PETER ROBINSON was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1953. In the 1970s he
edited the poetry magazine Perfect Bound and helped organize several
Cambridge International Poetry Festivals. In the following decade he
co-edited Numbers and was advisor to the 1988 Poetry International at the
South Bank Centre, London. After teaching for the University
of Wales, Aberystwyth, and at Cambridge, he has held posts in Japan, at
present in Tohoku University, Sendai, where he is a visiting professor of
English literature. He is married and has two daughters.
Peter Robinson’s four books of poetry are Overdrawn Account (Many
Press: 1980), This Other Life (Carcanet: 1988), which won the Cheltenham Prize,
(Carcanet: 1992) and Lost and Found (Carcanet: 1997). He has edited the
poems of Adrian Stokes, a collection of essays on Geoffrey Hill, and an
anthology, Liverpool Accents: Seven Poets and a City (Liverpool
University Press: 1996). His translations of contemporary Italian poetry
include Selected Poems of Vittorio Sereni (Anvil: 1990). A volume of his
critical writings, In the Circumstances: about Poems and Poets, was
published by Oxford University Press in 1992. He is at present co-editing
with John Kerrigan The Thing About Roy Fisher: Critical Studies
(Liverpool University Press: 1999).
PETER ROBINSON: FIVE POEMS
Stooping to my daughter’s height,
I get a glimpse of how it looks
this close to ants, or a cabbage white;
I’m blowing dandelion clocks
(as you might pluck petals off a daisy)
and with every breathed-out puff,
murmur ‘She loves me not…she loves me…’
while the separate blobs of fluff
drift among each grass stalk’s seed-head,
take their chances with the other
wildings sent on currents of town air,
just as her own great-grandfather
had grown up hurt in his half-sisters’ care,
silently resentful and embittered –
yet from him sprang what family we are.
White marble gleams through privet hedges
on both sides of the carriageway.
Wrappers, newsprint, litter stay
unshifted by wind on mown grass verges
in blobs of shadow from copper beech trees’
clotted-blood-colour leaves, the sky
half blotted out in a late July
that brings back, uncalled for, the scraped knees
of childhood. They were bleeding and gritty
as I pulled a bike with twisted frame,
its front wheel buckled, down these same
avenues through outskirts of this city.
Just now, in a gap across from the Crem
giving onto a garden or farmyard,
a peacock and a rabbit stared
out of their home ground. I glanced at them
in passing. They remain like neat scars
because I’d been going at a pace
to notice and remember. So the place
made itself known, pretended to be ours,
and we at least could perhaps understand
that gravestones, foliage, accidents give
life to these forms which live, if they live,
on a rabbit, a peacock, on whatever comes to hand.
‘And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
W. H. Auden
Steps climbed into bushes
at a turning as the road
chicaned through curtain walls;
a sign’s arm pointed at rushes.
By hinge-posts, leaves and berries
papered over faults where blossom
of late-flowered cherries
had stained grey pavement.
Further, a pine-coned path
snaked by grazed bark, the shins
of pines, and headlight shards
glinted over reddened earth.
These fragments of a car
or scooter come to grief
were more memento mori
of each bright thing’s brief life.
That evening, walking home
across the castle site, I saw
grass stalks pierce crazed asphalt
like so many flashing swords,
a full moon scud through trees
above these green remains
of fortifications, its pale face
as in the local poet’s lines.
A traffic-filled street in the city bears his name,
its glittering offices clearly seen
beyond this castle’s firebombed gatehouse,
from an approach road cresting the rise
as it twists through outworks of a wooded mound.
Here was the place by which he’d mourned
changes under a vine-strewn wall,
the moon above the ruined castle
shining an unchanged, luminous glow
while for centuries that structure stood its ground.
So where is the brilliance of long ago?
No ghostly retainers or GI Joes
are transfered over white cars and coaches
convoying tourists by the switchback road
you climbed, fumes fog-like in these pines –
where the occupying armies once camped round.
Now when the emperor was restored
these trees were on the losing side:
their trunks, paralysed sentries;
leaves, plumes shaking in a breeze.
Holding the hill gave material advantage.
Power gravitated in an earlier age
to this natural fortress of river cliffs and gorges.
Partly dismantled by restoration forces,
the rest burnt down in a single bombing raid.
Inside its main defensive walls
a statue of the warlord on his horse
with one blind eye and helmet’s crescent moon
overlooks the city’s blinking neon.
Here his past reappears in simulation –
come back as a wheeling bird’s eye view
of lookout towers, the banquet halls,
and peacock-painted sliding screens
are reconstructed as computer graphics
on a series of flickering video screens.
From a plinth in ornamental shrubbery
this dress-coated, bronze politician
has blank eyes fixed on an era of wars:
his selectively related histories
miss live experiments, rapes
when just remembered foreigners died
(however much it’s denied, denied
by interested voices) and maps
could really point to places
where life was evil then, perhaps.
Bansui, you’re their local poet not mine
with moon-viewing parties and blossom
of that late-flowered cherry, a pink stain
on grey pavement, glimpsed against the hum
coming through trees from a tour bus engine;
a uniformed girl at its door waves her pennant
beckoning veterans or children by the shrine
to their dead: it’s what fleeting blossom meant;
and though some still insist it never was,
others have been ready to apologize at last
for the mounds of unearthed skulls, the burden
of documents in archives, stored or lost,
that would likely vindicate the poet Auden
in his journeying to and from those wars.
from VIA SAURO VARIATIONS
‘…notre destin qui t’étonne
Se joint au jour qui va finir’
Looking for a place to eat
in August, closed-for-the-holiday season,
we were directed to a narrow street
beyond deep shadows of a portico.
The restaurant ceiling had Zodiac signs –
blind struggle in the network of stars,
like the dry leaf on a rain-blotched car’s
sun-roof, yes, and one more sign –
there by the wooden street door
on a bell push still, that name I love,
not to be rung but conjuring the memory
I still have desires, enough to need no more.
A thick mist on the Padana plain
did away with distances
that morning I took an early train;
it seemed the chances
of following outlines of trees
past farms and onion campanili
had been stolen from me
by the weather; still, possibilities
hidden in years’ silences
might have waited to emerge
with filter plants at a field ditch edge,
though patches of the dewy grass
is all there was to see.
Arriving early at that door
gave me a chance to shake his hand
(just leaving from one more weekend).
Inside, despite refurbishing,
kitchen and rooms were as of old
with pink-flecked grey stone tiles,
postcard boxes, workspace, boxfiles,
a bedside lamp to distinguish me, wishing.
You kept blinds and windows open
to let fresh spring air circulate.
It held a hope of not being too late,
though doubtless the future would scold me –
coming and disturbing how things were before.
Like a convalescent from that well-known malady
I strolled around Salsomaggiore,
loitering carabinieri before me
and thoughts, a rare old gentleman or lady
out for their constitutional breaths
of fresh air by babylonian baths,
elegant bars, grey louvred shutters…
I was wondering what it might be most matters
and overtook a squabbling pair
with coiffured poodle in the town’s main square.
We crossed a bridge above the Taro’s bed.
Weathered statues on each parapet
were glimpsed and lost as the road’s unfolding let
grievances, then quieter things be said
of chances in lives too long postponed.
Unravelling examples, what we heard
(whimpers and yapping) was a pet’s hospital:
all around, sick animals groaned.
You had pointed out landslip and rockfall
while stepping across fresh furrows;
but an earthmover’s rusty yellows
came lurching behind to have the last word.
Then came the simple problem
of switches, someone’s name
gasped forgetting who I am,
shadow on a wall, a windscreen
wiper to put out of mind,
each unfamiliar obstacle
to overcome if we’re to find
the other in each other’s soul.
Yes, words are tender things.
To reach out of the solitudes
was hard, being ourselves,
but harder still to cry
from happiness, or laugh
convulsively at a relief
in being found again and try
again and try and try.
Escaping from the sleepless heat
of Via Sauro, late July,
I saw the tendons of bare knees
respond as you changed gear
and, glancing from the passenger seat
at one of those two candidates
for the Charterhouse of Parma,
guessed this had to be the route
taken those eight years before
back to Verona, distances
blurring in a sudden downpour,
windscreen wipers unable to cope
as, recalling insufficient fear,
I fled what seemed impossible;
we’d said goodbye, assuming a calm
like lovers driven away from their senses –
as I was again, into the storm.
Part-way across a reservoir lake
I’m tired; waves are stronger
suddenly, distances longer,
and empty since an earthquake
our house stands on the hill –
another predictable mistake,
its delapidated empty shell
like this future’s startled look.
As the chilly current hampers
my progress with its flow –
no turning back, there’s more
that way where Romans go
home towards tents or campers –
how you turn and reassure.
Strings of bulbs between each frontage,
white, with a fainter halo in the air,
meant more than Christmas angels
or the colourful tail of a falling star.
It was almost like driving with foglamps,
oncoming dangers made manifest
through greyness enshrouding roadsigns,
vehicles, branches in a lake of mist.
Frost glazed Via Sauro; late morning
fed illusions of lives without want;
as if the weather had a sense of humour,
like a disease, fog came and went.
Wind cutting at a stranger’s ankles
down this dark and cobbled street,
the start of someone coughing
echoes after sounds of feet.
I thought it would hold us together
renewing a married embrace?
But no, come between us,
the cold exacts its price.
You called me out at the sound of a band
and there they were: drum-majorettes,
musicians themselves and, a little behind,
a tractor was towing a white wedding cake
on a float with the carnival queen,
small children disguised as family pets
and a clown wore a black stain on his cheek
as if where a tear had been.
We had come through a difficult winter
with news of survivors in a shelled city;
dubious hopes and speechless forebodings
rose in the air at the thrown confetti.
This annual rite would invite us to enter
into the spirit of things.
For somebody come through a difficult winter
waiting for his tricky operation,
perhaps because a kindness is done
to homeless from the nearby civil war,
or an old man drops his money in the square,
sees it fluttering about him on a breeze,
passersby help him pick it up but what’s more
when he gets to the bank and counts it, it’s all there,
Parma, can’t your contradictions please?
‘Papà, cos’è “il futuro”?’
And here you are again
coming out of the tunnel, around a bend,
with sounded bell where beyond painted railings
parents from apparently settled lives
watch children on see-saws, on swings
drop in or out of shadow –
entirely absorbed by whatever they want,
their perpetual present, their now.
And here’s the toytown train
coming out of its tunnel, around a bend,
with you once more the engine driver
not noticing us, who’ve survived to wave
a final hello-goodbye at this end
of another diurnal routine –
set meals, siestas, alarms and excursions
on a line which can’t ever be quite the same.
Still, there’ll be days, with other people in them,
somebody else who can write their poem,
given, that is, a need or the time –
and here you are again.
MAKING SOMETHING OF LIFE
Peter Robinson discusses his poems with The Richmond Review‘s poetry editor Michael Bradshaw
Michael Bradshaw: ‘Dandelion Clocks’ gives a view of life and family arising from seeds
which ‘take their chances’. ‘The Explanation’ pictures resilient life in a
landscape of death. Would you say vulnerability and resilience often
combine in your poetry?
Peter Robinson: Yes, I would. Art gets made by life’s survivors. The others, I’m afraid,
can’t tell the tale.
MB: Several of these poems concern the experience of place. On visiting or
re-visiting a place charged with meaning, does one feel a need to
distance, balancing the impulse to read the traces of history and to recapture it?
PR: I don’t think it can be recaptured. So yes, I’m there reading the traces
and remembering or reinvoking the past (which I do think is different); I
have no sense that the past can be got back, like a prisoner that has
escaped. And yes, I distance things; there’s a need to distance
everything in poetry, so as to find the perspective from which it can appear close
MB: Can you say something about Bansui, and explain how Bansui works as a
model for your poem?
PR: Bansui Doi (1871-1952) is Sendai’s local modern poet. The house that was
built for him by the city after the 1945 fire bombing has been kept as a
little museum, and there is a large street named after him. In The
Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (2nd ed. 1998), his family name is given as
‘Tsuchii’, another pronunciation of the Chinese characters. This may be a
mistake; everyone calls him ‘Doi’ here. His most famous piece ‘Kojo no
Tsuki’, (‘Moon over the Ruined Castle’), is offered as the first
modern-era poem. It’s an ‘ubi sunt’ job, and I allude to it directly in the second
part of my sequence. So Bansui is not a model for the style, despite the
‘After…’ title, but he is one of the poem’s starting points.
I walk through the castle site, under the old walls, on my way to work
every day. The site of the Faculty of Arts and Letters is the place where
the US Army had its base during the occupation years. As I hope is fairly
obvious, the poem mixes in bits of local detail with fragments of history
that I happen to have picked up in my time here. There is a model for the
last part of the poem, though; Auden’s ‘Sonnets from China’ – where the
‘Nanking’ reference in the epigraph can also be found.
MB: You have ‘blossom / of late-flowered cherries / had stained the grey
pavement’ in that poem. Cherry blossom is a famously Japanese image and
aesthetic, but these lines suggest a modification of it. Has a reading
of Japanese poetry influenced your writing, providing something to depart
from as well as something to pursue?
PR: For me those lines, which get repeated, and other Japanese-poetry images
there are in invisible inverted commas. When I first came here I made a
point of trying not to write Japonisme poems – but inevitably I’ve been
affected by my surroundings, and despite not having an enthusiast’s
approach to Japanese culture I have found out some things about the
poetry and art, very much on a ‘by chance’ basis. Sendai is full of trees, and
the cherry blossom season here is spectacular. I grew up in the industrial
cities of the English North West, and so I have ‘grey pavement’ in my
bones. Japanese culture is very good at selecting out the beautiful
detail and effacing the messy surroundings. Having grown up with the culture of
expansive landscape painting, I can’t do that.
MB: Nanking was remembered recently on the occasion of the anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it was said that ‘assisted
forgetting’, the attempt to erase memories of atrocity, is a kind of
extension of the murders, or the last stage of murder. Do you see the
ruined landscape of ‘After Bansui’ as holding memory, or in danger of
becoming emptied of it?
PR: That poem was also inflected by a sense that the so-called ‘post-modern’
is not good at finding conceptual space for the burden of historical fact,
and in this it haplessly resembled the ‘assisted forgetting’ you mention.
Most of the time I do achieve the polite calm of the ‘honourable guest’ in my
relations with my colleagues here, but on one occasion recently I did
lose my temper in a conversation that had drifted unreflectingly into the
official apology issue. That morning I’d seen on the TV news some British
POWs in tears after the Tokyo court’s decision not to grant compensation
claims. The ruined landscape that my poem describes is a site of highly
selective memory; the lines attempt to inscribe one or two more memories
MB: If ‘After Bansui’ considers a historical landscape, in from ‘Via Saura
Variations’ the history is a personal one. Emotional memories and the
places which are their settings colour each other, and have a permanent
relationship. But in revisiting the scene, does one come closer to the
event, or rather have a sharper focus on the distance one has come from
PR: ‘Via Sauro Variations’ is a collage of short poems drafted, originally
for other abandoned poems or sequences, at intervals over about 12 years.
Some of them were written at the time, others more recently, and all of them
given a thorough revision about 18 months ago. I suppose what most
strikes me about revisiting places (and earlier poems) is the transforming nature
(hence ‘…Variations’) of subsequent events – the ways in which meanings
are temporal and contextual, so that they will veer away from their
original directions and reform in other patterns, this being something
that we only have a small amount of control over in our lives. Even if you
think you’ve got those meanings fixed by finishing and publishing a text, time
has some surprises in store for you, I’d be prepared to bet.
MB: ‘Il Trenino’ concludes the group of poems about finding the traces of the
past, but is more concerned with the present moment, and with how we make
the experience of the present for ourselves. If the past has to be
recaptured, often with great pain, does this poem suggest that the
present also must be ‘captured’, being an evanescent thing?
PR: I think that for me the poems are not attempts to catch a moment, whether
past or present, but to make something out of it, to elaborate it into
something that can carry meaning in different directions. The starting
point of that poem, aside from the obvious situation of my first daughter
on a fairground train, was an apparent conundrum about linear and diurnal
senses of time. I have nothing against the riot of photograph taking and
home video making that goes on now, but the idea that such images
‘capture’ a present moment strikes me as mistaken. They’re memento mori, all signs
of what is definitively lost – and full of sadness for that reason.
But, being made of language, a poem can only turn a lived moment into
something else, which may then be offered (or at least this is the idea) as a gift
to the future, which is why ‘Il Trenino’ ends ‘and here you are again.’
(This conversation between Michael Bradshaw and Peter Robinson was
conducted by e-mail between Tokyo and Sendai, Japan, in December 1998.)
Copyright © Peter Robinson 1998, 1999
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