Lifesaving Poems: Peter Carpenter’s ‘Nightwatchman’

 

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I met Peter Carpenter in the summer of 2001 at the Arvon Foundation’s Totleigh Barton writing centre. I was at a low ebb of writing at the time. I had published one book of poems, in 1996. In spite of that book’s relative success my publisher had no plans to do a follow-up second collection. I had been sending my second manuscript to publishers for several months, collecting many polite notes of rejection in the process.

I felt as if I was about to drop off the face of the earth.

One week after the Arvon course finished Peter emailed me to ask if I had got a manuscript of poems that I might be prepared to send to him at Worple Press.  One week later he said that he liked it very much and would like to publish it the following year. Since that moment, and very often since, I have felt that I owe him my life. My utter and profound feeling of despondency was replaced in an instant by one of relief.

I think of Peter as an angel and Worple as home.

So, being honest, I am biased when I read his poems. I come to them knowing his voice and his poetics and the rhythm of his thinking. You could say I am on his side, before I even turn the page. This feeling is doubled when the poem in question is about cricket and is subtitled ‘an elegy’. (We all have our prejudices, consciously or not; W.H. Auden encourages us to admit them frankly).

Carpenter does silence brilliantly: the silence between people, the silence of crowds at football and at the racing, the silence of defeat:

     The keeper whoops and hurls

the ball to the skies. You walk without waiting

for the dreaded finger.

Head-down trudge

to a sealed cube with the door marked

VISITORS. Dust motes patrol heated air.

 

In among the grim socks, grass-stained

whites and open coffins, you take in

the smell of embrocation, shake off

gloves, stoop to unbuckle your pads.

Like all good poems, ‘Nightwatchman’ is about much more than what it is about. The ‘dreaded finger’, the ‘marked’ door and open coffins (kitbags) of team-mates all point towards death. Carpenter’s chief tactic, however, is not to persuade the reader of this but to present these luminous details -which point towards loss- with control and tact. Poem after poem in After the Goldrush, from which this poem comes, accomplishes the feat of leaving the reader meditating on the strangeness of what has been described in measured syntax and precisely rendered detail.

If you do not know Peter’s work After The Goldrush (Nine Arches Press, 2009) is a great place to get acquainted with it. (Later this year we will have the joy of reading his forthcoming ‘Selected’ from Smith/Doorstop).

There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Carpenter poem. To paraphrase the title of his first collection, the England he chooses to portray is one of exhausted cricketers, fluffed lines in restaurants and a tramp asleep in a bookshop impregnating ‘every last page of verse’ with her stink: ‘the entire Carcanet list, the brand new Armitage,/the Collected Muldoon, the Selected O’Hara, the new/Billy Childish, 101 Poems That Will Change Your Life‘ (‘Borders). The recoil of shoppers wrinkling their noses and paying by plastic is noted, but not commented upon. The poem closes with a neat twist: the tramp turns up ‘days later, unremitting, unbearable still, in page/after page of Paul Celan or Miklos Radnoti’. The poet eschews the option of separating himself from the emotion of ‘disgust’. In doing so, and in recalling previous witnesses of suffering, the poet becomes complicit in the complacency the poem implicitly attacks.

The silent recognition underlying this -hinted at, never mentioned- is what gives this book its force. It is a brilliant dissection of reserve and of the impact that it can make upon our lives.

Nightwatchman

an elegy

 

Mouth set. So far, nought

not out, having dabbed at

the spinner who’d been giving it

some air. Hands soft – taking the sting

out of each delivery.

 

Their demon quickie

is brought back into the attack.

He pounds in.

A virtuoso leave.

                         You judge the away

swinger to perfection.

 

Shadows nudge further east

across the square. Pigeons clatter

as mid-off jogs back. Thunderous

approach to the wicket. This one

you nick.

The keeper whoops and hurls

the ball to the skies. You walk without waiting

for the dreaded finger.

Head-down trudge

to a sealed cube with the door marked

VISITORS. Dust motes patrol heated air.

 

In among the grim socks, grass-stained

whites and open coffins you take in

the smell of embrocation, shake off

gloves, stoop to unbuckle your pads.

 

Peter Carpenter, from After The Goldrush (Nine Arches Press, 2009)

Lifesaving Poems

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