Title: In Carvoeiro & Other Sequences
Author: Peter Oram.
Publisher: SPM Publications, 2015
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
Peter Oram’s In Carvoeiro And Other Sequences won first prize in the 2015 poetry collection competition organised by SPM Publications. It is an outstanding collection for many reasons, not least the poet’s technical skill in maintaining a natural sounding and musical tone throughout while at the same time composing three of the four sections in the sonnet form.
More on this later but for now I’d like to focus on the mood of the poems and what seems to me to be the overriding theme of the collection which is the precarious balance between different worlds whether they be related to landscape, elements, relationships or political events.
Life, Oram suggests, is ‘just a line between two points.’ However this line is not straightforward, neither is it clear-cut and necessarily linear but is best approached ‘sideways’ with an awareness of ‘turmoil on the borderline’ where ‘the frontier is the place of fitfulness.’ There are ‘different worlds’ he says ‘and yours and mine/are no exception; as with east and west,/or day and night, or continent and ocean,/ ‘All afternoon I walk the line between/where water touches and where water doesn’t/touch.’
These different worlds are illustrated ‘along the line between this little land/and endless ocean’. This is the Algarve where the poet is writing and where, out of season, ‘all is quiet’ although, in shocking contrast, ‘with summer there will come the great invasion:/this coast will almost sink into the sea.’ Even more menacing is the depiction of a different world where ‘They’re chucking bombs about in the Ukraine./decapitating tourists in Iraq.’
This is an ambivalent, uncertain world where beauty and horror exist in parallel, where life is fleeting and the perfect moment may be ‘a world that time forgot to visit/until a careless brush begins to paint/a cloud or vapour trail, and the exquisite/moment goes, the magic starts to fade.’ There is sadness and loss here and in ‘the lonely damaged day’ which results, but nevertheless, Oram implies, every experience should be cherished for as long as it lasts. ‘Our life’s a line between/two points,’ he repeats, ‘but what a line!’
Something I find particularly intriguing in In Carvoeiro is the strong sense of destiny and fate that overlays the poems. God is visualised as a charioteer choosing, or otherwise, to release the reins, waiting offshore lies ‘a cruel wind’, the ocean itself is compared with a mill that won’t stop grinding until ‘the last shell, bone or pebble’s turned to sand’. This is something of an apocalypse but the tone is tempered by cynicism in a poem about the Last Supper where ‘He’d call his father, but his phone’s/kaput, the battery’s dead./He pours the wine. He breaks the bread.’ In the section ‘Numbers’ there is a similar tension where Jesus, hanging on the cross, notes the anguish of the two thieves who feel they are doomed and ‘fated/to be snuffed out, obliterated’ and comforts them with reassurance that they’ll soon be in heaven if they’ll be patient and ‘wait a bit’. However, the speaker concludes, ‘I was lying …’
In Carvevoeiro is outstandingly rich in imagery. The opening poem begins with the poet waking ‘to a parallelogram/of light’ and this quality of lustre is a recurrent motif. There is colour as well in ‘a single palm,/that’s opened like a fan and silhouetted/against a wash of pale celestial blue’ and there is much emphasis on whiteness and ‘white-/washed walls’. Music, too, is a dominant image. The first poem in the book also has the description of a railing ‘like the long and fretted/neck of some exotic instrument/that no one noticed, no one ever played’ and the terminology of music is used beautifully in a poem from the section In Flight:
‘The one who lies in coal-dark rooms, who’s waiting
with silver tongue and poisonous green eyes
has tuned your frail heart to the pulsating
ground-bass of the pounding passacaglia
of (calando) your descent into the valley. A
pianissimo last chord.’
Seasons and elements have a powerful role in this collection. Early in the section In Carvoeiro there is the description of a violent storm that ‘roared in off the Atlantic … ripping at the stubborn night with frantic/talons, hammering the window pane/like an apocalyptic beast’ while similar, threatening weather provides the backcloth to the whole section In Flight where the aircraft, compared to a ‘giant cocktail shaker’, will face ‘gales of eighty over Amsterdam, and worse/to come.’ Much of this book has a cosmic feel to it – again highlighting different worlds – and a close relationship is described as ‘You and I: a solar system/just a single planet travelling/round a pale and lonely sun/slowly’. Here the whole galaxy is seen as ‘a slow/unfolding row of sequenced tones/from whose relentless, fixed parade/there’s no escape’.
No escape – or maybe there is some, albeit transient, in the tender ‘relationship’ scenes several of which take place in bed. Outside the window, says Oram, ‘the quarter moon completes its quiet arc/towards the ocean through the starlit sky,/a seabird that I can’t identify performs its cool cantata in the dark.’ Inside the room, safe from the storm, the couple are ‘secure/and warm beneath the sheet and coverlet,/a secret’s length away from me you draw,/exhale, then draw again the gentle breath/of sleep.’
Gentle, lyrical lines. Oram, however, is also the master of the hard hitting phrase. We are told of people who ‘take their daily pills and eat their greens,/content to leave the world the way it is’ and about the small boy tossing pebbles into a ring on the sand whose aim ‘is accurate and steady and/his eye is cold. He’ll make a good assassin.’ Oram is skilful, too, at manipulating the language of literature and myth. Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd, in today’s idiom would say ‘Come live with me and be my love/and leave me when you’ve had enough’ while a later ‘unwanted’ narrator, ‘condemned from birth’ and ‘flung’ from the wedding feast, achieves revenge by putting ‘poison on the spindle’.
Most of In Carvoero, as mentioned, is written in the sonnet form – a tremendous achievement in complexity, variation and, above all, in making the poems feel natural, readable, intriguing and moving. The last section Six Premature Ejaculations (not in sonnets) is one I find especially interesting and would have liked to read more. I love the layout of the pieces together with the lyrical surrealism (if there is such a thing) of lines like ‘the unicorn’s whistle in the deep bells’, ‘the silent holes in ashtrays’, ‘rubbing your shoulders on brambles/and the curve of nightingales’. In this final section ‘the thieves got off with a caution after all’.
There are many moods and cadences in this beautiful collection, far more than I have described. They are for the reader to discover and enjoy. I will finish this review with a passage that I find particularly appealing with its visionary quality and the possibility of hope that it offers:
‘But lately I have just begun to learn
that if I’m still and patient I’ll detect
that wooden stairway, old, with shaky sections
that descends through cliffs and brambles and
emerges on a perfect golden strand
extending endlessly from left to right
and where the sea’s ablaze with blinding light
and fishing boats rest snug on their reflections.
In Carvoeiro is available from SPM Publications here and through other bookstores including Amazon and Barnes & Noble