Launch: Andrew Peek's 'The Calabar Transcript' (Oct 2003)
The first time I heard Andrew read his poetry was at Devonport well over a decade ago, when he was, from memory, on the same program as Miroslav Jolub. Not bad company, but Holub held his own. I also have a memory from, perhaps, even earlier, of asking Andrew to read at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, and of his declining the invitation on the grounds of his not being a confident public performer of his work.
It is interesting, then, to note that The Calabar Transcript begins with a series of performances. The book's epigraph is a quote which compares the world to a performance, and the opening poem of the first section contains the amateur production of "a Tragedy / in six short scenes". Then follow poems replete with television, greasepaint, slapstick, popular music and a plethora of references to a variety of performing arts.
Of course Andrew came out of the closet as a performer of his poetry some years ago and his regular readings at local venues, especially Fidlers, have been greatly appreciated.
In this book the famous line from Macbeth about the world being a stage is recast with a closer focus, and we are given, not the whole world, but Africa as an item for our entertainment and edification. Africa is, of course, the continent to which we hardly ever go. Instead, it comes to us, or, rather, it is shown to us in television advertisements for welfare agencies, in newscasts about civil wars and slaughter, in history lessons about Nelson Mandela and courage. (In my schooldays it was Cecil Rhodes and bravery - quite a different set of stories). Africa is a performance.
For those who actually do go there, it is not a location so much as a destination, not a living locus, active with culture, but a passive series of scenes to be observed. We look at Africa, the object. We take a safari to watch the performance.
The Calabar Transcript is definitely not a safari. In a number of poems Andrew makes clear his attitude to the practice of creating art (or news, or history, or profits) by exploiting the continent and its inhabitants. In "Vulture", for example, it is but a small step from the photographer's realisation that his shot of the dying little girl and the hovering vulture is putting him in a parallel position to that of the bird to the poet's own realisation that his recording of the photographer's subsequent (and consequent) suicide is repeating the pattern.
Another poem from early in the book, "What's in a Name?", looks at the practice of re-naming slaves, and, once again, beneath the easy condemnation of those who for reasons of convenience or whimsy destroyed a key part of the cultural lifeblood of generations of people - to quote George Meredith, "Our souls were in our names." - beneath that lies the understanding that this is what artists, and especially poets, do. They name. They indulge in that quintessentially adamic act of appropriating the world by naming its parts, or at least the male white judaeo-christian ones traditionally have done.
If we are to create art using language as our medium, then as soon as we rise above the trivial we risk the accusation of being in the same situation as the vulture or the slave-owner. But before all the poets present rush off and slit their wrists or renounce poetry in favour of electronic engineering, medicine or something equally useless, but better at offering the illusion of not being in the carrion chain, I ask them to read "Savvy Book Nigger", again from the first section of the book.
Reading this chilling poem, you can come to the realisation that it is not the situation you find yourself in that matters, but what you do in that situation. In other words, we are all writing captions, or at least scribbling graffiti in the margins of the photos, but it is what we scrawl that determines the value of our contribution.
The poem, "Our Stranger", about Bessie Head, similarly presents us with choices: when we look from outside into the lit windows of our own house, which bits do we write about?
The answers which Andrew Peek provides in this book are challenging from an intellectual point of view, but what is - and always must be - more significant, is that they are satisfying from an aesthetic point of view. They work brilliantly as poems, with superb mastery of the precise, clear image, with wit, with excellent control of diction and tone, with all those technical achievements without which we would be reading what Verlaine was referring to when he said, "All the rest is merely literature."
The final, eponymous section is in that fashionable genre, the long-narrative-made-up-of-a-series-of-separate-short-poems, sometimes, usually erroneously, known as the verse novel. Having attempted the genre, I envy those who can write in it well. They are few (far fewer than the number praised for doing so), but I think that Andrew has joined their ranks. I get a very strong sense of the character and the mileue of Ovonramwen, the Oba of Benin, and I become involved in the narrative sweep of his life in the way one is meant to in narrative fiction. The individual poems can still stand perfectly well alone, but together they form a whole greater than their parts.
I congratulate Andrew on having written this book, I congratulate Ron Pretty and Five Islands Press on its publication, and I strongly recommend that you all buy a copy, read it a number of times, and spend the rest of your lives in close association with your favourite poems from it.