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This review is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

SHEER HUMAN DEPTH MERVYN PEAKE, Collected Poems, edited and introduced by R.W. Maslen (Fyfield/Carcanet) £12.95

The New Zealand painter John Drawbridge, who studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, in the late 19 50s, once described to me his drawing teacher, Mervyn Peake, striding into the art room. Despite the fact Peake was, by this time, noticeably shaking from Parkinson's Disease, his hand, as soon as he began drawing, became miraculously firm, decisive and eloquent. Drawbridge also recalled the intensity of Peake's gaze when drawing from life - an incisive, almost chilling stare, the kind of look which, as R.W. Maslen notes in his introduction to Collected Poems, was 'somewhat akin to being possessed', achieving 'an absorption' of his subject so that he became 'that subject, feeling and thinking like him or her'.

As painter and poet, as well as drawing master, Peake might have picked up this kind of all-encompassing gaze from Wordsworth or Manley Hopkins - 'the sympathy by which one transports oneself to the interior of an object in order to coincide with its unique and therefore ineffable quality', as Henri Bergson elaborated. That gaze is often reflected in Peake's drawings - the inhabitants of which stare back at us through their hollowed-out or shadowy eyes, partaking of the same gift of marvellous sight, of poetic vision. Yet they also often have the look of people who, like Peake himself, have probably seen too much.

Peake's poetic career began in the 193 0s and it was during that decade that his ...


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