Peter Robinson | Ravishing Europa | Worple Press: £10.00
Peter Robinson’s new collection from Worple Press is an often elegiac response to the Brexit Referendum. It’s suitably ambiguous title – does Europe ravish, or is it being ravished? – seems almost to respond to the conflict in which the British people, and in particular, its much derided government finds itself. It is a conflict which the British have made for themselves; as David Runciman sums it up in the London Review of Books, ‘are we stuck because we are divided or are we divided because we are stuck?’ Or as Robinson, himself, puts it, ‘as if the in-two-minds of Europe / were fighting it out through you.’ Peter Robinson is not stuck, however, either physically or politically. The collection’s closely weaved surfaces move through an impressive litany of European locations: from his beloved Italy, to Croatia and Montenegro, from Andalusia and County Clare to Sonning Lock and ‘the big skies of the Lincolnshire Wolds.’ And Robinson is not stuck politically either. As much as he might sympathise with those who vote to leave with their ‘B roads leading on to / abandonment, abjection’ Robinson’s heart is very firmly in Europe, as the translator of, amongst other, Montale and Sereni.
The geographical span of the collection allows Robinson to move around the continent emotionally as well as physically. Being on the train, in ‘Belongings’ from which I’ve quoted above, moving from Milan to Parma, shows him how it is possible to ‘move’ inside Europe, and also to ‘belong among these homes / (the popular housing of post-war years) / beyond a confetti of magnolia petals […] while some still cling to their garden boughs’, with its echo of Pound’s ‘In a Station of The Metro’, itself a genuflection to a Eurocentric view. The word ‘home’ is carefully placed near ‘popular housing’ to suggest, perhaps, that post-war housing, after the devastation of the second-world war, was a way of re-homing, of giving people back a sense of home and locale when those things had been ripped from people’s grasps in the war. Thus Robinson moves through Europe on the train, with its own symbolism, and yet moves through a kind of homeland, in which there are a range of ‘belongings’.
This sense of belonging is, in part, a response to the words of Theresa May, uttered on the 5th October, 2016, ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ Which Robinson uses as an epigraph for the poem ‘On a Walk to Sonning’. The walk in Sonning near Robinson’s home in Reading, throws up questions of identity ‘of children raised in other countries, // both their parents aliens there, / third-culture kids’ grass roots, a tree’s / torn at by the air…’ The jargon of ‘third-culture’ is thrown against the informality of ‘kids’ to, perhaps, suggest that the grass roots are both substantial and yet fragile, artificial and yet real. With ‘peace talks … in disarray’, then ‘we’re vulnerable transients, all of us, … or rescued from the mid-sea waves / in need of shelter, safe house, home, / and who are you to judge?’ This is Robinson, himself a son of the manse, suggesting that Christian generosity of spirit is somewhat absent from the utterances of the ‘vicar’s daughter’.
Others of these poems are more straightforwardly polemical. ‘The Irish Border’, for example, deftly adumbrates the suffering a ‘hard border’ in Ireland would entail. This poem, too, glances back to ‘another paper-scrap brought home from Europe’, the analogy with Chamberlain’s waving the peace agreement with Hitler. Written when ‘no hard border’ was agreed, Robinson greets with this heavy irony, ‘the British government has given its word.’ And concludes ‘…blessed are the peacemakers / for they shall see all manner of things!’
It’s clear that the Brexiteers do not really have the greatest word-smiths, although Johnson and Gove might wish to see themselves as journalists. Perhaps there are poets out there who can make a case for Brexit. Until then, the Remainers have poets with the accomplishment of such as Nicholas Murray and Peter Robinson, on their side. In Robinson, they have someone who has spent considerable amounts of time working and living abroad, who does actually know what it means to embrace ‘a foreign culture’ and to embrace its language. It is that broadmindedness, along with his skill and verve, which makes this collection so sensitive and accomplished.
by Ian Pople