Reviewed Book: Light In the Darkness—The Poetry of Peter Hartley, Dunecrest Press, 2021.

by James A. Tweedie

Peter Hartley writes poems.

Good poems.

Poems that sing, dance, and soar with the rhyme and rhythm of formal, classical verse.

Poems that open our eyes to see the world in new and often surprising ways through his.

307 of his poems have now been collected and published under the title, Light In the Darkness—The Poetry of Peter Hartley.

Hartley resides in Manchester, England, and his language and spelling reflect his British heritage. As a result (and as an example), “humour,” which is both wryly and riotously scattered throughout the book, is spelled with a “u.” His interest in cryptic crosswords is reflected in his vast and varied vocabulary from which he is able to rhyme and alliterate words with a freedom and aplomb that can only be described as gobsmacking.

209 of the poems in this 388-page book are sonnets, most of which are written in a hybrid Petrarchan style that features a closing couplet—a challenging form to be sure, but one that Hartley has mastered in a way that keeps each poem’s theme clearly in focus.

The poems have been conveniently grouped under various categories that makes it easy for the reader to follow the various themes and life-experiences that inspired them.

As the title suggests, the two overarching themes in the book are those of light and dark—themes which invoke the related themes of life and death, laughter and tears.

Humour is found in freewheeling Clerihews, an intimate affection for Labrador Retrievers and penguins, a series of riffs on a most un-stereotypical Bishop and his garden, and—drawing from his experience as a professional art restorer—the breezy approach he brings to the subjects of art, music, and architecture.

Even a cat-lover will chuckle at the truth in these words taken from Part IV of “Ailuro-Cyno-Machia—Cat Versus Dog in Cat and Dog Verses”:

.

The Labrador tries
To meet our eyes,
The windows of our soul,
It’s said.
The cat’s content to greet
Our soles
And meet our feet
Instead.

.

His life-long interest in trekking and mountain climbing is reflected in his poems on Mt. Fuji, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, the Swiss Alps, and in others that capture his wide-ranging ramblings in the mountains, hills, craigs and tors of England, Scotland and its outer isles—poems that reflect his love of nature in general and, more specifically, the exhilaration that comes from standing where the only direction left to go is down!

In this excerpt from “Kinlochresort, Harris,” note how Hartley, after hiking eight miles across “the bleak and trackless Harris moor,” captures, in but few words, the grim dignity he finds amidst the ruins of one of the most remote and time-suffered corners of the Outer Hebrides:

.

The settlement abandoned long ago,
Yet there an old man and his dog we saw,
He standing motionless, his head below
The ancient lichened lintel of his door

He stood in reverie. And there we sat
Apart, no tritely spoken words that might
Invade his solitude, his habitat
And one-time home it somehow seemed not right
In such a lorn sequestered place to breach
The silence with banalities of speech.

.

This poem, among several others that I was fortunate to read some time before the publication of this book, actually inspired me to add a visit to the Hebrides onto a previously-scheduled trip to Ireland. Such is the evocative power of a well-wielded pen!

Hartley’s most powerful and evocative poems, however, are those in which he reflects upon the admixture of light and darkness found in the dying and death of Dina, the great love of his life.

Here, in a series of poems where he reflects on such poignancies represented by a wheelchair, an unfinished book, an unspoken word, medical care, and final moments, we are invited to join our own griefs and sorrows—our own experiences of loss—with his own. It is no small thing that the book is both dedicated to Dina and offered in memoriam to her life.

It is to Hartley’s credit that he manages to avoid the troubling trend of self-absorption which has become epidemic in so much of contemporary poetry. To illustrate this, consider that the first fourteen poems recently published in a major poetry journal began as follows: “I wish…” “I sit here…” “I’m in love…” “Does it make you gasp to see this fissure in my naked torso…” “At the dinner party I didn’t want to attend…” “Broken and waving, I…” “I was born…” “I ask the obvious…” “No one calls me that anymore…” “It was my fault…” “I was ten when I learned…” “…I have been arrested…” “I was charmed by your mother…” “I’m gonna offend a lot of white people…”

It got worse. Consider the following excerpts from just one these so-called poems: “I didn’t want…” “I didn’t know…” “I didn’t know…” “I am paraphrasing…” “I heard…” “I didn’t know…” “I was…” “I wish…” “I had…” “I just laugh…” “I am…” “I don’t plan…” “I did…” “I arrived…” “I’m still…” “I am a [library]…” “I went hungry…” “I let my hair grow…” “I was a snarl of a thing…” “I ate everything…” “I could never become full.”

My response was to ask, “Who cares what this person wants, knows, doesn’t know, talks like, listens to, wishes for, laughs at, doesn’t plan for, feels like, or whether or not the person paraphrases, laughs, arrives, is hungry, lets his hair grow, snarls, ate everything, or never becomes full?”

I don’t care. Do you care? Does anybody care? And if so, why?
In stark contrast, Peter Hartley’s poetry leads us to places far more interesting and inspiring than can ever be found in the contemplation of someone else’s navel.

Indeed, except for those poems where he reflects on his relationship with Dina, the word “I” appears less than seventy times in 388 pages.
Poetry at its best is poetry that manages to be, at the same time, both timeless and transcendent. Timeless in the sense that it speaks beyond the moment when it was written and transcendent in the sense that the subject of the poem extends beyond the thoughts and feelings of the author and serves to connect readers with universal themes which reflect their own life, thoughts and feelings.

Hartley’s poems do this wonderfully and well. His skillful handling of poetic form and structure allows him to be a guide who leads us to redemptive suffering and grief alongside all the beauty, truth, joy and laughter that life has to offer. Then, having led us there, he steps out of the way so we can see and experience it for ourselves.

Consider these words from the closing sestet of the sonnet, “How Resolute are the Condemned”:

.

That she’d be gone before the dawn she knew,
A knowledge she alone was privy to.
And she, beyond belief, beyond compare
Came home to me, away from nursing care.
Her fears she must have taken to the grave:
Without them she could not have been so brave.

.

Here, and elsewhere, Hartley demonstrates his own bravery in sharing his heart so openly through his poetry. In this exceptionally rich, varied, and well-written collection of his verse, each poem is a singular gem which, having been gathered together, now form a literary treasure in which each of us can now share.

.

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19 Responses

  1. Peg

    Thank you, Mr Tweedie, for such a BEAUTIFUL review!!
    I am now inclined to purchase Peter Hartley’s book of poems…

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      If I might answer on James’s behalf because he will be too modest to tell you this: I’m almost inclined to say, having read his review of the book, it is almost superfluous to buy it – his comments having been so comprehensive and so in-depth. But I won’t say that. Please, do buy it. It will help me to preserve Dina’s memory.

      Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Dear James Tweedie –
    I wish to thank you for a well constructed and incisive review of Peter Hartley’s fine poetry.
    There is so much I would say if not for my constant computer problems. So let me just say this:
    Peter Hartley is a fine poet and you have found so much of relevance to say about his work.
    I also admire the way you brought into play one of the biggest problems of our age – false individuality. As you said, who cares? Sometimes there is more to be said of .the landscape or a single tree than of our feelings.
    Peter Hartley addresses one of the most painful situations in life with dignity and perspective, and you have respected this in your fine review.
    Thanks again for once more giving us something worth reading. I look forward to the next one!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Dear Sally – your kind words to James in response to his review of my little book have forced me to butt in here. Your words of praise for his labours as fellow-poet and publisher are richly and roundly deserved. His review is a work of art. I am only too glad that it is not incumbent on me to protest that your praise for me is too kind. But it would be churlish in me to refute it! Thank you so much for your generosity to James and to me.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    I wholeheartedly second James Tweedie’s recommendation of this collection. I have read most of it, and it is more impressive the farther one reads. Peter Hartley is a consistently competent artist in varied ways. James said above that most of the poems are sonnets, and while the entire volume is not a sonnet sequence, there are sonnet sequences (five to ten poems each) in it. The best, I think, is “Clare,” ten sonnets on a fleeting but long-remembered first love. It presents fine pictures of beauty, inexperience, early heartache, and later reflection. There are also some real narratives extending for several pages in short stanzas–not to mention the “picaresque novella” of twenty pages! Peter Hartley is known for his animal poems; James quoted a funny one above, but see the book for many more that range from affectionate to philosophical. The poems about Dina are the essence of the book, and here we see Peter Hartley’s skill at characterization. Dina emerges as a down-to-earth yet transcendent heroine whom Peter feels that he hardly knew, and didn’t appreciate as he should have. And though Peter may not have realized what he was doing, he created himself as one of the quirkiest poet-lovers in literature.

    Without James Tweedie as publisher at Dunecrest Press, this remarkable book could not have appeared. Thanks for bringing it out in comfortable large print!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Again I feel I am butting in here, but thank you so much, Margaret, for yourringing endorsement of James’s words and thank you for your extremely kind remarks about me. As I mentioned above James’s review is a work of art in itself. I was particularly impressed by his statistical analysis that finds I have apparently written more sonnets than Shakespeare (only my spelling is better). But I have learned a lot more than that while I have been reading it. And I am gratified to note that you, Margaret, have plumped for “Clare” as the best group of sonnets. It is certainly my own favourite, and it gave me the hardest work, but it doesn’t hold a candle to James’s review!

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I am a huge fan of Peter Hartley’s poetry. His affinity for words, rapport with language, and adept craftmanship when it comes to painting a flawless linguistic picture is admirable. But, more than that, Peter’s poems have passion. A passion that transcends the page and and envelops the reader in its wonder. Whether the poems are from a place of grief, joy, observation, or a search for meaning, they engage the mind, touch the heart, and sing from the soul.

    James, thank you very much for this beautiful review. Peter, thank you for your contribution to the world of fine poetry. I will most certainly be buying this book.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Dear Susan – you are so kind in your praises for James and me that again, as above, I feel I must butt in on my own behalf. As you say, James’s is a beautiful review that told me so much about my own poetry that I didn’t even know. And every single word of praise that you heap on me I could sling back at you. You speak of my affinity with words and rapport with language. But who was it who single-handedly and unilaterally coined the term “pudgy gluts” as a term to fill in for a massive gaping shortfall in the language? I believe that might have been Susan. Who was it who won the poem of the year award? Again, could that be Susan? Who is it who can churn out brilliant poetry to cover any occasion, any eventuality, and apparently composed at hyperphotic velocity every time? Same again. Perhaps you can even write reviews better than James can, but please let at least one of us be better at something than you! And thank you so much for all your stunning poetry, which is a joy to read.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, I have a strong feeling you’re going to kick my pudgy gluts into the gutter with ‘‘Light In the Darkness’, and for you (and only you) I’ll take the poetic punishment graciously… but, only if a Tyrolese bugle plays The Last Post as my pudgy gluts are laid to rest forevermore.

        On a serious note, I cannot wait to read your book and I wish you every success with it!

    • Peter Hartley

      Mike – I am tickled pink to have sold one already – and to a fellow-poet (who should know better). Thank you!!!

      Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – never will your pudgy gluts be vanquished by the cacoethes scribendi of a twopence halfpenny sonneteer. Your felicitous neologisms will go down in history with the coinages of the Bard himself. They will be scraped off the back of the Earth’s mantle by souvenir-hunters at the apocalypse. They will be touted in every corner of the heavens from Proxima Centauri to B51476, they will be chundered from the guts of babes and sucklings, spewed forth from the cyclostomous orifices of popes and presidents, prattled from the cakeholes of bishops, they will be dug out of the anacathartic expulsions of the greatest figures in literature, music and the pictorial arts. They will never be forgotten. Vivat pudgy gluts, Floreat pudgy gluts!!!

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, if there were a prize for prize comments, this one would have a scarlet ‘First Place’ rosette, a garland of gardenias and gladioli, a Melchizedek of Champagne, a lifetime’s supply of Fortnum & Mason’s luxury hampers, and an Aston Martin. Having just consulted my dictionary, I am strutting in a feather boa and tiara like an insufferable diva!

  5. Jeff Eardley

    To have Peter’s book reviewed by Mr Tweedie is just one massive icing on a wonderful cake of poetry.
    Peter, you have just sold another and I am looking forward to it very much indeed.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – Thank you so much for buying my book, especially when I know that to buy it unseen is a bit of a leap of faith. When it does arrive please read a series of ten sonnets called Clare and another called Reinigideal first. Why? I don’t know. But thank you enormously!!!

      Reply
      • Jeff Eardley

        Peter, I have just witnessed the nice delivery man struggling under the weight of your compilation. I know that I am going to enjoy all of it in the coming days. As you recommend, I have started with “Clare’ just as I have recently re-read “Madding Crowd.” Good luck with this excellent collection.

  6. Peter Hartley

    Jeff – It took me a minute to remember Farmer Boldwood and the man you were thinking of, who I identify with in the poem. In the whole book I think there are only two footnotes. The reason for that is that access to the internet is now almost universal so that anyone who has not heard of him can so easily look him up without having to trail to a library. Also I think that if they are pitched at the wrong level they can appear patronising. It might help some, perhaps, to be told that the poem on page 88 relates to Mary, Queen of Scots. I do hope you enjoy the book. I believe my sense of humour goes down well in Leek.

    Reply
    • Jeff Eardley

      Peter, thank you for my evening chortle with “Fifty Clerihews” and all that stuff about penguins; the perfect antidote to channel 4 news on a wet Monday in Leek.

      Reply
  7. Peter Hartley

    Jeff, I’m really glad you like them. My favourite ones are XXXIV (Æschylus) and XXXII (Queen Victoria) and that is partly because they came to me quite quickly. I won’t tell you which I think are the worst!

    Reply

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