I remember back in the eighties reading Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, his profoundly moving collection of poems about the passing of his wife that were at times almost too painful to read. The same can be said of Peter A’s Art of Insomnia (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2021), a chapbook of twenty-two direct, intimate, almost conversational poems through which he explores the loss of his partner.
Like Dunn’s Elegies, whilst Peter A’s poems are about grief, they are also about love. They honour a relationship which was cut tragically short. Take for example, his Found in France. We see the French rural retreat through the eyes of his wife. There is true affection and warmth in his amusing description of what she would not have liked. This is an affection derived from the intimate knowledge that comes through sharing a life with another and from an uncritical acceptance of what she thinks and feels. Consequently it’s no surprise when the poem ends with the abrupt tonal change: ‘As for me/the only aspect of the French place/I do not appreciate/is you/not being here.’ This is an authentic, recognisable, deeply loving relationship.
It is the sort of love that makes the sense of loss and grief so acute, and in Peter A’s view irreparable. In Helenium one and only (Helenium sui generis) he symbolises her passing as the ‘uprooting’ of this ‘unassuming’ plant that ‘leaves a lasting impression upon all who see her’. Her removal ‘leaves a gaping hole – a space hard to fill in any way meaningful.’ Later in the collection he describes this loss in terms of leaving him ‘half a person/the lesser half/that is not you’ (Christmas card to half a person). He explains he cannot send cards back to his friends because his right hand has ‘gone’. Her loss is devastating to him. Yet there is nothing he can do about it. There’s no going back or forward: he feels helpless.
Life’s certainties have gone. The result is that he is drifting from day to day: life has lost its meaning and he can see no end to this state: ‘I now accept and understand/This is not a passing phase/Whatever days remain for me/I shall spend them tossed in waves’ (Cut adrift). He describes this purposeless life as a sort of paralysis. He is no longer able to take control of events or make the simplest decisions: he calls it the Nearly Not Going Out Syndrome, the title of a poem in which he describes the impossibility of deciding whether or not to go on a painting holiday. This state is symbolised perfectly in the final poem of the collection, Nine minute intervals, in which he reflects upon his inability to get out of bed.
Even the kindness and concern of his friends cannot help him. At times, he finds their compassion almost oppressive. In Better fail, he describes how friends force upon him their perception of how he has dealt with his partner’s passing. They try to convince him that he did everything possible for her, whilst he experiences the guilt of the survivor, the overwhelming sense that he could have done more. As a consequence he feels compelled to try to be a better person to live up to their inflated view of him. When he tries to tell them the truth: ‘they brook no protest, no sign of weakness’. Though no doubt their interventions are inspired by kindness, he is forced into acting out their expectations knowing he is ‘destined to fail’. The result is that his public face is very different to his private reality. As he writes in the significantly titled Acting though: ‘Thus do I act strong/when I lack all kinds of strength;/Thus do I make sense/when nothing at all makes sense.//Yes I know//Acting though.’
If friends fail to provide any comfort, the act of creativity does. In After the ending he describes how he ‘started to avoid some of those/who knew the situation/and loneliness became an attractive destination’. He finds solace instead in ‘A world of art and love and spirituality’ which he describes as his ‘antidote for the world’s poison’. Earlier in the collection he has described the relief he finds on his painting retreat: ‘just what my soul needs/sharing air creatively’. In fact as I read this collection I wondered if the act of writing poetry wasn’t also in some ways an example of this power of creativity and its potent ability to offer relief in finding ways of communicating the incommunicable.
As implied at the outset this is by no means a comfortable read, but it is a courageous, honest and inspiring work that in many ways renders any sort of critical response inappropriate. Perhaps it’s best just to read it and be profoundly moved. I was.
Peter A is a Scottish writer. His poetry and short fiction has been published widely in anthologies, magazines, online and on video. He won first prize in the 2016 Paisley Spree Fringe Poetry Competition. During 2020, his poems appeared in A Kist of Thistles, Words from Battlefield, Poets Against Trump, The Angry Manifesto (Thatcher Volume) and Black Lives Matter – Poems for a New World. To date in 2021 his work has appeared in several themed chapbooks and a summer anthology, all published by Dreich. His debut chapbook Art of Insomnia was published by Hedgehog Poetry Press on 31 May 2021. To find out more about Peter A and to buy a copy of iArt of Insomnia, click here.