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Peter Hughes: Allotment Architecture

Reality Street, Hastings, 2013. Paperback, 148pp, £9.50.
 
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
 
Cover of Peter Hughes - Allotment ArchitectureAllotment Architecture, recently published by Reality Street, contains five separate sequences, ‘Lynn Deeps’, ‘Behoven’, ‘Site Guide’, ‘18’ and ‘Berlioz’. It is the fifteen pieces of ‘Site Guide’ that I wish to hold in focus here. Published in 2011 by The Arthur Shilling Press this group of poems had a subtitle, ‘(many days out in england & wales)’ but when the sequence was included in this new collection this was replaced by an epigraph, ‘for Heine, and the Caravan Club’. With these words, alongside the sequence’s title, an echoing punned reference to a spiritual sense of place, we know we are going to be involved in a distanced look over the shoulder at conventional sentimentalities concerning the British attitude towards place. And we could not ask for a better guide since Peter Hughes is a formal poet whose stanzas keep in check the running currents of language that twist and turn beneath the surface of the page as in site 6:
 
               it only takes a moment
       to find a space
           disconnect
                stare out of the window
                               welcome home
                   get used to living
without a coherent world view
 
Some ninety-one years ago Eliot wrote the final section of The Waste Land with the line ‘These fragments I have spelt into my ruins’ and then scribbled in above it ‘shored against’, a phrase that was to remain untampered with by il miglior fabbro who alluded to it in the opening line of Canto VIII. Peter Hughes’s Site Guide in fifteen pieces brings us a little more up to date with the fragments but with similar bitter snarls of vocabulary as the vertigo of our social selves crashes into our reading and recognition of who we are in relation to our site. 
 
In this world of linguistic dodgems ‘vietnamese river cobbler’, whose true name is a type of catfish from the Mekong Delta, rubs bumpers with the title of a 1969 Ferry Press edition of John James and a partial quotation from Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Strap Down in Snowville’ (Site 2). In Site 4 our attention is moved from Schwertsik’s divertimento macchiato, ‘o spirit of the airwaves’, to a quoted half-line of John Donne and an image of political unease and disgust 
 
                          where prawns nibble dead skin
                      from the feet of rich pink men
who make decisions on water
boarding & commission
  in mature gardens
     deep in quiet light
 
When J.H. Prynne wrote his disturbingly ferocious bumper-car ride of language’s misuse in the Iraq of Abu-Ghraib, ‘Refuse Collection’, the collisions of reference were brutal as money and sex blurred one into the other with ‘rapacious in heavy / investment insert tool this way up.’ Peter Hughes’s accumulation of the destructive forces of language which the profiteers use to smooth over the awkwardness of our noticing the destruction around us has a gentler bitter smile to it: the neo-Georgian site of poetry blends ‘tallis’ with ‘the shithouse lilies’ as Vaughan Williams crumples into an invented rock band.  The zeitgeist that Hughes presents to us has its Larkinesque references with ‘the recycling facilities adjacent to / a perfect English village’ (site 12) although the collision of cultural images here is undercut with the exclusion felt from any involvement with a community as that perfection is
 
out of bounds to tourists though postcards 
repackaged sandwich pickle & guides
     to imaginary ufos are all popular
           in the sense of existing
 
The last site opens with the statement ‘a tunnel to hell plunges through each pitch’ but this is neatly cancelled with a firm black line that tells us not to overreact to this accumulation of detritus and the next two lines of this site 15 put us more clearly in the world of the tourist guide ‘see the woodland adventure log / as featured on songs of praise bloopers’. 
 
In March 1837 Emerson wrote admiringly to Carlyle about The Diamond Necklace saying that ‘I thought as I read this piece that your strange genius was the instant fruit of your London. It is the aroma of Babylon.’ Emerson was referring to the enormous picture of London which Carlyle had given, ‘so endless in details’, and concluded with admiration for ‘your encyclopaediacal allusion to all knowables.’ In some unpublished notes on ‘the outlook and procedures of the post-Romantic mind’ Prynne commented on this exchange:
 
This encyclopaedic strategy—the attempt to understand and to control a complex cultural situation by an exhaustively singular awareness of all its component parts—produces a characteristic intellectual pattern in the mid-nineteenth century: a liberal/moral scruple for a profusion of structureless facts and phenomena so overwhelming that the speculative mind, unwilling to re-direct its energies in favour of radical description, also fails to bring off any radical and coherent analysis. 
 
The more one reads through the ‘site guide’ which Peter Hughes offers us the more clear it is that these fragments do cohere into a devastating analysis of an increasingly commercialised landscape in which language is used to betray us by offering a sentimentalised picture of what was never there. 
 
The whole volume, Allotment Architecture, takes its title from site 6 where it is ‘the region’s source of civic pride’ and perhaps the collision of the two words/worlds, the one suggestive of the rural and the other of the civic, brings to mind those closing lines from Andrew Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’:
 
So Architects do square and hew,
Green Trees that in the Forest grew.
 
 
15 March 2014