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This review is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

VOICING THE SILENCE PETER ABBS, Selected Poems (halfacrown) £9.99

`A metal sky weighs upon the horizontal land, / Drained, dyked, undemonstrative.' This formal, minimalist landscape, the landscape of Peter Abbs's childhood and of the `[g]enera- tions of farmhands' who constitute the rural working-class from which he came, is one image of the inarticulateness against which his poetry is written. `I work to understand: / Give the silence a voice'. These Selected Poems, which date from 1978 to 2001, offer constant raids on the inarticulate, conducted with energy and resourcefulness on a range of fronts, from the familial to the cosmic: from fraught autobiographical fragments that try to speak, posthumously, to and for the father whose silence `spliced our mutual lives in two', through the adoption of a repertoire of personae - Heraclitus, Descartes, Nietzche, Van Gogh - to the assumption of bardic and mythical roles (Taliesen, Orpheus).

As Abbs's readiness to assume such roles suggests, this is ambitious poetry, and it does not avail itself of one of the primary resources of twentieth-century poetry, that of irony. Although Abbs's range of reference is European, his work can be linked with a tradition of English poetry and visual art (Blake, the mystical aspect of the Pre-Raphaelites, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, the Apocalyptic poets of the 1940s, Dylan Thomas) that seeks the numinous at the risk of appearing naïve. But Abbs, a Professor of Creative Writing highly conscious of the craft of poetry, can bring off effects that evoke this tradition while avoiding its naivety: `Prelude', from For ...
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