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Peace Talks by Andrew Motion review – from Craiglockhart to modern day warfare

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The former poet laureate harnesses language’s transformative capacities to communicate the pain and grief of conflict

Peace Talks is the first book of poems from the former poet laureate since he left these shores for the US. Opening with an epigraph from Spinoza’s Ethics on the virtue of finding words for our suffering, it is a volume in which peace, quite literally, talks: after the ravages of war, there are still “Little towns that nobody had touched. / People living there / all the same. / Just living there / in the vastness.”

Through a surprising formal and tonal range, drawing on reported speech, streams-of-consciousness and more lyrical reflections, Motion attempts to harness language’s transformative capacities to communicate the pain and grief of conflict, from Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart war hospital, to lance bombardiers and corporals currently in military service. Elsewhere, there are broader musings on mortality and posterity, as one writer’s books “fly into a skip / along with the other unwanted things / that go where a life ends”. But it is the poems addressing war’s aftermath that convince, revealing a hopeful dimension to Motion’s tender, sombre verse.

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