Charlotte Gann reviews The Long Habit of Living by M.R. Peacocke (HappenStance, 2021)
M.R. Peacocke’s 2018 prose collection Broken Ground (Shoestring Press) starts:
YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE
I had known for a long time that I must change my life; but how, and when?
It’s a wonderful book, small almost short-story reflections and recollections of her “more or less solitary existence on a smallholding” in Cumbria from her late fifties until her eighties. Unsurprisingly the same spirit emerges through her poems. Published by HappenStance in July 2021, The Long Habit of Living, the poet’s eighth collection, finds her now aged 91. It’s a gift to read from her clear-sighted, hugely observant, detached perspective. The poet writes with great intelligence, humour, lightness of touch, compassion. Her subjects encompass herself, her natural surroundings, the planet, and — from some distance — other people and relationships. This detachment was already there, of course, from that unusual choice to live apart for those nearly thirty years.
So much that’s real in here, hard-hitting, packaged with her touch of brilliant humour
M.R. Peacocke also enjoys a wonderful dance with language. Often words new to me appear, though this is not in any way obtrusive. Words I feel I should already know, but somehow don’t: “glyphs”, “haddie”, “deckle-edged”. I relish this gentle education. Her poems come at subjects from unexpected angles, like good poems can. ‘Candling Eggs’ (which introduced me to the idea of ‘candling’) is a poem written with absolute authority, from that experience as poet-farmer, but its end seems to broaden its canvas: “May those / who know how to be get on with it.”
Some of my favourite poems are the shortest. ‘Moth’, only nine lines long, addresses a “snap” in an album. I get such a clear picture, taken “from an upstairs window”, of:
down on a tidy lawn, pale, dumpy,
hunched on a garden chair.
And then, the most beautiful small twists as the poem wends to its close. I’m reminded, somehow, of the final line of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem ‘Filling Station: “Somebody loves us all.”
I admire these quiet, careful poems. But this poet won’t be typecast. The poem that opens the book, itself called ‘Book’ — and which featured as the first ever poem on The Friday Poem — makes a much more obvious splash: “The Book of errors, terrors, accidents (happy), / accidents (unhappy, Vol. II).” So much that’s real in here, hard-hitting, packaged with her touch of brilliant humour (for me, in that “Vol. II”, for instance, capturing our all-too-human negative bias). And here we also see, as in every poem, this poet’s unique footprint in language. The gathering together of sounds and images, disparate, and delicious, as she sends her reader’s mind darting:
loves on the brink of hatreds, holy
alliances, barefoot dances,
losses, peregrine snatches.
She does this, creates this magic, repeatedly. In ’Winter Festival’, she turns her gaze on “the maiden aunties, / the grandmothers” gathered complacently by a family:
it’s time to fold them away fold them away
as before, follow the comfortable creases.
‘Put’ is another wonderful poem, and example:
At last my door, and putting everything down
to fumble for the key before life to come
and becoming aware of Put: these bags, weight
of potatoes, a couple of jars, all the stuff
settling into a sideways loll
I’m reminded faintly of Tony Hoagland’s poem ‘There Is No Word’ — “There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store / with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack” — but of course Peacocke’s play with the word ‘Put’ is entirely her own — “settling into a sideways loll” — and utterly unpredictable in where it travels. I don’t think she ever loses me on her journeyings, so beautifully constructed are these poems. Every one reinforces my impression: here is a writer I can trust. This poet / mind at work here, behind the scenes. I relax into receiving her communications.
The collection encompasses almost every life stage: that’s one of its gifts. And early memories and senses are as clearly evoked as later-life experiences
I didn’t learn an instrument as a child but so many stories have I heard of the curious toll these lessons can take (a mother’s wishes for her daughter, however well intentioned). In ‘Practice’, something called “effort” seems passed on in posture, strain. ‘Leaving’ also distills a central facet of family relationships. Is this a daughter leaving her mother’s home (or, conceivably, a mother leaving her daughter’s)? Either way, it evokes a strong response in me — “a figure in the lane with hands lifted awkwardly” saying goodbye, when you wish she’d just go back into the house now: “although I think / she wasn’t watching but seeing.” (Who’s watching over whom here?)
‘Air Letters’ describes the burning of a trove of letters. Peacocke’s perfect observation of literal detail merges seamlessly with her metaphor:
The decayed elastic band wouldn’t hold anything
together now. Writhed briefly. First the fire caressed, then
was abruptly angry
The collection encompasses almost every life stage: that’s one of its gifts. And early memories and senses are as clearly evoked as later-life experiences.
The second poem in the book is called ‘Syllabary’ (yes, I had to look that up). For me, it captures the birth of a poetic impulse. The poem starts with a child’s dry reading lesson indoors with her “formal father”: “She sat (mat, pat) on an upright chair”. Then, when lessons were done for the day, the great escape outdoors, the passions of that world of excitement and injury: “the wall / never bothered with warnings (tall, fall)”. And then, my favourite line of the poem: “Later, a phone rhymed and rhymed.” Death calls. How can we shoehorn all of human experience into conventional forms and language? We can’t. (Hence, poems.)
And of course, this poet writes of old age. Beautifully. Sometimes she writes humorously. Take the picture of her “brandishing” her stick and yelling, in ‘Exercise’; to the typographical delight of ‘Theend’:
I am odl an don seee towell
i can no longre TYPe Whic
his a nisence. Pety I’m a Pot.
As often she is serious. This is from ‘Flies’:
I’m old, I’m like Roman glass,
no more use, carefully kept, fragile and cloudy.
Everything about me is a long time ago.
Or this, from ‘Dust’. (There’s a book here too: the same ‘Book’ of the opening poem? That’s “written and can’t be amended”.) It’s hard to imagine a fitter guide:
Till now I had not understood my vocation
to be other, disparate as snow, no longer
bone, water, blood, but some multiple of dust caught
in the beam of your lamp. It’s late. You turn the page,
not quite finished, the ending still speculative.
A swirl of the air. Fleck by fleck, the dust floats on.
Charlotte Gann is an editor from Sussex. She has an English degree from UCL, and an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development from the University of Sussex. She lived in London for years, working as Editor of Health Which?, among other roles, then moved to Brighton and had two sons. Her pamphlet, The Long Woman (Pighog Press, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Michael Marks Award and her two full collections, Noir (2016) and The Girl Who Cried (2020) are published by HappenStance. She’s a freelance editor, helps on Sphinx Review, and is developing a project she’s calling The Understory Conversation.