Peter Robinson, Collected Poems 1976-2016 (Shearsman, £19.95).
At the start of his preface to The Salt Companion to Peter Robinson, Roy Fisher writes, ‘It’s unusual in English poetry nowadays to find a writer of Peter Robinson’s sophistication occupying himself with what appears, at least, to be autobiography.’ And later, ‘Often the well placed ‘I’ is to be sensed as a shadowy presence, its back to the camera and off to one side and on watch. And this watchfulness is also true of the full face self-portrait that looks out from the cover of this compendious Collected Poems from Shearsman. The eyes are focused yet cautious and the mouth has a quiet set as if at once pursed but willing to engage in conversation.
Perhaps the title of Robinson’s first full collection also hints at that sense of caution: Overdrawn Account. The poems in this Collected come from that first book published by the Many Press in 1980, through to hitherto uncollected poems published in the last year or two. And a poem taken from Robinson’s third book, Entertaining Fates, adumbrates that feeling of both caution and something stronger, a wariness, ‘Reduced to myself, some hapless interlocutor/ lost for a phrase momentarily, my senses/ quickened to the summer wind’ ‘In Summer Wind’. When this poem goes on to reproduce part of a conversation, the reader realises that they are being carefully situated between consciousnesses, with the poem/narrator negotiating with the second person; ‘You still believe you acted in good faith,/ your motives weren’t impure?/ Examine those moments more closely,’ you’d implied’. And then the poem works its meticulous way towards the conclusion ‘- and yet/ you know it isn’t in me/ to judge, forgive myself, still less forget.’
It is, perhaps, this careful positioning of the narrator and the narrative voice, which Roy Fisher suggests, makes Robinson ‘alert for the moments when the tectonic plates of mental experience slide quietly beneath one another to create paradoxes and complexities that call for poems to be made [with] smoothly-articulated densities of observations and mental events and the careful placing of the figure[s].’ These densities and careful placings come from a range of Robinson’s stations in the world. In particular, Japan where he lived and taught for a long time. And also Italy, where his second wife comes from, and whose poetry he has translated, in particular that of Vittorio Sereni. But Robinson also describes with considerable empathy the urban areas of Salford and Liverpool where his father was a parish priest.
‘Winter Zoo Encounter’ in which the Robinson family meet an Italian woman at the Yagiyama Zoo in Japan, reprises Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Woman at Washington Zoo’. In that poem, a cleaner at the Washington Zoo feels herself caged in her life as the animals are caged. Robinson uses the last two lines from Jarrell’s poem as an epigraph, ‘You know what I was, / You see what I am, change me!’ Robinson sees the Florentine woman as ‘exiled’ and ‘remote’, searching for her own language. Robinson, typically, comments ‘Of all the exogamous marriages / changing us, I thought of ours – / how a love drew me towards / but withdrew her from those words,’ So the poet sees how it is language which acts as both barrier and conduit. And also reaches into the other worlds of poetry, not only Randall Jarrell, but also T.S. Eliot, as he ends the poem describing how the ‘the woman at the Yagiyama Zoo / spoke not wanting to forget / the dialect of her tribe.’ It is the ending of the poem on the word ‘tribe’ which makes this poem so powerful. Showing, again, how identity is so strongly forged in language, but also how piercing and poignant that sense of estrangement can be in another country; as the woman in Jarrell’s poem is so overlooked that her own sense of identity is stripped from her. As Robinson sees the animals so stripped in a later poem, ‘Zoo time’.
In the Salt Companion, Katy Price comments, ‘Each poem started from scratch but they were also talking to each other and in doing so had their eye on me, the reader.’ Perhaps this dialogue with the reader is, in part, created out of Robinson’s way with a kind of layering of experience, often pointing up its contradictions. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who suggested that, ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ And part of Robinson’s achievement is to balance two ideas within a poem and make them move unobtrusively, yet robustly towards reconciliation. In ‘More Aftershocks’, Robinson picks up on the way in which television will select its images and leave little to the imagination, whilst those who know the situation will automatically imagine more; usually filling in the really human detail. Robinson describes the effect of an earthquake on the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi; and the resultant destruction of frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto. And then the group of volunteers who ‘sift over the masonry dust/ for bits of surface, down on their knees.’ The precise word ‘surface’ gives us not only the sense of the fresco, but its exact opposite, the sense of depth which ‘even’ the early frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto give of a deep and lived spiritual reality which brings people ‘on their knees’, to look for these fractured moments of art.
It is not that Fisher’s ‘the empirical Peter Robinson’ wears his heart on his sleeve. It is perhaps, that the ‘empirical Peter Robinson’ explores that empiricism and its interactions in ways which other contemporary British poets may not have done; that positioning of the self again. This is a large, compendious book whose personality is constantly engaged and engaging; that warm, diffident voice, as Price notes, inviting the reader into a dialogue with a range of deep and searching empathies.