Nationality: British. Born: 12 May 1952. Education: Royal Belfast Academical Institution; Christ's College, Cambridge, degree in zoology. Family: Married Naomi Peskett. Career: Has worked as a journalist and biology teacher. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1976. Address: c/o Secker and Warburg, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RB, England.
Cleaning Stables. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1974.
The Nightowl's Dissection. London, Secker and Warburg, 1975.
A Killing in the Grove. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1977.
A More Suitable Terrain. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1978.
Survivors. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980.* * *
A training in zoology, reinforced by years of teaching science, has afforded William Peskett a pabulum denied to most contemporary poets. He writes about the night owl, crayfish, ant, and moth and does so without the urge to gloss or prettify. In "Moths" he says,
The female moth is like the male.
When you crush it,
it doesn't bleed—
it sprinkles your hands with talcum.
Peskett sees humans as having aggrandized their position in the universe at the expense of fellow beings. He compares their posturings unfavorably with the silent practicality of vegetables and is glad that Darwin established a new cage at the zoo for Homo sapiens. Several times over he shows the human being violating the dignity of other species. In "The Nightowl's Examination," for instance, he says,
I take every cell from him
and every molecule
from each of these
and examine them.
I take everything. He gives
me nothing in return.
The pressure of Peskett's subject matter compels his verse into a certain stripped economy. What has been quoted here looks less like illustration excerpted from larger works than like independent epigram or even haiku. This is a quality of style, especially in the earlier poems. Peskett advocates appreciation as distinct from analysis, but he finds himself having to bow before the precocity of youth. As expressed in the poem "My Child," the attitude comes out thus: "my child / will slowly select a summer / and apply it firmly / to the spring."
This is a crisp way of indicating growth and disillusion. Such crispness, however, comes with negative qualities. Peskett's poems as wholes tend towards the prosaic. One misses the verbal roll and rise found in his older contemporaries from Ulster, especially Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. This lack would not be so noticeable if the epigrams quoted existed by themselves. But once they are read in context, as part of the poems from which they were culled, they look like precepts embedded in a tissue of explication. There is an account of Belfast courageously proceeding with business as usual that, for all its formal layout, is little better than prose—"Across the road a bar / might be open as usual, / its lounge blown out / and fenced on the pavement / as a book is pulled from the shelf …" This is not saved by the book metaphor. It would need more rhythmic shape and linguistic zest to be lifted out of the merely circumstantial. Yet the epigrammatic conclusion of the poem has the ictus that the poem as a whole lacks: "A man says you can cut / the tongue from an ox / but never take the shine / from its eye." Given a definitive title, this could be a self-explanatory poem standing on its own.
This point is perhaps more true of the earlier verse than of the later. There is more warmth in Peskett's second book. He wants to leave the world to the kingfisher, the blackbird, the kestrel—"these beautiful casualties," as he describes them. The elusiveness of feline identity fascinates him, as does the loss of dignity even in the demise of a mouse—"the little shame of urine."
Though more purged and dry than that of Lawrence, Peskett's vision resembles in some degree Rupert Birkin pondering in Women in Love "a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up." Epigrammatically—as ever, when at his best—Peskett phrases his version of this feeling in "Coypu":
Slowly the coypu peels a view
from the ecstatical level of the river.
The banks fall
to the landscape's climax.