Author of Laurel: Poems of Love, Loss and Rivalry, Peter Cowlam’s career as a poet goes back some forty years. His first collection, The Harvest, was privately printed and circulated in the late 1970s. Other collections, including The Valleys of Babel, Manifesto, and Opus Thirty Three Bagatelles have appeared at intervals in the ensuing years, during which he has continued carefully to hone his craft or sullen art, and his poems have become briefer and more epigrammatic. Although he is probably better known as a critic and a prize-winning novelist, poetry has always been central to Cowlam’s interests. It is fitting that his latest and soon-to-be-published novel, The Obituary of Ad Dawilde, concerns a poet.
The cover of his new collection, Author of Laurel: Poems of Love, Loss and Rivalry, tells us what to expect. It describes the contents as ‘poems of love, loss and rivalry’ and the cover image is an autumnal sketch depicting clouds, a falling leaf, and an empty park or garden bench – symbols of loneliness and desolation.
The poems here are almost haiku-like in their concentration and economy. Still, there is something in their treatment of the themes of love and loss that links them with some of the author’s fiction, notably his novella, Marisa. A pervasive melancholy – a poignant, almost elegiac quality – is present in several of the poems. The imagery is often drawn from the natural world – weather, the quality of light, the moon, a leafless tree. It evokes a sense of passing seasons and a sometimes bleak, dream-like landscape, which serve as analogues for the transience of human lives and the existential loneliness of the human condition. Against that backdrop, a relationship stands obliquely revealed in a series of sharply etched vignettes. The protagonist’s feelings – the struggle to communicate, anger and sorrow, guilt and remorse, strife and peace, pain and healing, moments of joy and recurring anguish, misunderstanding and reconciliation, are conveyed, precisely but laconically, in a pared-down, deceptively simple vocabulary. Our true thoughts and feelings elude all our efforts at communication, and misunderstandings are inevitable. Yet the possibility of reconciliation remains. We may not understand, but we can still love, and forgive.
These poems give the much-worked literary subjects of loss and regret an ironic modernist twist. The adjective ‘modernist’ seems apt because there is nothing postmodernist about them. The ludic, fundamentally unserious nature of postmodernism and its cultural relativism are foreign to Cowlam’s poetic sensibility, which I would guess has been formed by influences like Eliot and Rilke, as well as by Japanese poetry in English translations. His spare, angular lyricism seems to me to owe something to Oriental examples – perhaps to the Chinese as well as the Japanese. A poem such as this might easily have been written by one of the classical Chinese poets—
It was a dream,
round a small
plot of shallots,
your red hair streaming
in the breeze.
A damp moon
against the clouds.
These are love poems in the only real sense of the term. They are at the furthest possible remove from the trite, mushy sentimentalities of pop lyrics. But they capture unerringly the experience of love – the sense that a particular someone matters to us more than anything else, the clarity with which certain images and memories are burned unforgettably into our minds, the ache of recollection even though we would not give up these memories for anything in the world. Not many poets can convey so much in so few words. These delicate, beautiful poems will haunt the mind and the imagination long after we have finished reading them.
Peter Cowlam’s novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems, stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, and others. Latest novel, New King Palmers, is published by CentreHouse Press.
Jon Elsby is the author of Wrestling With the Angel, Reassessing the Chesterbelloc, Light in the Darkness, and Coming Home, all published by CentreHouse Press. His survey of operatic tenors, Heroes and Lovers, is forthcoming. He has also written an introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for CentreHouse Press.