Rebecca Gethin reviews John Freeman’s poetry collection Plato’s Peach, walking us through his ability to capture the magic of the every day in nature, relationships and more.
Both celebratory and frank, Plato’s Peach, published by Worple Press, is John Freeman’s twelfth collection. It’s hard to find a way to succinctly review such a rich and varied collection: each poem is a journey of self-discovery, exploring the essence of experience, as if the writer is delving for truths in the act of writing. In a spirit of openness, the smallest moments are celebrated and held up to the light for the poet’s eye to look at closely.
Reminiscences, family history and relationships, nature, music, and art are all examined minutely and compassionately. In everyday language, Freeman sets up scene after scene with characters in a series of narratives that open out into wider truths that provoke the reader into deeper thought. With poems that sound like conversation, the poet achieves an easeful philosophical view of his world that is memorable and incisive.
To start, the titular poem – ‘Plato’s Peach’ – which follows a narrator who seeks to understand the philosopher’s ‘notion of archetypes of everything’ in which a woman in black offers the boy Plato:
the most enormous, dark, perfectly ripe
and yet not over-ripe example of
a peach he’d ever seen, and so he took it,
and felt the weight of it, and saw the bloom
on its dusky red and purple, almost black,
silky covering and began to eat it,
finding it of a consistent texture,
yielding but firm, not mushy nor gone over,
full of juice which somehow stayed united
with the yellow flesh and didn’t dribble.
This moment is a perfect example of Freeman’s agile and precise use of language. Note that line ending “over-ripe example of” with that hanging word “of”, as if the peach that appears on the next line is about to land in his hand. It captures the very essence of that rare thing, a perfect peach. One of Plato’s most famous lines in one of his Dialogues states “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” but in this poem – as in so many others in this book – there is no quarrel at all. It seems that the same thing happened to the poet on a train in France, though I wondered if he was extrapolating from this anecdote to Plato.
These lines are also a fine example of Freeman’s beautiful, long-flowing sentence-wizardry in which he is actively searching, weighing up, assaying the worth of each word to delve into some universal truth. And this is achieved by revealing his thoughts as he scrutinises particulars, tries out phrasing, diverts, discards and so draws attention to.
In ‘Freehold, Leasehold’ he writes of his family home with its apple and oak trees, tool shed, railway embankment and familiar stairs, all as he remembers those who have since passed:
They seem to have sunk down,
gone burrowing away from their old haunts
underground where I couldn’t follow them
till they came up, like the spirit of the house,
the spirit of the garden, inside me.
They’ll stay here now, I think, cheerful, thriving,
until it’s not a building but a body
I find myself saying goodbye to, thinking,
I remember arriving, how strange that was,
and how life slowly made a home of it.
Here is the characteristic conversational tone and diction, used without complicating metaphor or image and yet reaching very deeply into layers of memory. The torque is supplied by the syntax. It looks easeful, but it isn’t easy, and the impact is very beguiling as in ‘Sharing Sweets on a Station Platform’ when the poet, as a school boy, slips a fruit gum (“the small round ridged jelly like a wafer”) into the mouth of a Caribbean railway worker who’d gesticulated that his hands were too dirty to finger the sweet from the proffered packet with its peeled back paper.
The book is divided into six sections, or chapters as I think of them (the book is best read sequentially): ‘My Life in Trees’, ‘Passport Renewal’, ‘Country Dancing’, ‘A Sky Reflected’, ‘Visiting Giverny’, ‘Time Perpetually Revolving’. These titles are like signposts along the route.
In the section entitled ‘Country Dancing’ the poet turns his attention to the countryside and nature where among the beautiful “Chaffinches on Cherhill Down, Canada Geese at Evening” and swallows we arrive at a key poem called ‘Horse Sense’ which seems to me to describe how Freeman perceives the world. He contemplates the undifferentiated consciousness of horses and cows in fields:
I like to think everything their senses
bring them from inside their bodies and outside
is registered together, and in full,
while their awareness floats on all of it,
an open lily on the living water.
He claims in this poem that he only does this for minutes (except on waking at night) but I rather think that this happens to him quite often in everyday life: “I learn the shape I am alive inside.”
Freeman loves language as can be seen from his humorous poems about French in the section called ‘Passport Renewal’ and how usage changes over time and how this widens one’s understanding. I am suddenly thinking that the word footpath in French is ‘sentier’ while the word to feel, sense, smell, sniff is ‘sentir’. I can’t help feeling that a sentence is a pathway to Freeman, along which he feels or sniffs his way. ‘Horse Sense’ indeed proves this point.
In ‘Visiting Giverny’ we read about a visit to Monet’s house and garden and how the artist’s life was reflected in his art. We are taken on the journey through the property as if we were actually accompanying him with the inner monologue continuously weighing up/assaying.
In ‘A Sky Reflected’ a poem called ‘Opus 131’ evokes the music of Beethoven and how it makes him feel, that “to be alive is to know gaiety”. There are other lovely poems in this section about architecture and artists, such as Paul Nash (whose exhibition I too enjoyed at Tate Britain).
‘Time Perpetually Revolving’ is a warm-hearted group of sketches about friends and family who have died in which snatches of dialogue or mannerisms bring them back to life. The first poem of this section contains a memory of someone dear whose “understated” shimmy to the words of ‘The Beautiful River’ sets the tone for the rest of the poems. Each poem in this final section summons up a person, as well as the narrator’s own reflection on capturing the moment. At the ending of ‘Two Women’, Freeman states: “That’s it. That was her”. In ‘Double Take’ he writes: “His company is like a joy transfusion / a roaring fire. A mountaintop. The sun.”
That’s it, too. This collection is like a footpath leading the reader to a “joy transfusion” through the contemplation of ordinary things in life. The things most of us think aren’t worth stopping to pen a poem about. In the final poem, ‘How Are You Going to Live?’ the act of giving and receiving creates an energy that “becomes a new constellation in the night sky, there / whenever anyone chooses to look up”.
It is clear that Freeman frequently looks up in Plato’s Peach, and his words keep pointing upwards, too. Providing direction so that we can join him there.
Plato’s Peach by John Freeman is available via Worple Press.