Everything is observed at a distance in this deeply felt anthology from Durham University’s current cast of postgraduates. In this respect, this first ever reader of the literature penned by upcoming writers at this institution could hardly have been timelier. Flowing between poetry and prose, Peninsula eloquently portrays a confused world, filled with lonely, timid people colliding and breaking apart as their paths cross and diverge. Though that sounds pessimistic, given our current times, the composition is so beautiful that when reading it, it all seemed profoundly true. The presentation is just as striking as the message, interweaving a lattice of contemporary and classical techniques from the postmodern to the realist into something quite original and entirely spellbinding.This is a wonderful collection that celebrates the incredible distinctiveness and talent of its contributors.
Whether depicting the psyche as the harmonious but empty space within a room of magnolia walls, Durham as a scattered collage of forgotten stories traced in natural remains or people as blue moons helplessly sucked into and out of each other’s orbit, these short writings provide a plethora of memorable images. This makes its wider exploration of our difficulties in communicating with and understanding one another more tangible and literary. It is in this sense Peninsula feels like a tale of insurmountable cultural contrast, between our deviating national histories and identities, ages of ‘rainbow’ youth and jaded adulthood and the passengers we think we are seeing and the ones we really are. It is this that makes every relationship like having to perpetually resolve a puzzle. Where can we find solace? Not society – a place that distorts memories, expectations and experiences, promising a fulfilling wholeness but only ever providing severe partially – but in our tranquil surroundings which have the coherency our lives so sorely lack. Though the works in Peninsula are firmly impressionistic and even abstract in rendering how we lend parts of ourselves to others, fade into sandy beaches and escape into the picturesque, there is certainly a higher significance and meaning to these places than just the recording of appearances. Perhaps this is its definitive achievement, holding the reader’s attention with a gripping style while simultaneously hinting at and provoking wider, deeper questions about the world.
No work is more representative of this approach than Imogen Sharpe’s unexpectedly ethereal An Old Song Playing in Another Room, a “steady dance” of two friends as they try to reconcile everything that they’ve learned about each other with the idyllic early days of their relationship. From little intricacies like cracking knuckles and superstitions to beginning to outright mimic each other, Sharpe portrays a relationship without certainty or any sign of a future, the only comfort our anonymous protagonist can derive being from the “thousand tiny pieces” in which she envisions her friend. The tarot cards, Japanese cultural references and felines all incorporated into this eccentric, contemplative piece of prose ensures An Old Song lingers intriguingly in the mind long after reading. This strange friend may be a fascinating “enigma” for our protagonist, but once she has solved this “equation” it is unclear if she’ll remain so “interesting” – after all, her tarot card signified that she would soon give up her possessiveness in order to live freely. Perhaps then, it’s no wonder the friend “didn’t want to give too much away too soon”.
It’s hard to discuss this blurring of identity with nature without mentioning lockdown, during which so many have lost their securities and any real sense of themselves. Peninsula is perhaps the ideal companion piece to this era, sensitively drawing out faltering relationships and fragmentary mentalities in a time where we really do feel like we’re drowning under the weight of personal pressures. Meanwhile, secondary characters are vague, presented like we’re spying on them for information, though all we can glean are the guesses and assumptions made by our often-disinterested protagonists. This deconstructive approach, breaking down our environments and lives into a series of partialities, makes Peninsula a valuable medium for bringing together the seemingly random thoughts and sights that have formed the backbone of this past year. Yet it also offers something of a tonic to distressing realities, recounting happy memories from the past and the possibilities of reaching out to friends, promising that life will improve soon, even if that’s not exactly apparent for now. For those many individuals who have recently felt like ghosts wandering the world, this anthology will resonate strongly, while others will still enjoy its dashing style and provocative messages. It’s bold and relevant work.
Nothing illustrates this better than Chutian Xiao’s The Master. Throughout this piece our lead’s psyche is a bundle of unsettling contradictions, between morning and night, old age and youth and presence and absence. There is little wholesome to be found there. More fulfilling, however, is the magisterially evoked world of nature which he wishes to become at one with, from the “sea like bronze mirror” of space to “pigeons that cared to loaf about”. This almost aphoristic style is perfect for this poetry – finding some higher truth in the most abstract of descriptions. As our protagonist interacts with nature, he begins to find a newfound harmony while being “scrutinised” by night or becoming “a bodhi tree” – and it is these small moments in which we readers can find our consolation.
Peninsula is the rare anthology that comes together as one work, while still commemorating a vast multiplicity of voices. Deftly balancing style with substance, I would recommend it both for the exemplary workings of its poetry and prose as well as its didactic uniqueness. It’s a rare display of talent and flair, as well as an important insight into the conflicted identities, experiences and memories of lockdown that will resonate long after this epoch comes to an end. If this is anything to go by, we should see similar collections to this produced in the coming years.
Featured image taken by Olivia Freeman-Barrett.