Reviewed by Louise Carson
As the first note at the end of this chapbook explains, “A hell-box is a receptacle for damaged or discarded type.” As a title for anything, Hell-Box rocks. And it hints that the contents will be wildly assorted. They are. But the voice of Peter Taylor, a poet I know nothing about, is consistently steady, measured and grim. Except when it’s beautiful.
In the first poem ‘Hell-Box’ the hell-box speaks. Line one: ‘I am the beginning of language.” Its goal is to make idea and thought supreme. The hell-box’s ideal is (Times) Roman, that ubiquitous type. Empire, my friends. The empire of conformity, of set type becoming the most important thing to be read on the planet. Sets (oh dear) aside the natural world, other people, their feelings. Yet, as the hell-box explains, “Bodies of every sort / emerge / from my fire.” And “My legions / march across the page” “fashioned … from a cauldron of impurities:”.
Perhaps this is a good time to tell you that part 1, six poems, is entitled A Cauldron of Impurities.
The second poem ‘The Man Who Ate His Boots’ couldn’t be more different. The men who shipped aboard the lost 1845 Franklin expedition lived for varying amounts of time (up to a year or more) after their two ships became stuck in arctic ice. There is hell in this poem; their remains concealed for over a century and a half. The poem is written in Franklin’s ghost’s voice. Those leaving the ships to travel over land “abandoned hell to find hell, … desperate … leaving me in this white madness”.
‘Archaeopteryx, an elegiac ode to a fossilized bird. The poem’s cadences echo the ancient grandeur of the creature and beg to be read aloud. Try it with the poem’s final verse.
O stone bird, what songs will you sing
for those who fly higher on continents
moved by different forces? When we fall,
what vestige will remain of us?
‘Black Hole’ is a sonnet, the most elegant depiction of violent domestic rape and abuse I’ve ever read. Very strong.
‘Desire Needs No Image’ Child porn. The poet presents with pity “Angel on a blanket, child / odalisque,”.
In the final poem of A Cauldron of Impurities (the impurities being those committed by human kind), ‘Lazarus’, the poet describes an inability to write of some years’ duration, fueled by rage at the aforementioned ‘impurities’, and a final acceptance that
The world is complicated, dying is complicated,
and what happens afterwards is anyone’s guess.
Sometimes writing helps.
Part 2 is entitled Cities Within Us which paraphrases the last line of the last poem of the book. In this part’s epigraph we find hell again, not in the quote by Arthur Rimbaud but in the title of the quote’s source A Season in Hell. Welcome to my nightmare kind of thing. (Thanks, Alice. Not the Alice you’re thinking of. Or maybe.)
‘Abandonment of the Bees’ makes the point that if we abandon the bees by degrading their surroundings, they will or may already be the ones who abandon us. (Makes me think of the dolphins singing “So long, and thanks for all the fish” at the beginning or end of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, depending on whether you’re referencing the book or the film.)
Scouts reported their silence, then perplexity,
then alarm as colonies withdrew.
“It was like a ghost-town,” one of them said.
There’s a feminist sub-text here as well.
Fearing experiments and autopsies,
the workers – all women – revolted,
… weary of choosing between
children and the golden sacrifice,
Hah. You get it, right? Working women of the world, unite.
Speaking of flying, ‘Icarus’ finds the young man in a modern plane on his first and last solo flight. Someone (perhaps the father or instructor) watches the attempt to land at too great a speed. The poet notes “a final gesture / bending the tail / into a finger.” And we all sigh at youth which cannot be told.
We segue nicely from bees and planes to ‘Watching Gliders at Dusk’ in which the poet sees in their grace all the beauty of a ballet set against dusk then night, at which point, we and the poet lose sight of the planes, imagining that, contrary to rules of safety, they continue flying.
And so, to night with ‘Insomnia’ a poem which repays a slow deliberate read.
The past is cinders, thought ashes.
Their dull roaring keeps me awake
beneath the skull’s electric crematorium.
All the words for a hot disintegration are there – flame, burning, conflagration, tinder, ignites, combustive, melt, incinerate – which makes me think we’re witnessing the death of a mind. An older poet, perhaps, losing it? (I hear you.)
But after I read the final verse, I realized the first four verses are, rather, descriptive of an act of creation. We find “the poem, hard as ceramic,” as it “casts incandescent and cools / slowly in the ordinary cell.”
‘The Aesthetics of Self’ stumped me until I looked up, yet again, the exact meaning of aesthetics. “A branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of the beautiful and with judgements concerning beauty.” Hm. Philosophy, eh? Meh. A bit deep for me. The poem uses landscape, in particular, skies, to make its statement.
Against the horizon,
you must always consider
three skies: the one you see,
the one you think about,
and the one that’s really there.
And, later, he pulls the rug out from under our feet by saying
But the eye has no horizon,
the mind no extension
beyond itself. Each sky
is the mirrored apprehension
of its own idea,
And so on. You get the idea. Or do you? Gah. Not my thing, philosophy.
The final poem is ‘Dresden, the Frauenkirche’. If you don’t already know about the allied forces’ fire-bombing of the city of Dresden at the end of World War Two, there’s a note at the end of the book. But I knew it (philosophy, no; history, yes) and approached the poem gingerly.
Sure enough, despair, thousands burnt alive and buried under destroyed buildings; the great Frauenkirche brought down, until, fifty years later, the poet tells us about a new cross for its re-built dome, made by a British goldsmith whose father bombed the city.
Now, the poet is careful not to sneer at this somewhat meaningless gesture, but I can, and do, as, at the time of this writing – March, 2022 – Russia pounds Ukraine. And I join the poet as he finishes the poem by asking and then answering.
How many died? Who knows the number?
a great stone asks in silence.
The answer lies within us.
The cities lie within us.
Louise Carson has published two books of poetry – Dog Poems, Aeolus House, 2020; and A Clearing, Signature Editions, 2015. Her poems have twice been selected for Best Canadian Poetry, in 2013 and 2021. She also writes mysteries and historical fiction. She lives near Montreal.