11 February 2009
Matt Simpson considers a collection of new and selected poems that are as real as going shopping
There is something heroic about Peter Street. The odds have been stacked against him most of his life. He has had to contend with disadvantage, disability, constant bouts of life-threatening illness. He once literally fell off the back of a lorry, fracturing his spine in four places. Education hasn't served him well – as is made plain in the dedication to the first poem in the collection which reads /for everyone with dyscalculia and dyspraxia'.
Street's poems are the hard-won products of an intense struggle to be articulate, to find the words to express what he is passionate about. The achievement, given the odds, is nothing short of miraculous.
Early on, life threw him in at the deep end. Very little formal education rubbed off on him: he worked – in and around Wigan where he was born – in a bakery, a slaughterhouse, then as a gravedigger in Bolton, later as head gardener to an estate in the South of England. Peter Street will try his hand at anything from photography to cooking, but his real love, despite the huge effort it involves, is writing.
So it comes as no surprise that his sympathies are with the underdog. He is acutely aware of and sensitive to what it is that makes things stand out as 'different'. In section V of the collection we find him allowing trees – which he knows a lot about – to have their own say about the state of the world.
He has a yearning for ecological wholeness. And who else but Peter Street would get himself invited to join an aid convoy to Croatia where he witnessed at first hand things which have continued to haunt him:
It's a ride down into something I don't understand; a dog shelter where at least a hundred families live, who beg out their hands and cough loud barking coughs. Naked kids swapping boredom for disease under a tap that's splashing cold silver into mud pies. Our interpreter – an English Lit. student, his family wiped out, is talking of Shelley in a waste land such as Eliot never saw. [from 'Zagreb Camp']
This is typical Street: real life looked at unwaveringly, while sitting uneasily alongside high-art ways of trying to express something of it or social conventions that distort it. He wants us to see things as they are.
It is not for nothing that he quotes his favourite painter, Stanley Spencer, as an epigraph to the book's first section: 'The events must seem as real as shopping.' Given the range of life experiences he has been through, Street opens up areas most of us would shy away from, as for example in Stillborn, quoted here in full:
I piss on my hands to ease burning from blisters and frost, stream in a warm few seconds dies of cold. I am tunnelling underneath the family headstone, stacking cubes of black clay onto the wooden staging as black-beetle funeral cars creep in between angels standing either side of cast-iron gates; I take from Jenny her baby And slot him under a list of names into Dearly Beloved Grandfather's arms.
This is raw, gritty, real, born out of first-hand experience – it is also intensely compassionate, human.
Thumbing from Lipik to Pakrac is a collection of extraordinarily strong poems, which are written tersely and pull no punches. In section V, trees are assertively themselves and have no hesitation in telling us what they think. Plane trees have this to say:
We plane trees are not like the rest, we know what you're up to. Why do you think we're camouflaged? It's war out there. You started it With chimneys, then petrol, CFC's... (from 'London Planes')
A Manchester Poplar makes no bones about being 'a big bastard with leaves/like leather you could strop a razor on.' Oak trees inform us 'We became ships,/and went places you've never heard of,/whether they liked us or not.' The Aralia Spinosa says 'What you see is what you get.'
A streak of boyish tough humour runs through the collection. The photo of the school football team is 'like cut-out paper figures/ waiting to be stretched.'
We hear 'bacon and eggs/ applauding in the frying pan' and 'I am a sheep./ That's what the family call me./ A black one. I've tried painting myself/ a colour they want me to be.'
In other words, despite and because of the fears, frustrations, the hard-life experiences out of which these gutsy poems come, there is an enviable resilience. Peter Street is a fighter. This is certainly one of the best collections I have read for some time.
Thumbing from Lipik to Pakrac: New and selected poems by Peter Street 130pp, £8.00, Waterloo Press (Hove), 95 Wick Hall, Furze Hill, Hove BN3 4AA. http://www.waterloopress.co.uk
To read more poetry by Peter Street, go to http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/site/peter-street