September 2023

Back to Issue 14

Our Ways on Earth

By Peter Bakowski

Recent Work Press (2022)

Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit.


Our Ways on Earth is Peter Bakowski’s eighth full collection of poems—wise, wistful and idiosynchratic in equal parts. Bakowski has been writing poetry for forty years and is delightfully described in the author biography at the back of the book as ‘a bounding deer in the long grass of poetry’ [73]. With disarming simplicity, these poems carry us in an uninterrupted stream through a gallery of human and non-human portraits, occasionally breaking for playfulness with quirkier poems about what poetry is, or that rely on strings of brightly imaged metaphors, or haiku and one- or two-line dryly humorous poems.   

Reading this book was like strolling around a portrait gallery, the subjects ranging from well-known artists and writers—Lucien Freud, Philip Larkin and Graham Greene, for example—to family members, neighbours and ordinary, or in some way disadvantaged, people—the homeless, the blind, the passed over—who the poet has closely observed and researched to recount real or imagined stories of hardship and heartbreak. Most often, poems are written in the first person, so we are privileged to the thoughts or motivations of Bakowski’s subjects as they discuss, explain or justify their actions, as well as being situated in the colourful or bleak landscapes of their lives:

            Saigon, city of heat and mistrust.

            I’m leaving to infiltrate or eavesdrop,

            to blend into a reader’s protective shadow

            or more surely through a barrage of peddlers

            desperate to sell me

            sample postcards, a snakeskin wallet, a ball point pen

            [‘Portrait of Graham Greene’, 1952, 8]

Sometimes, the character sketches remind me of Anita Brookner’s sad protagonists, and others make me think of Beatles’ ballads, like in this rhyming poem, ‘Portrait of our next-door neighbour’ [58]:

            B is for Bernard

            who’s rather scarred.

            Spry but shy, he may be glimpsed

            weeding his armpits in the backyard….


            Bernard once had a mother

            but he swapped her for another,

            cleaner and younger. 


There are many poems about bygone worlds, of childhood and of the past’s simple pleasures and routines. The characters of ‘Arthur’ and ‘Wendy’ recur at intervals throughout the book, gleaning anecdotes from what appear to be the poet’s own childhood. These poems of sibling rivalry, other familial relationships and 1960s pastimes are usually in third person:

Arthur likes to watch his Mum sew and mend

the needle dives beneath the cloth

then surfaces, rises, dives again

near the island of the button …

[‘Work, Rest and Play’, 56]


and sometimes they are from Arthur and Wendy’s mother’s perspective:  

            I’m worried about Arthur. He’s not an outside boy—

            pale compared to his classmates.

Maybe he’ll be an actor. This week he’s pretended to be a lion-tamer,

an astronaut, a pirate and a bomb-defuser…

[‘Jennifer talks to Glenda, her neighbour’, 62]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

According to the back cover, Bakowski’s aim as a poet ‘remains to write as clearly as possible and make his next poem different to his last.’ As a fellow dog walker, I particularly liked poems such as ‘Dog Walk’ [55] that are, again, about rituals and beautiful ordinariness. This poem also incorporates arresting lyrical lines such as ‘The hands of the town hall clock pin clouds to the sky. / The sun lifts its head from the book of the horizon.’ Weather and dog-walking are closely connected as any dog-walker well knows.


He describes his own dog, Buzz, as ‘Bone archeologist / urine philanthropist / pat collector’ in ‘Observing Buzz, a black miniature poodle’ [52]. Bakowski is an expert with kenning form, or using a two word phrase in the place of a one-word noun to move outside of everyday language, finding roundabout means of describing his subjects, and kennings recur throughout the collection to surprise and deepen reader understanding. This is part of Bakowski’s playful approach to form which also includes a number of acrostic poems—’Homeless man in winter, Collins Street, Melbourne, 2019’ that reads vertically as THE COAT [11], ‘Take a deep breath’ that reads vertically as ASPIRATIONS [15], ‘In the bush, north of Buchan’ that reads vertically as SANCTUARY [19] and ‘The very rich hours’ that reads vertically as THE PRESENT [47].

Bakowski is an avid traveler and attendee of writer’s residencies around the world and his nomadic activities are evident in poems set in places from Piraeus in Greece to Chelsea in London to the imagined Himalayan Shangri-La, but there are also non-travel Covid poems that mourn lost travel opportunities and reflect on lockdowns in Bakowski’s home city of Melbourne:

             This long April, I opened the world atlas.

            My index finger followed a shipping lane across the Pacific

            to San Francisco and back.

            I don’t get seasick, forget to buy postcards,

            but I spy some flying fish—

            there they are—caught in the dusty curtains.

            [Diary entries in the year 2020, 12]

Only a very small number of these poems have been previously published so you won’t have read them before. In ‘What a poem is’ [70], the last poem in the collection, Bakowski says ‘a poem is more jazz than recipe ….the glad yellow of lemons ….a big breaking wave effervescent around your driftwood bones.’ These poems are all of those and more.