Stephen Romer, Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, (Carcanet, £12.99).
Is Steve Romer a love poet? How much did his move from England to France in the eighties influence his style? If we’re to take him at his word, he doesn’t “feel part of any French tradition, except perhaps an earlier one…that goes back to Baudelaire” – a poet who could be found on the family tree of influences so often that he might as well be the common ancestor of bookmarks or redheads. Romer’s first “good God” moment came when he was a schoolboy, bored in the back of class, and came across poems by Tom Gunn and Ted Hughes. While writing his second collection, Plato’s Ladder, he read Ovid, Berryman, and Catullus and struggled to reconcile “the local pain of love” with the urge to reconnect with and remember the earthly site of that love, often coming across as a sort of reverse-Catullus: pleading less be steel, and something closer to be honey. Idols, his debut collection, had been as much about love as it was the loss of traditional religion and the persistence of the haunted intimacies of lost beloveds (terrestrial and heavenly). His new selected work takes its title, Set Thy Love In Order, from the 13th century monk-poet Jacopone (Crazy Jim) du Todi who, among other things, appeared at his brother’s wedding feathered and tarred from head to toe. Romer’s work and concerns, it seems, have always been more various than love poetry, just as his influences are more diverse than the French tradition.
Lovers of Romer’s love poetry and those who want to see for themselves why he “may well be the finest love poet of his generation” won’t be disappointed with Set Thy Love In Order, and in the selections from each collection you’ll find many poems that support the claim. The circumference of Romer’s concern has widened over the course of the three collections published since Idols – the father and teacher in Plato’s Ladder, the more irrevocable tones of loss and regret in Tribute, and the death of his father in the later poems of Yellow Studio. His love poems have remained a constant, as have homages to other artists, fascination with and use of colour, and records of his travels between France, America, Poland, and a remembered England. This constancy gives a sense, as you progress through the collections, less of a ladder and more of a spiral staircase, as Romer turns and returns to the shadows of love and loss that he’s carried through his career.
Romer counts Coleridge’s conception of poetry as “more than usual emotion combined with more than usual order” among his guiding lights. And though in Idols you can hear some of Heaney in the five-beat iambic renderings of the borderlands of place and the mystic, this falls away as he settles into the short lines and quick, controlled brushstrokes that define his later collections. Emotion and intellect wrestle in each of Romer’s collections, and stand in a relationship he once called a “war-embrace”. Though the overtly religious has faded to a sort of glow over the course of his books, it has perhaps persisted in his ordering of experience in tight formal structures – like someone who took the cross from their neck but still keeps it in one pocket. Sometimes, the balance does swing, to my mind, a bit too heavily into the intellectual, which can leave the occasional poem cold, and the mixture of sensuous detail and philosophic observance feeling uneasy (rains of immediacy, flaming angels of recrimination, etc.). But it is in part because Romer writes at such a seemingly conscious intersection of emotion and intellect, and because of his history of formal precision, that his most recent poems, beginning with the later poems of Yellow Studio, are as striking and powerful as they are.
A debut collection creates a sort of home from which the poet moves off into the rest of their careers. Romer has come home, and I think he knows it. There is everywhere here the mark of a writer who has bound the strands of his concerns and capabilities to deliver some of the finest poems of his career. The pamphlet-worth of new poems in the selected see the return of lines from earlier work, in a new guise. Where in the early “Sea Changes” Romer wrote:
wrapped in a coat, curled on a seat,
I ask only for a heart as constant
as the throbbing of this ship, and strong
for each new sickening of the sea.
he revisits the image in the new poem “Collects for Lent”:
for a heart as constant
as the throbbing
of this ship
for each new sickening
of the sea
this need in me
the starry heavens
the moral law
If Plato’s ladder in the Symposium leads away from earthly beauty toward the “golden harvest” of philosophy, then Romer has spent much of his career with one foot on the ground and a hand on the ladder. But in poems like “Collects for Lent” Romer has set the ladder against the wall: he is stock-taking, saying goodbye to loved ones, and remembering the young man he was. The philosophic hasn’t been relegated, but allowed to exist as “provisional” – and, as if extending from this relinquishing, we find fissures (sharp enjambments, fragmented sequences, the inclusion of dialogue) in his formal approach that would have read as foreign in his earlier work. The hope, at least one hope, is that as a poet progresses in their career their sensitivity has not been shuttered and habit made them automatic in their own style: that the reach toward new subjects requires, in the reaching, a new hand. And we have that here from Romer. My only advice is to read the new poems last. That way you can climb the ladder, and back down, into a new reconciling colour.