reviewed by the Judge
"I hate the closed line / I hate the frontier," writes Peter Hughes in Part 4,3 of The Sardine Tree (TST), his most recent pamphlet. The hostility towards (conceptual) categorisations reflects itself in the subversive quality of his verse, one most immediately perceived in his choice of form. Poems in TST initially appear scattershot and disorganised, though closer examination generally reveals them to be organised in two columns. These two columns (mostly) make for two 'monologues' or 'voices,' bound to interact with each other and even cross over, so the order in which words are to be read is never quite certain or stable. Second readings are greatly rewarding and unpredictable, and Hughes' play with the difficult form of the calligrams, on the whole, is remarkably successful.
It has the precious merit of being simultaneously accessible and challenging.
The (spatial) stream-of-consciousness which composes these poems follows words a bit like different thoughts do, and there's a suggestion that the double columns may represent the dialectical nature of human thought, always working in between dualities (conscious and subconscious, daily life and transcendental ideals, good and evil, West and East). From this point of view, the ending of the pamphlet's Part 1, with the words arranged in a circle, may stand for the circularity of human thought. Interpretations of this kind are always a bit dangerous, so all of these readings should be seen as tentative, but the critical and destructive side of Hughes' verse certainly seems bent on exposing self-defeating modes of thought: "the results of their labour / privatised their souls / rolled up / put up for auction / anything you consider / protection / can be unhinged / realigned / used against you." (Part 1). In fact, if there is one weakness in this collection, it is the failure to escape from the circular, codified type of discourse it so earnestly criticises. Consider the stanza I partly quoted at the outset:
I hate the closed line I hate the frontier but most of all I hate the constipated editorials about expanded community & how foreigners are queuing up to rape your dog job house granny ward school & genetically modified mad cow (Part 4, 3)
By resisting external impositions on what to think and say, the poem is indirectly encouraging us to find our own personal and interior voice. But as the poem continues by telling us that 'surrealism led beyond the formal / towards the heart of poetry', the conceptual limitations of Hughes' own verse become clear. Hughes sees no other way towards this self-discovery and interiority than the discourse of art - which is itself a repressive cul-de-sac. The meditation on how 'to forge & feed my spirit / so its voice may flourish' (7, 4) rests on the assumption that the 'spirit' finds its purpose in its 'voice,' ergo expression, ergo art - an assumption which needs to be justified. Moreover, it is in danger of falling into the same circularity it would like to evade. If 'art has to be some visible / vibration of the spirit' (7, 2), but the spirit is itself only there so that art may 'flourish,' then we're back to the circle at the end of Part 1.
Even so, the execution on the whole is confident and the pamphlet is highly suggestive. It also has the precious merit of being simultaneously accessible and challenging. Barring a few instances of thematic self-indulgence (perhaps inevitable with poems so closely linked to the visual arts), Hughes is more than worth reading, and he attains his own definition of art as 'a struck flint throwing out timeless sparks / that can't be harvested but which make the night / a lit shared cave that feels like home' (5, 7).