Plato’s Peach by John Freeman. Worple Press 2021 Review by Mandy Pannett
As I write this, the year will soon be coming to a close. In West Sussex there has been a thick, dark mist which hasn’t lifted all day to let in any light. There is a feeling of time pausing, time passing. There is also a sense of time and timelessness in this collection. In Sharpenhoe Clappers the scene is a ‘green country with occasional settlements/and a water tower in the middle distance’ and a beech wood where once ‘An Iron-Age fort may have crowned this hill/or not’ and where a glacier of the last ice age may have ‘reached this far south/but hadn’t quite the energy to push/over the ridge into the next valley.’
Mysterious, beyond time, and at ‘a different angle/ to time than what passes unrecorded.’ (Almost Worse). A wonderful description in Snow Scene sums up this strangeness, this sensation of being in a time-lapse film, of moving in a ‘seemingly unpeopled world which I/ and the thrushes have to ourselves, a scene/highlighted like a Brueghel, and I know/ it’s three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon/but it’s also timeless, immemorial.’
Another poem that illustrates the theme of timelessness is The Golden Narrow which also exemplifies the poet’s love of narrative and his skill with the art of story-telling. ‘This is the story of the Golden Narrow’ is the opening line. The Narrow, it turns out, is a steam train that passes the bottom of the garden where the author as a small child is standing with his brother under an apple tree. Years pass and the boys ‘grow taller’, trains also pass until, like the ‘dissolving of the dew in grass/on summer mornings’, they ‘vanish’, giving way to electric trains which ‘now make the only music’. The last verse of The Golden Narrow completes this multi-dimensional, counterfactual sense of time and timelessness when the boys, grown up, have children of their own who come to visit their grandparents in the house with the apple tree. The poet, who was once three years old, visits his daughter in Marseilles and they talk about the Narrow which she never saw. ‘This conversation happens on Christmas Day’ we are told and the next day is the birthday ‘of his brother who is visiting his son/and his son’s family, in up-state New York.’
This poem offers the reader a perfect, all-encompassing canvas of characters and situations which leads me on to another point about John Freeman’s writing that I so admire. That is his skill in setting up and developing a scenario. Many poems in Plato’s Peach show this but I think the title poem deserves a space of its own for comment. The poem begins with the narrator thinking aloud, wondering if Plato obtained his notion about archetypes from possibly seeing a woman ‘dressed in black’ who may have offered him a peach from her basket, ‘the most enormous, dark, perfectly ripe/and yet not over-ripe example of/a peach he’d ever seen’. Having created an imaginary situation which becomes real and immediate in a reader’s mind, the poem continues with Plato ‘in later years’ tasting other peaches, never recapturing the experience and finally coming to the conclusion that ‘there must be the one perfect exemplar/of everything that we discover round us/ tables, apples, horses, boats and fishes’. The poem ends with a leap into the present as the author remembers ‘the green, leather-covered benches/of a train rocking southwards deep in France/throughout eternity, as it seems to me/and a woman in mourning, saying, take it.’
There is a wealth of enjoyment for the reader to discover in Plato’s Peach – the warmth, compassion and humour of the poems, delightful pen-portraits and anecdotes, the significance of music as shown in my personal favourite Opus 131 or in the poem A Conversation where a shared experience is like ‘two human souls or essences/having an exchange, deep answering deep.’
Then there is pleasure to be teased out in the syntax – John Freeman’s lateral approach to language, his use of long, meandering sentences full of sub clauses and divergencies. An extract from Living with Clouds illustrates this:
I’d find something other than sculpted vapour,
solid, yielding, voluminous and lofty,
to compare any living consciousness
in tranquil morning meditation to,
full of percepts, concepts, recollections,
before the day comes barging in with business
to blow the clouds elsewhere or into pieces,
or freeze them into icy arrow-heads
which spear down slantwise, gathering momentum,
swelling streams and rivers, singing, laughing,
finding their way deep into the rocks
and to the sea before finally rising
almost invisibly but copiously
until they concentrate themselves like thinking
and process, in all their laundered glory,
steadily from horizon to horizon.
‘Full of percepts, concepts, recollections’ – these and the process of concentrated thinking are significant features of John Freeman’s style together with his skill for observation and detail. Here, in Walking Under Trees, is his description of a row of plane trees that he noticed daily on his way to school:
The boles were dappled, once with sunlight filtered
through broad and well-spaced leaves like open hands,
and twice with bark patterned in two colours.
They rose like fountains to cascade in branches,
and dandle in the breeze their waving fans
with pendants like soft versions of spiked maces.
The first of the six sections of Plato’s Peach is called My Life In Trees and the poems here are rich with a sense of correspondence with the trees opening to the poet’s own openness as he shares ‘a pulse of grieving’ with an oak tree. (The Oak Tree’s Pulse’). In Brinsop Poplars he describes the feeling he has of being enclosed and ‘taken up/into their company like a tree myself’ while in The Lime-Tree Year he enjoys a sensation of moving ‘as the tree moves/through all the seasons, between earth and sky.’
A beautiful section but there are the others: Passport Renewal, Country Dancing, A Sky Reflected, Visiting Giverny, Time Perpetually Revolving. Each has its store of treasure.
Much to be found and re-visited but I would like my review to end on moments of light and spirituality, on traces as faint as ‘dust motes in a beam the sun was casting.’ (Net Curtains). Throughout the collection there is a sense of being ‘invited in’ as a title suggests, to share an ‘inner life making bits of the old life precious’, to notice tiny details that offer a glimpse of wisdom such as in A Country Church in August where a parent bird flying to the rafters to feed its fledglings in their nest happens as quickly as ‘an angel’s visitation/leaving, as only evidence, singed air.’ This is epiphany, ‘a little burst of joy like a kindled flame’ (A Walk I Often Do), an awareness that ‘even the sheep’ possess and could teach us says the narrator in Horse Sense. It is knowledge to be found in the deep shades of wood anemones ‘under the trees among the celandines’. (March Colours). An insight. A ‘blue experience’.
Plato’s Peach is John Freeman’s twelfth collection, entertaining, varied and as always, perfectly crafted. It is also a book for our times. A book to console and cheer.
Mandy Pannett December 2021