Peter Robinson Buried Music (Shearsman) £8.95
John Dennison Otherwise (Carcanet Press) £9.99
Early in Peter Robinson’s Selected Poems are the lines, ‘A seamless landscape,/there’s nothing the tired eye/will not integrate’ and later in the same poem ‘What goes away/is only your attention’. There’s a double-take here as the writing suggests that only tiredness will blend sight; so wakefulness will separate, tease out. Yet, if anything, Robinson has always been a poet of an acute vision, noting both the way things blend and differentiate. His writing picks out the detail, yet sets it in its context. That context has been both urban and rural, specifically English and yet embracingly international; as befits someone brought up in Liverpool, yet who taught for a long time in Japan.
The title of Robinson’s new book, Buried Music, is an open invitation to the less-than-smart Alec critic to comment on the nature of Robinson’s own music. And it is a complicated music; never buried but contained within a wrought and sometimes costive syntax, which Robinson has been mastering ever since those early poems. In this current book, as there were in the early writings, there are poems in tightly controlled traditional forms. For Robinson is a master of both stress and rhyme even while espousing the poetics of more open forms, and the poets of them, including, but not only, Roy Fisher.
Buried Music is Robinson’s twenty-first book of poetry and there is, perhaps, an inevitable glancing back over his shoulder; in his own words, ‘it was as if I’d been/ trespassing yet again on my own past.’ ‘Like the Living End’. The poem’s punning title tells us where we are going, and recounts a visit to his father’s church and vicarage in Liverpool; a visit which brings knowledge of change, ‘Uncanny in both senses,/ life histories among neglect/at such dilapidations’. And this is a good example of the way Robinson can fold syntax over upon itself. Robinson (the academic, perhaps) evokes ‘uncanny’ in both its ‘normal’ sense as ‘strange’ or ‘eerie’, but also in the Freudian sense of the umheimlich or ‘unhomely’, something outside the familiar. He then layers that description over life histories which are both eerie and unfamiliar when neglected among the general dilapidations of the graveyard. Thus the syntax mimics the strangeness Robinson feels to be back, literally, in his old parish.
This collection is full of fine poems of place. ‘The Island Suite’ is a lovely collection of short poems about the Isle of Wight. And, in the final section ‘Four’ of the book, are poems set in Holland, the Czech Republic, but also more familiar locations which Robinson’s forensic but sympathetic eye renders both adeptly and calmly. It’s in these poems where Robinson’s control of syntax achieves its greatest effects. In ‘Like a Railway Station’, he continues ‘somewhere, on the edge of the landscape/ abstracted by deep water mist,/ a grey-ness in the troubled woods’/ threatened ash and remnant elm/ as from a local train or platform,/ its blur’s this slow reminder-/ ‘depending on your nearness,/ forgive me, to the grave,’ he says.’ Here, too, we return to the end of things. The sentence starts with the title and moves through the trees, again imitating the movement of the train through the landscape, which is also the movement of life towards the grave. But Robinson conveys all this with beguiling delicacy and grace.
There are interesting similarities between Peter Robinson and John Dennison. In ‘Watermarks’, Dennison also has a long sentence which mimics a train journey. But here the tone is a slightly more ambivalent,’ The train’s refrain picks up-// particularly, particularly, particularly -/ as everything waxes,// bruised light letting down/ on wet hollows, fields harrowed, wheat on the turn./ And it is perhaps the difference between a poet on their twenty-first volume and a poet, Dennison, on his first, that the ‘senior’ poet seems unlikely to use such repetitions.
What’s more noticeable in this book are the absences. An Anglican priest born in Australia, and now a university chaplain in New Zealand, there are fewer ‘Christian’ poems than one might expect, and little that’s particularised to the Antipodes; though the last quarter of the book weaves in Christian materials. And for a person whose doctoral research was on Heaney – Dennison’s subsequent book is called Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry – there are few of Heaney’s tropes of landscape or the betrayals of language.
The writer whose influence appears most strongly in this book is Michael Symmons Roberts, who’s written the puff on the back cover. Dennison has a way of packing evocative phrases, one against another, in a way which is very reminiscent of MSR. In ‘Reed’, Dennison riffs on Isaiah 42.3, ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. This part of Isaiah is often called ‘The Servant’s Song’, and certain Christian traditions apply much of this to Jesus. Dennison works this into a very neatly turned sonnet, of which this quotation is lines 5 to 12: ‘…see how the sap’s running mirth/ must stigmatise us – we bleed to grow./ Tall – a scaffold lifting from the earth,/ sky-thrasher, a swelling of shadow – / now, torn, tongues let loose, the shattered crown/ pours out its rushing supplications; fleshy grasses, outstripping the ground,/ run blindly from the flaming,…/ Symmons Roberts might not have felt the need to throw so much Christian iconography into the mix, and would possibly have pulled back from the other, somewhat gestural, language of the ‘scaffold’ and ‘the shattered crown’; but Symmons Roberts’ sensuality is present here, but made vividly Dennison’s own.
In a first volume, the influences are always likely to be on show. But there is both range and depth and a sense that Dennison can work with that range. Dennison is a religious poet in a way which is to be welcomed; one who finds his presences in a richly conveyed reality. His development will be interesting to observe.