Poetry Review: Cyclone by Robert Peake

Cyclone - poetry collection by Robert PeakePoetry has always drawn analogies between human emotion and the weather. Cyclone by Robert Peake creates a storm of words that circle around the unabating grief of a father for his lost child. The collection begins with subtle hints that all is not well, even within nature itself. ‘The Man with the Kindest Face’ begins a series of poems interspersed throughout the collection which suggest an attempt at human connection that, somehow, never quite works. This man appears to be a shadow of something good just beyond reach, haunting the poet’s world: “He might not have a face at all / or change it like a set of masks”.  

The sequence ‘Nomansland Common’ is bleak, an answer to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, full of the abundance of nature, but also violent and deadly:

I am the spike at the top of the acorn,
splinter in smooth wood, punchline’s sting.
That salty taste in the mouth, red spot
on your napkin, sliver of under-nail ice,
that’s me –

It is full of tangible imagery, sharp and dangerous but subtle too, whilst another sequence, ‘Cyclone’, presents us with four sonnets that portray the poet’s personal grief against the backdrop of a grieving world. I found the second sonnet, ‘Mesocyclone’, particularly moving, as it cleverly spirals towards its own centre, and out again:

Since the last place you’d dream of landing is here,
in the silt-choked afterlife of someone’s grief,
we’ve become the vapour we feared would take us
down the rabbit hole these long dark years.

Many of the poems in this collection seem almost out of reach, dealing internally with metaphors of grief, but I was particularly moved by those which are more grounded in personal, tangible experience, such as poem V. in ‘The Opposite of Sleepwalking’ sequence:

Every day I wake and walk suspended –
each cement square a probable trap door
into the familiar dark sludge
of self-decay. I tiptoe, ballerina-tight
from water cooler to cork message board,
pinned with slogans meant for another day.

There is also a subtle, surreal sense of humour in several of the poems, such as ‘Abduction’, in which the speaker describes how he was abducted by aliens:

I doubt they will ever come back,
sure we were chosen simply randomly,
the way a meteor chooses its crater –

This could be funny, yet there is an underlying seriousness here too, a poignant and surreal metaphor of grief.

‘Getting on with it’ is even more surreal:

Forget the slides, let’s push each other on mood swings.
You be teeter, and I’ll totter you up into space.
Forget the weather, let’s mist-bathe and moon-bathe,
becoming more transparent with each exposure.
Let’s film our lives and play the reel backwards…

This feels like a kaleidoscope of emotion portraying the absurdity of grief in all its forms and contradictions, as two people attempt to make sense of what they experience. It reminds me of some of Emily Berry’s poems in Stranger, Baby, which fixate in a similar way on the absurdity of grief and the way we react to it.

As the collection progresses, each poem appears to become more out of control, more surreal, more hyperbolic, with references to children’s stories, fairy-tales and nursery rhymes, warped and nightmarish:

the forecast calls for vigilance, and sleep is overrated,
undeserved, and deserving of the weak. I slurp my milk,

with strychnine, all the better to see you my dear, wolfing
down the goodie basket and pounding my chest for more.

In several poems there is a strong theme of pretence, the idea of being forced to put on a mask for the watching world: ‘Smile through the pain and call it pleasure, leisure’.

Towards the end of the book, many of the poems turn their focus to the outside world, tackling philosophical questions about life and death, with an overriding sense of unease. Peake’s style is varied, but all his work is playful and considered, full of irony and interwoven with imagery that reflects the turbulence and chaos of the natural world. Although the themes of grief and nature seem quite separate, Peake’s tone of voice – analytical, questioning, ironic – pervades the collection.

Cyclone is Robert Peake’s second full-length collection, published by Nine Arches Press. You can buy the book here.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the Publisher.