Review by Michelle Bitting
THE SILENCE TEACHER
by Robert Peake
c/o Dr. Wolfgang Görtschacher
University of Salzburg
Department of English and American Studies
2013, 32 pp., $7.00
the shell of the world,
and carry it gently.
It carries us too,
the echoing stairwell,
the empty glass aflame.
—Robert Peake, from “Piece Work”
When I first met Robert Peake, he was still in the early stages of mourning the loss of his infant son, James Valentine, to whom The Silence Teacher, his gorgeous new collection is dedicated. I was immediately struck by Robert’s depth of knowledge, quick wit and skill as a poet—a talented wordsmith with a deep emotional register and intellectual acuity—a writer capable of feeling much and wielding precise language in order to reveal the beautiful, wounded worlds spinning inside and around him.
The Silence Teacher lives up to this author’s reputation as a keen, sentient observer and is a heroic account of a father’s journey dealing with death. As the title suggests, silence becomes an element, like water or music, to measure and express the unfathomable grief of losing a child: “The music within me is quiet, but persistent./ One day, like you, I will return to being the song./ Beneath my eyelids, too, runs the sound of water.”
Peake deftly weaves this concept throughout the book, mining absence and anguish for the glittering trove it has to offer. As Nietzche once said, “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” and Peake knows how to arm himself for the battle of surviving the inconceivable, beginning with the literal silence of the hospital room and infant son the moment his tiny life ceases. From the title poem “The Silence Teacher”:
Grief’s small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son’s tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,
and still as winter in a robin’s nest,
I did not say: I was the one who held him last
until the ticking heart stopped in his chest
or what that silence taught, and how it pressed.
Here, from the start, I was enveloped in Peake’s spell, listening with him to the sounds of silence, hyper-aware of the opposing tension of this bereft parent’s primal scream held deep inside as he attempts to carry on with the routine of daily life, “the hum of the living still buzzing around my ears.” Whether describing the image of deer prints left in snow when his wife was still pregnant, feeling the anvil-weight silence of friends and strangers who struggle, not knowing how to respond (What can one say? What words could ever address such gravity?), or the strange comfort of bright carp swimming noiselessly around a koi pond—silence is everywhere, and like his small son’s life, it is both dead cold and white hot, blazing up “like sun upon the sea.”
At times, I’ve known Robert Peake to exhibit a delightfully dry sense of humor, as well as an appreciation of games and small creatures—assets he artfully employs to aid him in understanding personal tragedy. In poems like “Traction” and “Runt,” I valued such wisps of humor—miraculously intact—and the smart way he reflects on past experiences with children and animals to help him claim ultimate allegiance to the life force that “flashes up like an Olympian bolt” even as he struggles to put one traumatized foot in front of the other.
There is a subtle arc to the mourning process in The Silence Teacher. A pivotal moment comes with the poem “Visitation of the Wild Man,” a master and novitiate-type confrontation Peake imagines with a savage, wise elder who helps the speaker wrestle his way into new frontiers of understanding and acceptance. The Wild Man, a persona energy of the author himself, says it all: “’Confess and claim—you need/ to express this mystery,’ he smiled, ‘and fail—but do it well.’”
At one point in Elegy, a book that deals with the loss of her grown son, poet Mary Jo Bang concludes that “life is an experience”—a seemingly oversimplified expression given such grave stakes. But this is no pat epiphany, and as with Peake, is rather an extraordinary, frightfully tenuous revelation the author claims through surrender to both the sensual fullness of the everyday physical world and what is glaringly empty and absent in the wake of loss. Stumbling forward through silence, a parent must carry the excruciating burden of telling his story, of passing it on with vulnerability to the truth—not acceptance entirely; because, after all, we will never stop loving our lost beloveds—but with an ember of will kept alive to honor memory and keep going. Perhaps, in the end, it is simply this that one is left with, as Peake, with breathtaking delicacy puts it:
Tie a message to my foot. I will assume
my place in the ariel formation. Let me
be a single snowflake in that flurry.
Michelle Bitting grew up near the Pacific Ocean and has work published or forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, diode, Rattle, Linebreak, the L.A. Weekly, and others. Poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and as the Weekly Feature on Verse Daily. Thomas Lux chose her full-length manuscript, Good Friday Kiss, as the winner of the DeNovo First Book Award and C & R Press published it in 2008. Her book, Notes to the Beloved, won the 2011 Sacramento Poetry Center Award and was published in 2012. Michelle has taught poetry in the U.C.L.A. Extension Writer’s Program, at Twin Towers prison with a grant from Poets & Writers Magazine and is proud to be an active California Poet in the Schools. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University, Oregon, and recently commenced work on a PhD in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Phil Abrams and their two children. (www.michellebitting.com)