Ian Brin­ton

The Past Be­neath Our Feet

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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