Robert Peake is a British-American poet living near London. His debut full-length collection The Knowledge releases today from Nine Arches Press.
Excerpt from The Knowledge
Nine Arches Press
© Robert Peake 2015
Bright as a hurricane lantern, flammable as paper,
you roll a cigarette absently, leaning against your cab.
Something rotten wafts up sweet from a nearby grate.
You are fulcrum here now, the healer who healed himself,
crunching down alleys on a wobbly L-plated motorbike,
turning out memory’s tricks, patting walls for coat hooks—
Lamb’s Conduit and Buttery Mews, Occupation Road—
coercing new wrinkles into the brain, your chart, on each side
of a medial fissure called The River, which flows sin-black,
gorgeous, the crease in the book between Alpha and Omega,
A and Zed, horizon dividing sea from sky and light from dark.
You sleep with a Blue Book under your pillow, under a map
pinned to the ceiling, more accurate than planets or stars.
This is the contentment you were after, tapping ashes
through the slits into hell, your casual propriety simmering
a goulash of rat-runs and corner-cuts, faster by fifteen pence,
and this thought makes you look up to reveal a smile, the one
Eve first saw on Adam’s face, wiping the juice from his chin.
It is hardly there at all,
this feather-rain, suffusing
the air with casual descent
pooling in crevices of husk
and trickling down the yellow stem,
dampening the topsoil sponge.
It is the antidote to drought, but also
to floods of Biblical scale, this
Providence and proof of tenderness—
each droplet a tiny silver dollar
skating the side of a piggy bank,
reclaiming the mortgaged barn.
How strange to discover it here,
leashing an eager Retriever for his
pre-dawn hike through a London park,
four thousand miles and an ocean away
from where the saying first took root
in your keen farm-girl’s mind.
Strange how what is hardly there
is there all the more for its gentleness,
dampening the head of your dog.
The neighbour dressed in misery still won’t
return your smile, unaware he’s breathing
money-mist, shaking gold-dust from his hair.
So you walk with this secret knowledge,
burning like a gas lamp inside, while all around
the land is soaking, gently, soaking.
(First published in Harpur Palate)
On the matchbox, there is a child,
frown like a downturned slice of melon
flames decorating her thin stick arms.
A single red wing arcs in salute
by the epigram: Fire Kills Children.
Above it is the royal coat of arms.
I wonder why only children. Fire kills
trees, and adults, too—anything alive,
once enfolded in that wing will soon
hear the shhh of death’s librarian.
My father taught me games with matches.
We used to make rockets by wrapping
the match head in foil, propping it
on a bent paperclip, then tickling
the shiny underside with a flame.
It would fizz into the air, dangling
smoke like a dancer’s scarf. I went
through whole booklets that way.
Now we are six thousand miles apart,
and the pale light of an unfamiliar
place lights up this new-to-me warning.
In the absence of photojournalism,
the idea of a child on fire
is as cartoonish as a queen
whose family symbols are national
symbols, propped up by a unicorn
in a place that will never be home.
(First published in Aperçus Quarterly.)
Mr Ergosum Speaks
(after Zbigniew Herbert)
None of it matters. Let me say
that again: once, it mattered, and now,
when I snap my fingers, only dust.
That absurd cake! Justice. How it tilts
in layers on its pedestal, while party-goers
observe, How remarkably straight.
My hat is a chimney, chugging with promise.
What I think becomes soft smoke in the dampened air.
My coat-tails wave a continual flurry of goodbyes.
The nineteenth century was my favourite. Yes,
I have seen them all, through my monocle—
the one present I kept from the deposed Tsar.
All of it matters, actually, to the ants
on the sidewalk, hustling their minuscule lives.
Who can tell if they are small or just far away?
I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye.
The air, full of soot, encourages such weeping.
I wear a monogrammed kerchief in place of a heart.
(First published in San Pedro River Review)