slightly scented short lived words and roses by Stanley Pelter. (George Mann Publications, Eaton, Winchester, Hampshire SO21 IES, UK. 2009). 140 pp. ISBN: 978-0-95608-743-0. Available from the author at 5 School Lane, Claypole, Newark, Lincolnshire NG 23 5BQ, U.K. A gift book except for the cost of the stamp – 1.50 pounds UK; 2 Euro – Europe; $10 USA and Rest of the World.
Stanley Pelter has produced a considerable body of haibun. This is his fourth collection. Puzzles, conundrums, pithy arguments —none of these terms describe the poems in slightly scented short lived words and roses. Reading these poems I pictured myself arriving at an amusement park, only none of the rides are familiar. I considered I could break my neck or be catapulted into the sky. It’s only poetry, I remind myself, and climb on board. I’m having fun, and I don’t want it to end. The poems are gimlet sharp. So much happens in their winding shapes: wit, sorrow, and an intelligence that nips and worries its subjects into giving up their full oddity and originality. The reader does not consume this poetry; instead, they are pinched and prodded towards revelation. Each neat poem is a Pandora’s Box full of wonderful surprises.
The experience of reading Pelter is of an extraordinarily powerful tension between the reference to recognizable experiences and images and a prosodic technique which keeps such moments constantly on the move. Here are some lines from the first haibun “a dense bell rings”:
crumpled beige sheets
squashed beneath a king size dusk
another. then another. intense. dense resonance.
one clutch of women hide under a heaving king-size kissing bed. move slightly
apart. still young, one is slightly older. with effort she opens her eyes wide. then they close.
These lines posit a narrator in the midst of a room filled with a “king-size kissing bed” and numerous women. Who they are and what they are doing there is left to the reader’s imagination. A hospital? A convent? A concentration camp? We can only imagine. The flow from haiku to prose and a final tanka creates a strong notational effect as if the environment is being mapped subjectively: “that was all I heard about them.”
In “A Small Matter of Principle” the syntax, various type faces, tanka in italics etc. has the effect of destabilizing the narratives in the poem, allowing inner and outer categories to blend. The opening tanka,
dry dahlia dust
floats inside bathroom spray
scarab shadow forms
merge with her naked body
although standing as an entirely different image, is linked to the prose by the use of such words as “bathroom,” “naked” and “nude.” This juxtaposition suggests different layers of perception of the environment both as reality, but also as representation.
“answer or question” relies for its theme on several of Pelter’s main preoccupations: art, music and literature. The poem opens with a quote from Paul Valery, “’We should apologise for daring to speak about painting.’” The next few lines give a perspective on the scene where two people with different interests—“he talks painting she talks music” —come together to discuss their differences.
“blind id” is divided into four parts: young.blind, prime.blind, middle.blind and old.blind. “Blind” here seems irresistibly to stand for all the sensations one may be blind to throughout life” blind to love, to feeling, to hurt, to being old. The amalgam of prose passages and ribbon-like thread of musical allusions in the tanka and haiku, are beautifully integrated.
In “disconnected bits?” the more analytical awareness of tanka, prose and text is highlighted by being set in italics, and reveals that we are facing boundaries: perhaps those of outside vs inside, private vs public, and these boundaries breathe a profound level of control. The combination of outside (rain, snow) inside (a restaurant) refigures the meaning to suggest that the man “who smiles is absent” is remote in the sense of isolated, rather than simply separate. That this is linked with the notion of control suggests the boundaries operating within this scene and, perhaps enforced by the cold, the “wind-ordered shapes” and the destruction done by the birds, amount to a form of social control.
What this reading attempts to demonstrate is how Pelter’s writing simulates experience in this notational way, whilst also reminding the reader of the textuality of the presentation, through the shifting syntax and avoidance of strict boundaries in typography. The tight patterning of the haiku and tanka within the text is a foil to this effect. Phrases like “here is a once-in-a-lifetime chance of over-hearing table wood communicating with an old door bleached of suffocating paint” (“excoriation”) remind us of the mediated representation, and that language, as much as urban architecture, and Duchamp’s art work “Large Glass. ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’” are a background of conflicting spaces, boundaries and perimeters of meaning. These elements linked to Pelter’s approach to his writing and the emphasis in composition of bricolage, all suggest that the best way of thinking about Pelter’s poetry is to read, reread, savour and enjoy it.
“1/2 Price Sale – up to 70% off” takes us into another realm of Pelter’s imagination – conversation. He is adept at revealing his characters through dynamically recording their outbursts. It takes movement, speed and duration to capture the spoken word in a series of short, staccato sentences, such as: “’Is it in the Sale? Don’t’ think it is. Leave it. I’ll come back. Need to be sure. Weight. Need to lose. Coffee in Debenhams?’”
For Pelter, movement is one of the real systems whose existence in fact makes up our lives and those of his characters. For example, in “house odours—a preparation” he notes the way in which a couple discuss why he should want to visit a house in which he lived for seven years, and in which an old girlfriend now lives:
“Yes, I visited. I did live there for seven years”.
“But why should an old girlfriend be living there? Why did she ask you to
visit? Why did you go?”
Nerves wedged between a cleaned car, memories of her special scent, how he would explain that he kissed her on both cheeks.
These distinctions in Pelter’s haibun provide a useful figure for thinking about his poetic practice in a way that addresses both its form and content. Pelter’s poetry can be thought of as a special practice that holds our interest by virtue of its collage means of composition – gathering textual paragraphs and juxtaposing them with restrained haiku and tanka – and the resulting textual effect of an energetic series of responses to landscape, city and environment. Pelter’s poetry seems to inscribe the way in which we lead our lives in small parcels of time and space.
The innovative nature of “inheritance” figures the innovative use of language that Pelter’s poems exhibit: the collapsing of phrase with phrase, bi-directional syntax, use of italics and capital letters are actions in language akin to the person’s hiking, painting experience. When the person arrives at a cottage door, asking where he might find a café, he is invited inside for tea. After some conversation, he discovers that his hostess has two addictions: the 1967, 6 day War, and teapots. Pelter’s use of language serves to defamiliarise the normative appearance and apparent function of the poem – suggesting the unusual experience of his protagonist.
In the lengthy poem “it’s an insult to pigs and a creative gay – it is their way,” it is the character’s combination of Old English and baby talk which first greets the reader
furste of tidal nighte
compleates weaves of dual soundes
sande sweeps wone away
Dear ickle Stanley, of atheist purity, lowliest member of numero uno dissenters difficult tribe of kreatiff skeptics, I will tells of a jaw-droppling and wondrous evente. After that, hush!
The omission of linking words such as prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions within or between sentences, the use of capital letters, bold typeface, italics and unusual spelling, gives the poem its extremely unusual appearance and show how Pelter’s writing both utilizes the language and opens it up to questioning:
Blankness. Time compresses. Suddenly absent. Lacerated space not hurriedly filled. Only a busy cube remains to stain silence.Time to act. Time to time a top-toe to tiny exit.
stand apart from him
from across a shaken field
Pelter took the photograph of the artist David Hockney that accompanies this poem. The drawing he was doing as they reminisced, was a 21st Birthday Present to Pelter’s son.
“of crustaceans who, too, get born” is illustrated with a photograph of the author. Here, Pelter expands on the prose-poem with his use of opening and closing haiku. This free-association piece is a personal take on the author’s love of nature.
The variety in page lay-outs which mark many of the poems, prose-poems and non-poems helps maintain the interest of the reader which might otherwise wander in patches where obscure facts predominate. Some passages appear in the traditional verse forms of haiku and tanka, others in the attractive scattered arrangement familiar to Pelter’s poems, and still others in paragraph form or in columns down the side of pages, the decisions about format setting seeming arbitrary at times, as the verses may be no more or less poetic than the paragraphs.
“one shoe one drawing only,” a poem divided into four sections, is probably one of my favourites. In it, Pelter writes about a mother’s drawing of a shoe, the shoe, and the “Grannymum” who brought up the child after the mother’s death: “Eight, and my present is a drawing”. The young child is given both the remaining shoe and the drawing: “Sitting on a floorcushion, legs apart, I look hard at them both, as I have many times. One shoe one drawing only. See nothing else.
of an unfashionable shoe
“Pablo? Misunderstood misogynist? Never” – parts 1 and 2, are something of a meeting between the artist and the poet, the concrete with the abstract. The places where these things meet are in the world of forms and structures; Pelter’s poems explore these borderlands by crossing literary boundaries. In this excerpt we overhear part of a conversation between the artist and his model:
All my life I have loved women. LOVED them.
No. You have loved love of possessing, loved stupendous images
short-changed into everyday Creative sexual ownership.
You calling my drawings, my etched images OverTheTop?
You know what I mean. Let me put it another way. It’s as if . . .
Stop! Hair’s moving. Still! That’s better. Nearly finished . . . that’s it.
In these two poems Pelter comes from an interesting angle. Perhaps as a voyeur?
As we have seen, he is not afraid to step out of the boundaries of traditional haibun. His units of composition encompass prose paragraphs, poetry, fragments, and conversation. Often, the fragments form a story, sometimes with conversation between characters. The shorter pieces may consist of constellations of only a few sentences. It is worth quoting “phaaaaackorph” in full:
goes pfuukkorf fukkawf –
dat wat am ee says at dem
oo soe doo luvz im
Ee never did gave respect or no even disrespec. Wha ee an da gager
do is ‘dissing’ an abe reeee-spek. An wen ee’s face becum seerislee
contort ee can oonly screeeech owt doze sownnds. An dees sownds
are ‘fuaarkcough’ an ‘phaaaaackawph’. Dat am all.
There is still a work of interpretation for the reader here, but the effect is not one of alienation. The reader can choose any of several possible interpretations of this poem, it does not matter which, it is clear that an image of human failing is central.
The title poem, “slightly scented short lived words and roses,” a constellation of five paragraphs, dissolves the anxiety of interpretation because they can be held in the mind at the same time and produce a kind of sublime poem; the whole thing a fragile yet valid moment of insight.
Another poem in the book that I like very much is called “the short straw.” It is in three sections divided with numbers. The whole thing should be studied, but it ends:
Later, with shriveled pupils, she looks inside my eyes. Her
only visitor. I try to read between heavily smoked lines, wanting to gauge
slippage, diminution. Unfamiliar, it easily misinterprets into something
like shorthand of each Carer’s intentions. Want to return her to an
importance but it is too late to transcend her near completion. She asks
me to leave. “It is time”, she mumbles into a most minimalist of kitsch
smiles while pressing her Gift tight to a concealed breast, “to
already a slow drift
That paragraph will be one of recognition for many readers who find themselves in the situation of a caring for a loved one and watching their slow decline.
In the true story of “3 died young” Pelter must have felt he had disastrous invisible, destructive powers on those young women he fell in love with. It is another lengthy poem, divided by numbers into 6 sections. These again are a montage of haiku, prose passages, various fonts and type faces. Often inside the paragraphs or sentences, there is a dreamlike slippage into different registers and realities. On page 120 we read:
She said “it is bound to happen. sudden attacks are no joke. it will
happen again”. told so worried family not to. safely over first twenty
year finishing line. why not more? “shall paint standing up till I die” i
tell them. “that’s what’s happening, more or less. ok, i’m not standing
up, or only paint, will bathe after one more best night ever. Just one
night more. three of us died young. chaos. no more here for you”.
after a twosome night
she is painted out
The reference to “sudden attacks” forces the reader to focus on the fact that life passes quickly and one should make the most of time.
Pelter’s poem “yakshi” allows for periods of reflection and lyricism not bound by considerations of typography, variety of syntax, or font, which sometimes distract from the poetry. Here there is an interesting development in the theme of the young girl admiring a sensual Indian statue. The poem contains dream-like sequences and reflections, which are linked in ways that are not obvious, as the girl on an academic trip confronts a piece which she has only ever seen in books:
She steps forward. Foot touches a sculptured spirit of a carved woman with luscious means, a binding, entwining mango tree bursting into full flower filled. So it is told. So let it be written. So
she knows it, now, then, into always.
releases interned warmth
carved lips taste shapes
A yakshi is a specific form of sculpture of a goddess entwined into and with a mango tree – love/fertility/nature etc. They form a column of a temple (stupa). The reference at the bottom refers to a famous temple, carved from top to bottom. The bottom layer is of physical sex in all its manifestations, accepted with gratitude but the lowest level of awareness. Each level of sculptures reduces this area but increases the more spiritual nature of sex as an aspect of the creative process. The topmost layer is of the most sublime sculptures of women doing no more than, via finger movements and body positions, express where we may reach in terms of ‘beyond the human’ awareness.
For me, Pelter’s strength as a poet is in his unusual connections, his sharpened eye for detail and ear for conversation, and his loosely organized use of language. The poems clearly relate to the modernist current, yet are concerned with construction, understanding and meaning. Illustrated with photographs and Pelter’s quirky drawings, this is a wonderful book to read, reread and savour.