Recoveries by Peter Snow (Finishing Line Press, 2021)
Review by Carmine Dibiase
Peter Snow’s extraordinary poetry happens somewhere between consciousness and dreamland: a region rich in the imagery of desire and of human wreckage and healing. These sixteen poems, which draw from Snow’s experience as a psychiatric nurse, house a quiet, humane vision, but a first reading of this posthumous chapbook might leave one feeling unmoored. Entry into this poet’s house of words requires trust in the rhetorical and imagistic play of his mind.
In “A walk in the mountains,” for example, there is a “he,” an “I” and a “you,” but are they three separate people or are they all one and the same? A “patient” has “blistered” feet “in heavy boots,” but “I climb this rugged path to the white house at the cliff top,” and then, in a statement addressed to “you,” comes an abrupt change of scene: “Don’t be afraid of the mirror at the top of the stairs beyond the doorway.” Are there three people here, or two, or only one? All three readings are possible.
This fluidity, as we soon discover, is not only intentional but necessary. Snow’s aim is to recreate the sensation of empathy, how we move in and out of our own present and past lives, and those of other people. In “Confession,” a patient and his lover have suffered a separation; as they heal their spiritual wounds, they begin to see “the outline” of a love, not for each other but for someone else. And the listening doctor thinks, to himself, “I searched in vain for a woman,” the italics signaling his private voice.
The doctor is a recurring, melancholy, and guarded observer. In “Words of comfort,” he wonders:
Our life in this world,
what is it like
A boat that has sailed early,
leaving no wake.
He emerges from this desolating thought and “carefully knots his necktie.”
“Allow us to speak of miracles,” a patient says to him in “An impossible thing.” The doctor “dismisses the thought like blowing out a match,” retreats behind “his large and heavy desk,” and again “touches the knot of his tie.”
That knot recalls the tie pin that immobilizes the narrator in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “like a patient etherized upon a table.” And Prufrock’s bilious city is also evoked by Snow’s doctor, in the form of a journal entry:
“Looking back over my life, it’s like a city; I turn and walk through stinking alleys, and dingy side streets, loud with cursing, past the shebeens and brothels, past fights and grudging looks from dirty windows, or turn into broad avenues, full of noisy men.”
Like Prufrock, Snow’s doctor inhabits an ailing human world, in which, unbeknownst to his patients, he tries to feel what they feel in order to discover, and to heal, himself. That, however, requires a “fifth chamber” of the heart, something more than the observable four. One consolation along his journey—and ours?—is civility. Nurses come in, twice, with “biscuits and tea on a rattling trolley, pouring from a steel teapot, catching the sunlight.”
Peter Snow died suddenly on 12/18/19. Among his varied roles in life, Snow worked as a storyteller, teacher, poet, playwright, actor, bartender, goatherd, and psychiatric nurse. Snow taught Drama and English at Edinburgh Steiner School for 28 years (1983 – 2012), using storytelling as an integral part of the pedagogy. He immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 2017. Over his long career as a storyteller, he performed in diverse venues across the US and Europe, from tea shops to open fields. He is the author of A Rosslyn Treasury and The Shifty Lad (Floris Books).
Carmine DiBiase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.