The Silence Teacher
April 2013. 32 pp. ISBN-13 978-3-901993-37-4 (= PSPS 6)
Written in the seven years following the death of the author's infant son, these poems explore the sometimes quiet and
often startling nature of love and grief. Through a range of forms and panoply of figures - spiders, fish, a famous cellist,
and prophetic apparitions - this collection probes what William Faulkner called, "the human heart in conflict with itself".
"If one locked a mute into the bell of a trumpet, changing the color of its song, its spectral envelope, one might approximate the timbre of Robert Peake's threnody. Anyone who hears this wailing song written by a father for a son's brief life will be haunted by its beauty and restraint."
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Excerpts from The Silence Teacher
The Silence Teacher
Seeing friends for the first time after his death
tested the silence a room could hold. The rest
was a kindness like holding our breath.
My wife's oldest friend offers her best
brave smile, tells us about the first time
her daughter, in new hearing aids, passed a nest.
Pitched as high as a tin wind chime,
in a sphere beyond the rumble of speech
she only knew "tweet" from what mother had mimed.
But birds' hunger songs seemed as far from reach
as the angels Blake saw perched in a tree,
and sweeter than any science her mother could teach.
Her world was based partly on what she could see.
The rest was a guess - the flailing of a street preacher
seemed like the swats of a man attacked by bees.
Quick lips make it easy to misread a speaker,
and once at a party, based on what she had seen,
the girl introduced her mother as a "silence teacher".
Grief's small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son's tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,
and still as winter in a robin's nest,
I did not say: I was the one who held him last
until the ticking heart stopped in his chest
or what that silence taught, and how it pressed.
How You Were Conceived
Sheets twist through shadow.
Oleander pummels the moonlight.
The sea takes in the bodies
of swimmers like floating debris.
We make love until shaking
with hunger, eat from one plate,
music playing in a distant room,
hands submerged in dishwater.
I loved your mother before
she had to be brave. Before the ashes
and wailing - the arch of her shoulder
in shadow, our breath in unison
becoming the eruption of light.
This world bulges with tenderness.
Mockingbird sings all night,
and if she did not answer,
I too would become frantic,
baroque, filling the air with trills,
to shorten the distance between silence
and the silence that has no reply.
She steps through the door, out of sight,
and a song gathers up in my throat.
Reviews of The Silence Teacher
"From the start, I was enveloped in Peake's spell, listening with him to the sounds of silence, hyper-aware of the opposing tension of this bereft parent's primal scream held deep inside as he attempts to carry on with the routine of daily life, 'the hum of the living still buzzing around my ears.' Whether describing the image of deer prints left in snow when his wife was still pregnant, feeling the anvil-weight silence of friends and strangers who struggle, not knowing how to respond (What can one say? What words could ever address such gravity?), or the strange comfort of bright carp swimming noiselessly around a koi pond - silence is everywhere, and like his small son's life, it is both dead cold and white hot, blazing up 'like sun upon the sea.'"
"It is the cadence of tone and the lyrical imagery that render the emotive content of the poems. In this chapbook,
Peake has shown his ability - and indeed, has the authority - to transmit the depths, layers and subtleties of the
process of grieving. Such a vision springs from a different kind of aesthetic instinct than the merely perceptual.
Peake describes moments as seen from his own state of grief, and so his perception of each event, combined with what
lies deepest in his feelings, increases the reader's comprehension of loss.
There are many kinds of poems in the world - and room for them - but poems like these bring things into focus for me. After reading The Silence Teacher, I have a more emotional stake in living, and in loving. A haunting collection."
"In consistently even, deeply muted tones, The Silence Teacher is a self-contained world, a series of meditations on the death of the author's infant son. No poems within escape this shadow, nor try to, and yet there is very little of either self-pity or self-absorption. [...] It's an uneasy, affecting and unforgettable collection."
"This is a very good pamphlet. [...] Peake's stories are interesting and affecting. [...] I admire Peake's audacity in writing in this fashion."
"[T]he poems are filled with sights, sounds, events, but their underlying silence is enormous. On one hand, this is deeply
appropriate, because the loss of this child has created a void nothing can fill. On the other hand, there is a portentous
solemnity, an elegiac tone that never lets up. [...]
I admire the way Peake sustains a sense of having stepped out of his former life into a strange and silent universe. [...]
[S]ustained through twenty-four poems, the tone is intense. But the poet is entitled to that.
And I can say I understand something of a grief I might not otherwise have understood."
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