Beneath our Armour – Peter Bakowski peels away the layers. (poetry review)

“I’m in my twenty-first year of writing poetry, and I just want to write poetry till the day I die,” Bakowski replied.

That line, taken from an interview with Peter Bakowski that you can read here, was spoken by him in October 2004.  Nearly ten years later, Bakowski is still writing poetry, still making every word count, still rejoicing in the hurdle of a sentence – a success defined by the numbers of words discarded. The life of a poet is a commitment to the search for the other in the interior dark halls of the hallowed self. A great deal of time spent in silent contemplation at the coal face of the loneliness that marks a human animal.

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Deep inside himself, Bakowski found a series of ‘others’ – some real, some fictional, and some abstract objects.  He wrestled with whatever angels and demons act as his guides and wrote a series of thirty-one poems, each an examination of what it is to be human laid out under the microscope. After this examination he put them in the hands of Hunter Publishers who published the collection under the title Beneath our Armour, back in 2009.

I had the very great pleasure of reading this collection this week.

Ever punctual, I stride

past doors of clean glass and wood,

stenciled names, secretaries, the sounds of typing.

A nod to Miss Flegg in reception,

then along to my office,

closing its doors to stare with distaste

at the fattened in-tray.

These poems range in scope from the deeply personal At 10 Rosebank Terrace, Lower Templestowe, a poem gently relating the horror Bakowski experienced with his brother through their parents divorce, to the delightful Times for Drinking Tea in China, a poem that delicately outlines the most important moments of life, from repairing one’s bicycle, to paying off debt. They are gentle poems, crystal clear, the universe captured in a smattering of words and the spaces in between.

A gull,

eases from rock to sky,

becomes a speck and a miracle

to a small boy, a sandcastle lord

standing sandy-kneed, squinting.

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Beneath our Armour is a series of journeys real and imagined. By that I mean, some of the experiences related are Bakowski’s own and some are of others he admires or maybe just notices. He explains in the acknowledgements that his intention is to state the extraordinary using ordinary words and that as long as he is writing poetry, he will be writing about what its like to be a human being.

In a tree-shaded plaza

four men sit playing cards at a stone table,

argue over

whether fortune is bestowed or earnt.

One a nearby bench

an old man listens,

slowly working

a toothpick between his teeth.

The opening quote at the front of Beneath our Armour is from Eric Hoffer, the great American social philosopher.  The quote is: “Our greatest weariness comes from work not done.” There is work and then there is work – Bakowski seems smitten with the work of what it takes to be human, the rabble of forgotten relationship messes one leaves in the wake of one’s journey, the forgotten limbs bitten off in our desperation to escape. It is this undone work that he engages with, that he sees holding the human potential back against the enormous crashing tides of expectation and hope in the dream filled ocean. Bakowski can see the human creature as part of the eroding shore – too afraid to dive, too drawn by intuition to leave.

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I return indoors

to the writing desk,

the story of our triangle,

our love lit  fuse.

The pen capped at dawn,

I move towards the bed,

settle on my left side,

my face turned away from his photo.

Bakowski’s relationship with poetry is a deep, complex and enduring one. He meets people in their home, face to face, to give private readings to groups of eight or more. These gatherings are intimate, like his poetry. Like his almost namesake, Charles Bukowski, his poetry captures the ordinary-ness of life and the weight of what it is to be human. Unlike Charles Bukowski (a writer Bakowski greatly admires) he has no pretensions to endurance and is not dominated by the obscurity of poetry. I read once – many years ago – that more people in the United States put ‘poet’ as their occupation on the national census than books of poetry are sold. True or false, that statement has always symbolized poetry for me. It seems to be the very act of the obliteration of ego, the destruction of self. The poets life is one devoted to art in the deepest possible sense.

I will paint

what Spain, Paris, Detroit,

California, New York City, Mexico,

each sampled woman, grain and fruit,

have meant to me,

king of gluttony, seated at table,

reaching for knife and fork

as a skeleton waiter whisks away

my unfinished heart.

And so it is in the beat of the unfinished heart Bakowski continues to march his cement shoe tip-toe across the green daisy dotted fields of humanity – his step always light, always precision lethal, always 20/20 compassionate insights. His march is not relentless, it is all his has known, all he can do, and the very definition of all that he is. His march is enduring, faithful and true to the life of the poet.

You can buy copies of Beneath our Armour here.

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