Peter Bennet’s Border is one of the most idiosyncratic contemporary poetry collections I have ever read. Uniting poems from his past collections – Goblin Lawn, (T.S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted in 2007), The Glass Swarm, and The Game of Bear – with new pieces, Border is a substantial work. It is titled most appropriately; borders – between the real and the imagined, between past and present – are repeatedly violated in these pieces. Of course, the Northumberland poet is also quite literally referring to the region’s borders. Yet, the most striking feature of this poetry is not the thematic aspect, but rather, the poet’s strongly distinctive writing style.
Bennet possesses a great ability to create extremely believable personae and settings – he is particularly effective in inhabiting former times. Take, for example, the vivid representation of the past in the following lines from “The Pickle Tub”:
Poor Daddy had his laces sponged and pressed
each time his shoes were cleaned, his pocket linings
unstitched and laundered every week.
Bennet’s writing forms a marked and rather refreshing departure from the autobiographical influence currently so common in poetry. “The Long Pack”, a mini-epic composed of twenty-eight parts, is based on a Northumbrian tale of the same title – a tale which may or may not be true. Partly narrated by a ghost and endowed with contemporary references, though inevitably autobiographical to some extent, the poem forms a prime example of the highly imaginative nature of Bennets’s poetry. Beyond this, it embodies the marriage of traditional and contemporary worlds and words characteristic of the collection as a whole.
The poet’s past training as a painter is evident in such vivid imagery as “Unwrap my skin / of polythene from driftwood, weeds and stones?” (“Sea Fever”). He writes with a peculiarity of expression which is most charming:
It is too late, with sunshine in my eyes,
to care which insect air force is commencing
a mass-attack of lullabies.
(“The Redesdale Rowan”)
These images are strikingly beautiful, yet they are bestowed with an underlying darkness which is ever so slightly disturbing. This is, without doubt, a haunting collection.
Bennet’s writing yields a compelling confidence. The opening lines of “Cuneiform”, for instance, read:
These old walls have been peppered with a murder
of crows among grey foliage
but half-obliterated once
in thin emulsion, and the floorboards spattered
as if with guano under dust.
The reader is left with no doubt that these words form a complete image. Bennet writes with admirable precision, using language to its fullest extent; he uses neglected words which long to be heard, words like “somnambulant” (“Danse Macabre”) and “grimoire” (“The Redesdale Rowan”) and “insouciance” (“The Lens”). Though many of his poems are relatively long, they are, nonetheless, exceptionally condensed. His words carry a sense of purpose. The condensed nature of the poems means we see only fragmented images, yet the precision of the words which make up these fragments creates an exquisitely mysterious depth of meaning. Bennet writes with such panache that the reader is well aware of taking something from his poetry, and it may very well be that that same reader may remain highly uncertain as to what exactly that something may be.
Border is not an easy read. It requires commitment; repeatedly rereading the poems is absolutely necessary. Having a dictionary to hand is also advisable. Bennet’s writing is, perhaps, an acquired taste – the reader must become accustomed to him, and be prepared to learn his ways. Yet, the poems most certainly grow on you – and they are definitely worth the effort!