I remember noticing it that first time and I love and admire it just as much now.He’s a very subtle poet. I find it so moving – the last lines are perfect – all about sound yet precisely visual too and haunting.
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Thank you so much for this Maura. It is lovely to hear from you. I think it is a properly great poem, too. You are right, so subtle -and supple, too. You don’t realise what is being laid out in front of you until it has started altering your breathing very slightly. With best wishes to you as ever, Anthony