Half a Conversation on a Park Bench Kensington by Peony Gent (2019)
For Sarah by Peony Gent (2020)
I think it's safe to say comics poetry as a concept is not completely unfamiliar to people at this point. There have been a few anthologies (including a regularly published journal), a few articles, and a number of regular practitioners. Like any other genre there is better work and lesser work (I'm looking at you "let's illustrate a poem"), and I can safely say I find most of it in the latter category. But the search for quality work goes on, and I'm always excited to find an artist who makes work I would consider comics poetry and whose work is both visually exciting and emotionally affecting. Such is the work of the London based artist Peony Gent.
The styles, forms, and subjects of poetry are endless, what we often see in comics poetry is a kind of Romantic expressionism, personal expression with a kind of lyric tone, the kind of poetry that first jumps to mind when an average person hears the word "poetry." Gent's latest two comics (self-published) thankfully fit into other forms. Half a Conversation on a Park Bench Kensington (2019) is a form of found poem, utilizing, as the title explains, the words of someone other than the author, as heard in a park. For Sarah (2020) is an elegy for an old friend.
Both works share a number of characteristics. Neither are primarily about narrative, but neither are they non-narrative, abstract comics. Both appear to be drawn in a neutral pencil with a limited palette of color applied (digitally I think, or at least having been considerably smoothed out in the production process).
Gent's drawing style is exciting and fresh, the kind of drawing I wish I could do. She keeps her line loose and her imagery abstracted, but it always looks specific and observed, as if she has drawn much by sketching from life. The combination is wonderful, and makes for drawing that I love to look at. Not overly detailed, not overly generic, a sweet spot that falls in between. The lines are rarely straight with slight curves; they don't meet precisely; they overlap and mingle. Scribbles form dark patches or light chaotic tones. Fields of open ended ovals form plants, yards, water, food. Wavy grids form roofs and fences and windows on buildings. Her drawing makes the world seem vibrant and alive. The kind of drawing that is fun to look at and looks like it was fun to make.
Half a Conversation on a Park Bench Kensington is an A4 size pamphlet with images printed on the recto side of the pages only which gives it a slow steady rhythm, as does its almost unvarying use of the six panel grid. The comic has a limited, though not a constrained, color palette, primarily light greens and yellows with the occasional shift into orange towards red. The colors convey the feeling of grass and trees with a pale warm sunlight. The orange-red intervenes occasionally (at one point just an empty panel of the color) as a hotter emotional register.
The narrative, such as it is, is via the words of a Bangladeshi immigrant, 10 years in the country, who is returning to their native country. One infers that the woman they were in some kind of relationship with broke up with them. It is a melancholy monologue (is half a dialogue a monologue?), but one that is without affectation, like Gent's drawing it is specific but also universal. The text is set by itself in panels. Gent punctuates the words with imagery of different sorts and registers. Some of it is the scene of the park and the bench and the speaker, some of it is more direct illustration of the words (the speaker talks of being a chef and the nearby panels show a flurry of hands and knives and food to chop), some of it is less illustration and more expression: the aforementioned all red panel; a face scribbled over with darkness. The imagery never becomes too settled, nor stays too literal, and in this way the poetic emerges.
For Sarah is a smaller digest size pamphlet, more dense visually and more somber narratively. Gent has composed an elegy, written to a friend (the Sarah of the title), who died (it is not explicitly said, but I don't think I'm amiss in reading it as suicide) and who Gent used to be close to but had drifted away from. The text, the primary driver of the work here, moves through dream and memory and diaristic recording and analysis. Gent expresses guilt at not staying in touch with her friend and ambiguous self-importance at thinking there would be something she could have done to make a difference. The mixture of all these elements, like the previous comic, uses a specific experience but offers to the reader a set of feelings that are relatable even if not directly mirrored in personal experience. I can think of all the friends I've not spoken to in years, ones that very could no longer be alive, ones that at some point will no longer be alive. Will I even hear about it to spend some time lamenting the distance of time and space?
Less directly illustrative than Park Bench, the imagery here is filled with landscapes, in particular streets of houses, roofs, fences, sidewalks, trees, streetlights. Occasional interiors punctuate the exteriors and then a few pages move into less populated, sparser landscapes of trees and sky. Color is very lightly used, most often a pale green spotted across the pages. Then more prominently a bright dense yellow blob that appears first like a sun in the sky but then becomes larger, less contained, almost smeared over the drawing. It's meaning is ambiguous, and I find it all the more interesting for it. There aren't always easy interpretations of anything.
Both of these comics are filled with melancholy and longing but also empathy, an empathy which I can see as a driving force in their creation. I look forward to more work from Gent. I wish I could make comics like these.