The Story Behind “Three Poems” by Robert Peake

IMG_9297-1Today’s post is written by Robert Peake. You can read three of his poems in our Fall 2013 issue.

The Story Behind “Three Poems”

by Robert Peake

For me, the spark of a poem can come from just about anywhere. My task is to kindle it by writing, to draw out its heat.

Each of these three poems (“Amuse-bouche,” “I Was Born to Small Fish,” and “Two Women in Heels Walk Briskly Toward the Train Platform”) got its start in this way, not so much with a grand concept as with a tiny burst of energy—a sound, a thought, a taste—that stoked into something more.

Amuse-bouche” began at an inn in the Cotswolds district of England run by a French-speaking Belgian man who collected pastoral figurines for an elaborate nativity. Myself a longtime painter of miniatures in my early life, I admired it throughout dinner. He clearly had a love of fine detail in small forms. It was also here that I learned the difference between appetizers and amuse-bouche, the latter being a vehicle for the chef to pack as much culinary skill as possible into a tiny morsel. Sometime later, I was thinking of Proust’s madeleine, and how taste and smell seem to be peculiarly intertwined with memory. The poem followed from there, through a mix of savoury and unsavoury nostalgia.

Growing up on the US-Mexico border, my first word was “agua” (Spanish for “water”). Many of my friends’ mothers did not speak English, so I quickly learned how to ask for a snack, a nap, or the bathroom in Spanish. I probably learned the difference between “poco” (few) and “pequeño” (small) on the playground. When I encountered a mistranslation of “few” for “small” in one of Pablo Neruda’s poems, I realized how “strangeness” was being added to the poem. This has been a frequent discovery since, especially with Neruda, of translators essentially rewriting his work into something much more surreal than intended. Still, the stranger-than-necessary line sparked my imagination, and I ran with it in “I Was Born to Small Fish.”

My wife is a musician and has taught piano from time to time in our home. She introduced me to polyrhythm, where one hand plays one rhythm while the other plays a different rhythm. “Nice cup of tea” is a helpful mnemonic for learning to play four against three, since the rhythm of the phrase mimics the rhythm of the intertwined beats. I once read that the famous physicist Richard Feynman was able to play polyrhythms of seven against six and even thirteen against twelve. I spend more time than I would like on commuter train platforms, and one day the “moment of loudness” described in the poem’s title set off a flurry of associations to cheer up a drizzly workday, leaving all but the writing down of it to make “Two Women in Heels Walk Briskly Toward the Train Platform.”

Here you have a few bites of poetry, each simmered up not by recipe but more the “pinch of this, dash of that” serendipity that my great-grandmother liked to use. If there is any method at all, I would say it is to recognize the spark, then follow the heat. Modern science is showing us that reading poems, unlike reading an instruction manual, lights up the parts of our brain that deal with music, memory, and introspection. I suppose you could say it is from those places in particular that these three poems emerged.

Robert Peake is an American poet living in England. His newest short collection is The Silence Teacher (Poetry Salzburg, 2013). His poems have appeared in North American Review, Poetry InternationalRattle, and Magma Poetry. He writes about poetry and culture at The Huffington Post and at


  1. […] poem begins somewhere. Compose Journal asked me to write a few words about the three poems that appeared in their Autumn […]

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