Published by Shearsman Books
Three very different books recently landed on my desk leading me to ask the fundamental question as to what it is that makes a poem. Turning to Terry Eagleton for advice he reminded me, in what he admits is a rather dreary definition, that “a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end”. 1Morality is a surprising word in a modern, secular context, but Eagleton goes on to explain that the word “before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live more fully and enjoyably; and the word ‘moral’ in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience…. Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purpose”. It was bearing this statement in mind that I read these three books.
Peter Robinson is a vicar’s son. Born and brought up in Salford he remembers his parents performing madrigals. His literary education was further advanced by the singing of poems set to music by William Blake, George Herbert and William Cowper, long before he knew what they were. After working part-time for the 1988 Poetry International at the South Bank he went off to teach in Kyoto. His new book, The Returning Sky, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, collects together poems written over the four years from the time he left Japan and returned to England, through the global financial crisis and on into the current new austerity. The opening sequence, inspired by a trip to the US, captures its intrinsic ‘otherness’. A collapsed corpse on the street corner of Wiltshire and Westwood lies ignored while Stranger than Fiction plays at the local movie house. This sets the tone where things both ordinary yet strange intrude from the periphery: the radio broadcast of the president’s speech from a “worker’s too-loud radio” in the Art Institute in Chicago, the “Christmas tree decked out on the thirteenth floor” in a hotel window across the way. Gary Metro, with its “snow flurries turning to thin rain” and “rust-belt squalor” reveals a world where money is “growing tighter” and ubiquitous FOR SALE signs proliferate on properties that are now unsalable due to the sub-prime scandal.
Being lost and trying to find one’s way are recurring themes In Robinson’s work. In Peripheral Vision, a poem set in a northern suburb of Parma, Italy, “we arrive from elsewhere, /foxed by a new gyratory system/…and we’ll be lost once more”. His poems grow out of the circumstances thrown up by his life so that even a return home to Reading, with its Whiteknights Park – once the scene of extravagant parties hosted by the Fifth Duke of Marlborough and now part of the university campus with its Human Resources centre – seems uncanny. While down by the canal, near the onetime Huntley & Palmers factory: “A sudden scent of wood smoke/rises across locked, sluggish water/where a drowned white bicycle seems to float up from the depths,” surfacing like a lost memory. Reading may not intrinsically have much more inherent ‘poetic’ potential than John Betjeman reckoned Slough possessed but many of Robinson’s poems are set there. Those such as Reading Gaol feel a bit contrived – competent poetic exercises rather than felt experiences – where thoughts on the price of items in Reading Homebase are conflated with Wildian quotes about killing the thing you love. This is a big book with copious end notes, which means that, at times, the poems feel too explained. Robinson is at his best when describing the strangeness of marginalia such as “Thick gas pipes snake from underground/to cross the Kennet’s course/beside a red-brick rail bridge”, as in Gasometers , or “a creosoted shed/ with ivy bursting through its boards-“, an image that reminds me of Mahone’s mushrooms, in the fine poem Like a Foreign Country, where time is distorted and realigned like perspectives in a mirror so that a return ‘home’ feels as strange as being in a foreign country.
“When I enter the door to that room by which you have entered…” the teasing opening lines of The Enigma of the Hour, based on a painting by de Chirico, part of a commission by the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence for an exhibition in 2010, only continues the sense of alienation. Here language becomes ever more unstable and surreal; rocks grind their teeth, the piazza leans against the walls, clocks live and breathe. A sense of loss hangs over the poem. “Lovely you were on your wedding day…../If I only knew your name.” Images of doors proliferate throughout these poems: “half-shut and half-open”, “The door of your home. The door of the womb”, suggesting points of transition or rites of passage between different emotional states.
For someone who writes about art there are, as you would expect, further poems based on paintings: on Hockney and Shani Rhys James, as well as Andrew Wyeth. There is also a humorous poem to a potato and an impassioned plea for the place of poetry in the modern world: “Make us all saleable again as in the old days, /When poems would fly from the shelves like bread from the baker’s.” Idiosyncratic and evocative these haunting poems ‘unspool’ – to use John Ashbery’s word – in the mind, leaving a sense of something barely glimpsed and strangely enigmatic.
Not Many Love Poems
Published by Carcanet
There is a special responsibility to reviewing a collection by someone who has recently died. It is, in effect, a final word. There are no future chances for the poet to change directions or to have another go. Linda Chase, the American poet, who died of cancer aged 69, lived in Britain for 40 years but her essential American spirit continued to colour her work and life. Growing up in Long Island, New York she studied English and creative writing before moving to San Francisco. Her influences were home grown: William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and the Beats. A child of the 1960s her poems are infused with the values and insouciance of that singular decade. Deceptively informal, her verse is colloquial and uninhibited, at times deeply moving, on other occasions inclined towards bathos. The range of material in this, her last book, Not Many Love Poems, is wide ranging and includes: teenage sex on the sofa, a relationship with a new lover, illness and radiotherapy. Chase tells stories of friendships, love affairs and relationships with family, celebrating the gift of “numberless, glorious, blessed days”. The first poem, Our Life, poignantly reduces a shared life, and a single death, to seven two-lined stanzas and five decades beginning: “In the 40s we swam/like fish in the water-turtle lake”, and gets as far as the 80s when “I buried you.” Its power lies in the small incidentals remembered: “In the 70s I threw you/an apple from an upstairs window” and the unsettling fact that these unembellished, almost throwaway, fourteen lines stand for a whole lived existence. Elsewhere there is youthful passion to be found in an Airstream Bubble Trailer where “the table is never up/since the bed is needed day and night”, and there are poems about betrayal, love and illness including the stark and bravely feisty Pronouncement:
Love is an important theme, as in Dare, where a couple innumerate the ways that they would mourn the other’s demise. “Let’s talk about death, she said. You first.” Not all these poems are of equal magnitude, not all of them are strong enough to stand alone but as a collection they exude warmth, tenacity and guts and are, therefore, more than an adequate testament to one life richly lived.
1 Terry Eagleton: How to Read a Poem. Blackwell Publishing
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
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