The Past Beneath Our Feet
September in the Rain by Peter Robinson, Holland House, September 2016, 280pp, £11.99 (paperback)
Collected Poems by Peter Robinson, Shearsman Books, February 2017, 518pp, £19.95 (paperback)
Roy Fisher has noted how unusual it is in English poetry nowadays ‘to find a writer of Peter Robinson’s sophistication occupying himself with what appears, at least, to be autobiography’. Fisher warns us of the dangers of ‘you’ and ‘we’ being ‘treated as chutes into a void where characters in a poem can be subjected to misrepresentation, manipulation or lies, destabilizing the poem into harangue or the author’s self-delusion,’ before going on to make the central point about one of Peter Robinson’s finest characteristics:
He appears to treat the ‘I,’ ‘you’ and ‘we’ in as lapidary a fashion as the carefully layered words of his observations of scenery, weather and situations. Treating the pronouns in this way means they have to be given the stability and respect accorded to things.
This ‘lapidary’ sense of individuals within their landscapes is powerfully there in early poems, written in the 1980s, which record the years of childhood and the poet’s upbringing in a financially careful vicar’s family near Bootle. In the volume This Other Life, originally published by Carcanet in 1988 and now incorporated into Collected Poems, it is as though we walk with the past below our feet and discover monuments piercing the soil telling us how, in the words of the American poet Charles Olson, ‘the dead prey upon us’. Olson had cried out his urge to ‘disentangle the nets of being!’ and as if in echo Robinson’s early poem ‘A short history’ introduces us to those trammels of the past as with a painterly eye we are presented with ‘first light / through gripping ivy’, ‘leaf shadow, / telephone
wires on the ceiling’, ‘meshed stained glass’ and ‘woven emblems’. To engage with an English sense of this poetry of the ‘self’ placed against a vivid and changing landscape we might turn perhaps in English poetry to Charles Tomlinson or Philip Larkin, ‘Winter Encounters’ or ‘Here’. In ‘A short history’ the family return on foot one Sunday from early morning communion:
We follow straightened access roads laid to lead you home, where, in the stillness, dew forms.
The Collected Poems gathers together nine separate books to which has been added a recently completed tenth collection. The substantial range of this poetry prompted Roy Fisher to suggest that it was reflective of ‘a listening device, alert for the moments when the tectonic plates of mental experience slide quietly one beneath the other to create paradoxes and complexities that call for poems to be made’. Indeed Robinson’s poetry reflects a quiet and humane voice which lays its witty awareness of domestic details onto a fast-changing industrial landscape. ‘In my father’s house’, another early poem of childhood recollection, there may be many mansions but the closing lines point only to a dwindling actuality:
where a squat church tower intrudes on the featureless air, stirring an emptiness which is of a piece with the depleted horizon.
Robinson’s new novel, September in the Rain, opens with the immediacy of early morning hours near Como and what unfolds is a searing account of what Roy Fisher was to refer to as the ‘witnessing of an enduringly memorable crime’:
The yellow breakdown truck pulls off and halts outside an Agip petrol station bar. Pushing the stiffly sprung door, the driver throws back his blue anorak hood and shakes off the worst of the rain.
Behind him come the two of us, bedraggled from the storm, wet through, with limp hair and blank faces, eyes blinking in the neon as if startled out of a troubled night’s sleep.
It is 20 September 1975 and the breakdown mechanic who has picked up these two waifs off the motorway asks the barman at the petrol station for use of the phone to make a quick call to the polizia stradale.
That’s right, he had found two foreigners alone on the autostrada towards Como at about half past four in the morning. They were soaked to the skin, and there was definitely something wrong because they were saying ‘ polizia’ over and over.
These vivid opening scenes also bear witness to what Fisher called Robinson’s mastery of the absorbed metaphor, the device that may lie grammatically hidden whilst absorbing the qualities of a mood into itself. The narrator talks with his sister in the closing pages of the novel some ten years after the traumatic event which had opened the story and feels that:
Our talking over everything and everyone began to go round in circles, and our conspiracy of two turned in upon itself.
And so, some forty-one years after a traumatic experience of sexual violation in a car during a wet night in Northern Italy, a violation committed by a man armed with a pistol, Peter Robinson’s inner narrative surfaces in this deeply moving novel. The long-reaching effects of the incident ensured that the narrator’s ‘one summer of half-innocent youthful confidence had gone for ever’ and as he confesses to us ‘There are things you can’t come back from, however much you may wish you could, or even pretend you have’.
In an interview with Marcus Perryman, the friend with whom he has translated the poems of Vittorio Sereni, Robinson gave a background sketch to those traumatic events of September 1975 which haunt the novel:
My girlfriend and I were hitch hiking north from Rome after having almost all our money and most of our documents stolen in the capital. We had made it all the way from the outskirts of the city to somewhere north of Milan in the direction of Como, when we ran out of luck, were picked up by someone with a gun who demanded a sort of in-kind sexual payment (as I imagine he might have seen it) for the lift. So, to avoid being killed, she underwent that ‘unutterable humbling’ while I waited in the back of the car with a gun pointing at my head. We exchanged a few words in English, to the effect that he might kill us anyway, and what would we do? He didn’t understand them, but quickly shut us up; and then when it was over, very surprisingly, he let us go.
As the second paragraph of the novel opens with the narrator and his girl friend arriving at the Agip petrol station bar the girl retreats into a corner ‘as far as possible from the counter and the customers’. She remains there ‘face still wet with tears or the rain, shivering beside the chrome stands where dolls in plastic bags and soft toys for souvenirs are dangling on display’. In the Perryman interview Robinson recalled the sense of a contrast between those inert commercial objects ‘that are treated fondly and used as things to remember with, and an animate person being treated like a thing’. It is an aspect of the power of Robinson’s writing in this novel that he is a poet who sees himself in some relation to the Poundian line of Modernism which he calls a commitment to the world as recalcitrant and ‘other’ than the perceiver. This is perhaps what Roy Fisher had in mind when he referred to Peter Robinson’s lapidary style: an awareness of the external reality of our surroundings.
As the narrator looks back, he recognizes that ‘My one summer of halfinnocent youthful confidence had gone forever’. However, as Robinson recognised in the eight poems that he wrote in the aftermath of this fracture of youth, all of which were included in This Other Life before taking their place in the early section of Collected Poems, the palpability of fear and shame do not just disappear. As he put it in ‘A September Night’:
Unsettling shapes recur in sleeplessness
‘Driven into a landscape without choices’ (‘There Again’) there will be no return to a former world and the poet, the novelist, can only embark upon what the editors of that Salt collection of essays were to term an ‘active working through of public-private experiences’ which ‘call up quiet and necessary reserves of feeling in the reader’ in order to ‘sustain fidelity to a culture of common understanding’.
It is one of poetry’s abilities to voice that common understanding , that power of movement between the visible and the invisible and as if in recognition of this a later poem in Robinson’s Collected presents us with an image conjuring up the world of the great American photographer Charles Sheeler, the self-proclaimed Precisionist, whose work emphasized the exactness of linear framework he employed in his depictions:
He was touching the hard edge where life and art met. (‘At the Institute’)
Here the moving current of life is stilled for a moment within the static frame of a photograph or a poem. In similar vein Robinson frames human losses in ‘Pension Scheme’ by summing them up ‘with the spiders’ handiwork, quotations, house repairs’ and juxtaposes these ‘memories draped by the beneficent spider’ (Eliot) with the delicacy of balance as swans:
With cygnet balls of fluff beside them float on their reflections
Some of these later poems are haunted with a sense of debt, a reflective voice calling back upon a world for what can never be recovered and ‘Ode to Debt’ is prefaced by a quotation from Samuel Butler claiming that ‘All progress is based upon the universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its means’. The poet visits West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, at the time of the BBC’s filming of Little Dorrit in 2008
and looks beyond the ‘False shutters’ of a film set to recognise the suicide of the false banker Merdle with his ‘shady bathtub end’. As ‘securities’ run, like the sands of time, ‘fast through cupped fingers’ (‘Mortgaged Time’) and credit flows reminding us that ‘another day’ has ‘been lent to us’ which can never be returned (‘Credit Flow’) these later poems register a world valuable in its very transience; a world caught for a moment through the poet’s lens. Recalling an early gouache sketch of Lawrie Park Avenue which Pissarro made in 1871 before going on to complete his oil painting of the same scene (that hangs in the National Gallery), Peter Robinson makes us aware of the palimpsest nature of the past as that which has gone but which glimpses at us from inside the frame:
He painted out one female figure. Her pentimenti could be seen still on the gravel, advancing towards me, as a darker stain.
Stillness resides within the frame as the erased past shadows forth into the stillness of the present and ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’ concludes:
But lacking such things to do with the past, like this figure he had painted out who fills the air with an indelible stain, there’d be no possibilities.
They thicken into leaf, his flanking trees. Look, now, it’s as plain as plain.
Graffiti artists may ‘daub the town with words once more’ (‘Graffiti Service’) but ‘council workers are out on their round’ cleaning up the space ‘with industrial spray-gun, solvent and paint’. With wry humour Peter Robinson not only recognises how these cleaners are themselves like artists ‘preparing a ground’, or canvas, but notes how he is being gently mocked with a quotation from one of his own early poems from the late seventies,
‘The Interrupted Views’. Following a quotation from Adrian Stokes (‘The world is full of home’) the poet had concluded back then that a return is not only registered by ‘Mute welcomes’ but that ‘Home is the view I appropriate’.
September in the Rain reclaims land and brings a submerged past to the surface bringing to mind the haunting quality of Graham Swift’s novel, Waterland. Swift’s narrator, a teacher of History, places emphasis upon the idea that:
History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret. So that hard on the heels of the word Why comes the sly and wistful word If. If it had not been for…If only…Were it not…Those useless Ifs of history.
As Peter Robinson knows full well: we live with the Past. However, his Collected Poems, like his novel, is a testament to life not loss and to art’s haunting visibility.