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Baby Love : TAKE HEART by Molly Peacock (Random House: $16.95; 64 pp.; 0-394-57515-6)

Summer Poetry Series: 5

August 20, 1989|Ian Gregson | Gregson will be a visiting professor this fall in the English department at Cal State Long Beach. and

Molly Peacock was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1947 and now lives in New York City. This is her third book of poems.

From the start of her career as a poet she's been interested in the attempt to speak intimately--to speak about love in particular.

"A Kind of Parlance," in her first book "And Live Apart," jokingly establishes an analogy between the calls of penguins and those of human lovers:

In the rookery they find

their partners by pitch.

This is somewhere between you

pressing against the screen yelling Mol-llleee! and the sound of it

whispered in low registers.

She then describes a zoo-keeper talking to a sick penguin named Rocko. This calls into question the nature of speech itself since it's being used where, in the usual human way, it's useless. Or where it's reduced to mere sound:

Rocko came slowly under her arm

at four o'clock in the winter.

She smoothed his head and asked

the questions, "What's

the matter?"

"Are you sick?" "What's

t he matter?"

Just those questions, many times.

The lover/penguin analogy is then resumed to show that speech between lovers is a problem of an equally radical kind. Partly the problem is that human desire can't express itself properly in words--as she says in "Desire" (in her second book "Raw Heaven"):

It doesn't speak and it isn't


like a small fetal animal with

wettened fur

Its proper language is touch--both Peacock and her lover envy Rocko, both feel "the desire . . ./ . . . to move / slowly under the arm of that woman." So she speaks in "Petting and Being a Pet" (in "Raw Heaven") of the desire to be fondled like a small animal, of "needing met by kneading of bone which is found / through flesh" and continues:

Like eyes make sense of seeing, touch makes being

make sense.

Here there's the old pun, very useful to Peacock, on "sense" in its intellectual and physical meanings. This is the crucial conflict underlying her poems--the difficulty of speaking about the latter in terms of the former.

And the breakthrough Peacock made in "Raw Heaven," and which is consolidated in "Take Heart," was to evolve a style that constantly, if implicitly, alludes to this expressive difficulty and makes it a part of her expressive means.

This is to some extent a matter of rhythm. Her lines, like Robert Creeley's, tend to move nervously, circumspectly; her line-endings cause abrupt halts and awkward pauses.

Unlike Creeley, though, she doesn't believe that form is an extension of content. At times her form and content seem deliberately at odds--as though the form is trying to contain something that won't be contained. There are sonnets in "Raw Heaven" where the pressure from within is so intense that their rhythms buckle and their rhymes distort; somewhere it is so great that they burst and overflow into 15 or 16 lines.

This style is especially good at negotiating risky subjects and so is crucial to Peacock in "Take Heart" when she's writing about her abortion and the death of her father. (For in this latest book the central theme is not so much sexual love, as in her earlier work, as the demands of love made between parent and child.)

"The Ghost," for instance, expresses her ambivalent memories of her pregnancy: The "ghost" of that pregnancy is a source of both comfort and alarm. Peacock makes a strange return in this poem to her theme of the need to be held and touched, here by this fetal ghost: "When I let it surround me, the embrace is / more mother than baby."

In other words, she wants her dead baby to embrace her, as though it were her mother. This is grotesque but it illuminates the complex of associations connected with this theme in her work--Freudian associations that link infantile and adult sexuality. For example the comfort that the lovers seek in "A Kind of Parlance"--of being tucked, like a sick penguin, under a caring arm--suggests this by placing parental and sexual love together.

Sylvia Plath makes a similar Freudian reference in "Daddy" when she links her dead father and her husband.

Now Peacock's style is quite unlike Plath's. It's a curious mix of the cerebral--especially in her complex similes--and the direct, even the raw, in her references to biographical and physiological fact (for instance, to masturbation and the smell of her mother's menses).

But there's a link in the way both poets explore an obsession with their dead fathers and the effect they've had--and continue to have, even when dead--on their lives.

So "Take Heart" begins with poems related to the death of Peacock's father and thereby implies that the other poems in the book should be seen in the light of the poet's relationship with this overbearing and alcoholic parent.

Certainly "The Ghost," with its bizarre reference to the parental embrace of an absence, suggests the wish to be embraced by an absent dream-parent:

\o7 It's not a dead little thing without a spinal cord yet, but a spirit of the parent we all sought to have had, of possibility.

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