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Review of Peter Robinson's Lost and Found - James Keery
MARRED IN A WAY YOU RECOGNIZETo the 'Lost and Found' page...
The heyday of the Cambridge School was in the mid-1970s, and Peter Robinson was in the thick of it. As co-editor of Perfect Bound, he featured most of the poets anthologised a decade later in A Various Art, and numerous other future Conference performers, including Michael Haslam, Thomas A. Clark and John Wilkinson. The first issue (1976) opens with 'The Land of St Martin', an enigmatic and beautiful sequence by J.H. Prynne, and carries his own enthusiastic pre-publication review of On the Periphery by Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who had died in 1975. Twenty years later, at mid-point in an intriguing career, Robinson is (in Wilkinson's maledictory understatement) 'a very different poet'. Wilkinson was alluding to a spat in the late 1970s, of which the published trace is Robinson's Many Press broadsheet, Going Out to Vote: 'My word, but you do go on.' Despite the one-way sign on the cover of Perfect Bound 1, Robinson came to resent the exclusiveness and 'antennae-of-the-race' presumption of his peers and in the 1980s became co-editor of a 'very different' Cambridge-centred magazine. Numbers insisted (justly) on its eclecticism but decidedly favoured the conservative Cambridge Wintersians (including Dick Davis, Robert Wells and co-editor Clive Wilmer) and Stanford formalists (including Edgar Bowers, Timothy Steele and Janet Lewis) over the poets of A Various Art. The distance between Robinson and (say) Wilkinson has steadily increased. It now seems reasonable to consider Robinson as the last scion of the Movement.
It's a progression fraught with ironies, reversing that of Prynne from the Movement formalism of Force of Circumstance (1962) and enacting the prophetic argument of Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973). Yet Robinson's recent defence of Davie against Anthony Easthope is also testimony to the integrity of his development, for Davie was one of the strongest influences on his early writing. Now, in his middle-40s, as an expatriate academic 'grown older, fonder' (the last phrase in Lost and Found), Robinson has produced a volume comparable with A Winter Talent.
Robinson's first collection, Overdrawn Account (1980), opens with an epigraph from The Shires, a coded question as to which precursor bears most strongly on the text, 'whose... chiselled cadence', Davie's or Fisher's? The resemblance to Fisher is often patent, for example in 'After the End' (Perfect Bound 3):
She winks to face dissolves,
The End and fade.
We go elsewhere.
At adamant distance
pasty coloured corridor,
then your face edge
'The Lists', in the privately printed pamphlet, A Part of Rosemary Laxton for his second collection, This Other Life (1988), is based on the simple criterion of resemblance to a Davie rather than to a Fisher poem. The drift towards stanzaic form and construable content is evident even in 'Overdrawn Account'.
However, one in particular of Fisher's poems has influenced him more deeply. According to Ian Gregson, 'Of the Empirical Self and For Me: For M.E.' 'ends with an analogue of the way we perceive reality... The blown fuses and intermittent light here suggest the limitations of our senses; the transformation of reality into "prints" suggests the distortions of representation...' This is finely said, and relevant to Robinson's analogues of the poem, but in eliding Fisher's companion and dedicatee, addressed in the poem as Mary, Gregson misses the ironic identity of 'Me' and 'M.E.'. The peculiar reciprocal solipsism of these 'two invisible ghosts' haunts Robinson's poetry: 'Ghosting faces / of a man, his wife / defined in the glass / watch each other / watching each other' ('The Benefit Forms'). Fisher's poem concludes with an epiphanic electrical storm:
bang out their own reality-prints
of the same white houses
staring an instant out of the dark.
These images recur in Robinson's writing: 'Far off lightning flashes came close, / flatly reprinted mountain peaks' ('A Summer Thunderstorm'). However, Fisher's poem is also an analogue of the trauma which continues to function as a template for Robinson's renderings of experience. The second section of This Other Life consists of a sequence of eight poems about the rape of the poet's fiancée, during an electrical storm, by a driver armed with an automatic weapon. Robinson was present throughout 'the unutterable humbling / my being there couldn't relieve'.
The poems are difficult to come to terms with. The last thing they are is exploitative, but they do seem to me to be too self-consciously composed, resulting in such laboured effects as the simile in 'There Again': 'the predictable returns of the windscreen-wipers / like mitigating circumstances'. Even that compassionate periphrasis troubles me. I find it very moving, but is the word 'humbling' not more appropriate to the man's ordeal than to the woman's? The strangest thing about the sequence is its explicit epistemology. The rapist is presented as a crude empiricist in 'a landscape... where no law was applicable / but his common sense's / wanting an object'. I take the point that such objectification is analogous to rape in its disregard for the otherness of the object (compare the 'desire' of the rapist in Larkin's 'Deceptions') but still question the emphasis and expression. In contrast, the experiences of the poet and his fiancée are at once electrified and attenuated into relativity: 'Because the first thing's to survive, / you said you'd bear the consequences, / whatever he demanded, giving me / occasion to revise or think again / how in that lay-by, and alive, / we viewed each other differently'. In the final poem, 'For Lavinia', the perspectivism of 'each turned phrase' is indeed unnerving:
When she re-entered - from mutilation, rape
- unspeaking in a painted Roman landscape,
I couldn't rid my own mind of those shapes...
for you had also stared and strayed and cried
without a sound, beside the wind through trees,
rain on the road; what could I say to ease
your unfathomable hurt, now each turned phrase
unnerves - as bad weather does dumb scars,
the shame she's not permitted to outlive?
It dries my tongue and lips till they can't move.
And what would I be trying to achieve?
Lavinia, I've said too much already.
Robinson has superimposed the Roman atrocities of Titus Andronicus onto his fiancée's 'unfathomable hurt': 'Enter the empress' sons, with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd.' Lavinia is literally 'not permitted to outlive' her 'shame', since she is killed by her father, Titus, for 'A reason mighty, strong, and effectual': 'Because the girl should not outlive her shame, / And by her presence still renew his sorrows.' Titus acts to 'ease' his own, not Lavinia's, anguish. I found this superimposition shocking, as much in its implications as in its impact. The third line implies a parallel between Robinson and Titus, hero and chief object of pity (including even for the mutilated Lavinia, who gives him a kiss 'as comfortless / as frozen water' after the subsequent execution of his sons). Although it is Lucius whose words are alluded to in line eight ('My scars can witness, dumb although they are'), line ten identifies the poet with Lavinia. Yet I can make no intelligible connection between Robinson's scrupulous poetry and Shakespeare's vicious farce. What is Robinson 'trying to achieve' by unleashing these violently unstable ironies, which ricochet back through the sequence? 'Vacant Possession', for example, is ostensibly about being 'locked out' and looking in, the pun on 'Soles' and the 'ghosted handprint' continuing the theme of solipsisme à deux. In context, however, its images of defilement inevitably evoke those of the play, in particular Titus's description of Lavinia, to her rapists, as 'the spring whom you have stained with mud':
Soles have muddied floorboards; faint
odours in unmoved air remain
and one barely visible, ghosted handprint
smears an unclean frosted glass pane.
'For Lavinia' might be interpreted as an attempt to acknowledge the callousness of the ways in which rape has been inscribed in such male texts. Unfortunately, Robinson appears to me to have compromised his right and need to deal with the rape from his own male point of view, implicitly asserted by means of an otherwise incongruous allusion to Milton's 'On His Blindness' ('They also serve who only stand and wait') in 'There Again': 'wanting an object, you would serve. / And wait was all I had to do'. They also suffer...
'Lost and Found finds more to life, with no loss of poignancy.'
For the trauma resonates throughout Robinson's poetry, to a degree I hadn't begun to realise. One of the first poems in Lost and Found, 'Leaving Sapporo', makes something otherwise inexplicably poignant out of a missed flight. The 'disaffected' speaker feels 'as if life itself had gone on standby / and there'd be no escape to make'; but the third stanza of amusing notation introduces a different register, as he considers the feelings of his Japanese colleague: 'when we met again / you'd be working on your sense of shame... you said you'd always hold yourself to blame':
Blame the unfinished expressway spur,
polythene flounces on its elevated sections,
the sculpture of its stanchions petrified from cloud;
or blame that Monday morning traffic
with queues as when a lorry's shed its load;
blame a continuous drizzling rain
which taunted squeaky windscreen wipers
down an approach road's outer lane;
blame the unforeseen through which we live,
this intimate running up against a sullen sky
and chance encounter with a city fringe's detail
- but yourself, forgive.
By the time this highly rhetorical sentence has reconstructed a mundane journey and constructed a city fringe in all its detail, there can be no doubt that the poet is addressing himself. In 'A Journey in Summer' (Lost and Found) occurs the reflection that 'even now when it rains a memory / of hurt will return as if we'd see / that what contentment time may offer / can't come of amnesia'; and 'it rains' in every other Robinson poem. The 'windscreen wipers' are an even clearer signal that 'the unforeseen through which we live' bears an allegorical as well as a general significance; as, in 'Leaving Parma' (This Other Life), it is their operation ('wiper-blades... overwhelmed / at each return of flooding rain') that transforms an erotic feeling of shelter from a storm into a waking nightmare as the poet relives 'the danger I'd been unprepared for / those ten years back'. The 'city fringe's detail' is equally evocative of the 'crash barriers', 'puddled verges', 'hard shoulder' and 'lay-by' of that 'chance encounter', still charged with a 'sense of shame'.
At this stage, Robinson is able, without strain, to imply a complex phenomenology of material contingency in images ranging from the insubstantial and evanescent ('polythene flounces') to the palpably permanent ('the sculpture of its stanchions'), with paradoxical combinations ('petrified from cloud') and oscillations between the 'continuous' and the 'unforeseen' mirrored in the patterned irregularity of metre and rhyme. As in the detail, so in the overall design. The poem makes its 'escape', at last absolving the poet of both ordeal and definition in a 'flight' of rhetoric. The experience of 'merely waiting' is both a re-enactment of the ordeal in 'that layby' ('wait was all I had to do') and another in a series of variations on Jarrell's elegant definition of 'life': 'The way we miss our lives / Is life'. Lost and Found finds more to life, with no loss of poignancy. In contrast, This Other Life offers a failed attempt to visit a friend in hospital; an interview 'out of season'; temporary employment; 'vistas of the not-to-be' and 'these daily postponements of a life' (pure Jarrell). An equally lengthy inventory could be compiled of the 'phantasmal presences' of 'clouds of my own making', 'mistiness seeping from the watermeadow', 'dazzling haze' and 'grasses / pollinating'. The effect is not so much cumulative as oppressive. The final section, described on the blurb as 'a chronicle of domestic love', consists rather of Larkinesque meditations on the 'half-focused / sunken, cowled visage / of death'. In 'A Holiday's End', death is compared to the 'last afternoon' of a pleasurable but aimless hiatus in which both the poet and his fiancée, 'fond... of a cemetery's preserve', 'have found / a latitude of thought' before her return to work at, of all places, a hospice. In the following fervently sardonic lines, each of a series of tropes of survival or immortality ('laurel', 'life-belts', 'marble') carries a lugubrious disclaimer:
Tended jam-jars bloom in the dust.
Wreaths whose laurels rotted and sank,
stay behind like skeletal life-belts.
Headstones have tumbled into disrepair.
Hisses of a grave-cleaner's jet
rebounding against stained marble,
its fine spray rising and dropping in plumes...
'Home Improvements' (in which the amorist contemplates 'the finite number of meals we'll eat' and awaits 'April / when blossom and the monies come') and 'For My Wife to Be' are reminiscent of nothing so much as Larkin's 'To My Wife' ('Choice of you shuts up that peacock-fan / The future was...'). The final poem, '23 January 1980', rewrites 'Aubade' with its 'fear / of not getting to sleep or ever waking'.
Entertaining Fates (1992), in many respects a transitional collection, begins with an invocation of symbolic 'whiteness' entitled 'Not Yet Out of the Wood':
She'll be thinning out her trees
- who watched me push a book
back on the bookshelf,
said she saw my life entire.
Because I like it here's
why I'll stay inside the whiteness
- displace myself by saying this
now - that I'll be here for ever,
no, what does survive of us
is things with their ambiguous,
or else a way of talking
others taught me, who
are buried under dirty snow.
The 'whiteness' is that of the pages of the book by which the poet both displaces himself and (at)tempts immortality, as contrasted with the 'dirty snow' of death, the snow that 'disfigured the public monuments' in Auden's elegy for Yeats, whose 'arrogantly pure' swan, emblem of immortality, appears in the final poem in the book. Yeats must 'find his happiness in another kind of wood', the sacred wood of poetic immortality (cf. Auden's defiant reopening of 'that caged rebuked question', 'our hunger / For eternal life', in 'A Healthy Spot'). As compared with 'Not a Thing to Write Home About' (A Part of Rosemary Laxton) - 'Now I stalk / the wall high book case / pulling out works / unwritten yet / and feel indisposed to write them' - the poet has attained a certain tentative complacency about his chances of surviving the inevitable 'thinning out'. 'She' is unidentifiable except as a Gravesian Muse, to whom the poet has dedicated his 'life entire'. The enigmatic refutation of Larkin's 'almostinstinct' makes a distinction between contingent phenomena and the perfected utterance of poetic art, leaving 'love' out of the reckoning. The poem ends on a note of embarrassed whimsy that alludes both to the ordeal by waiting and to the sacred 'wood' or Shakespearean 'forest' (of As You Like It but also of Titus Andronicus): 'is this / another part of the wood? / you may well ask... if this is the wrong forest, / do I wait or go?' As in the title, the implication is that the poet is still entangled in traumatic memories, but there is, nevertheless, an allegorical advance on the final section of This Other Life.
The trouble with Entertaining Fates is that, at this level, it goes no further. At worst, as in 'Confetti', an account of the 'incongruous' marriage of the poet's sister and best friend, it gets badly stuck. The anaesthetized prosody begins to grate. Andrew Shelley's strictures on This Other Life (PNR 64) apply with more justice to the later collection: 'The defect of (his) craftsmanlike and morally intelligent virtue is that it often degenerates into meretricious fiddliness, a kind of selfrighteousness of technique... The language calls attention to its own awkwardness... in a way which is not justified by any genuine recalcitrance in the material...' Examples are not hard to find:
Breezily we see them leave,
the right for each other, who'll do each other good,
though equally mistaken, over-hasty, you believe.
Which is more wretched, the clumsiness of 'the right for each other' or that dangling rhyme-phrase? 'Between Fortunes', with its epigraph from Fisher, its 'wind-swept windscreen' and its comparison of 'the headlamps of cars' to 'a mass of contusions / bleeding towards us', epitomises a stylistic impasse: 'somewhere the journey sours'. 'Nearer to the Absent' is a frank expression of bewilderment: 'I don't know what to make / of this, my own or any other's / life'; and there is a Larkinesque preoccupation with envy ('Everyone envies everyone else'), often in the context of the poetic career. 'A Critical Nightmare' fuses this theme with images of Lavinia, who haunts Entertaining Fates (its title a specimen of Robinson's scarifying irony). In 'Towards Levanto', 'involuntary memory' places the poet's 'inviolable, violated... not forgotten / married love' 'amongst charred stumps' of trees; in 'Imaginary Portrait', he recalls how, 'expecting to be strangled, / you too had let it happen... wanting too, to speak a little / let your violated body speak'; and in 'Trying the Patience', 'A violated woman meets my gaze: / moist lips, closed eyelids purple / with unspeakable rage and sorrow...' 'Leaving Sapporo' is, at this stage, precisely the poem that Robinson is unable to write: 'and yet... you know it isn't in me / to judge, forgive myself, still less forget' ('In Summer Wind'). 'Leaving Verona', in which he catches his plane but remains emotionally grounded ('Turn back, turn back, I've left something behind') may be described as an abortive attempt. The finest poem in the book, 'Above the Weather', is an allegory of climbing a mountain above the mist and rain: 'Could I as simply leave behind / the turmoil of a damaged love...?' Part of its beauty is that it fails to bear the weight of experience, implying a gentle but definite negative answer.
'Robinson can be as recklessly revealing as Lowell;
and at times as blind to his own revelations.'
A troubling aspect of Robinson's art is manifested in 'Persistent Luck', another premature attempt at resolution in which, 'when set to work becoming art', 'our wrongs' have grown 'composed at one remove' and thus 'saved me from myself'. The poem concludes with an over-artful apostrophe: 'Love, / Perhaps now you've done enough'. The aestheticism derives from Davie's 'July, 1964', in which '[b]y the end of the third stanza', the 'smell' of 'death' has become a 'problem of style'; and recalls his tribute to Tomlinson: 'I would not take away / From your peculiar mastery, if I say / A sort of coldness is the core of it, / A sort of cruelty' ('To a Brother in the Mystery'). This vein of Davie's thought owes much to Adrian Stokes, whose poetry has been appreciatively edited by Robinson. 'A sort of cruelty' does seem apt to 'In My Father's House' (This Other Life):
By the vicarage fireside, you were trying
- mother, as I read the paper -
to anticipate fears
of homelessness and widowhood...
Childless, as if you were once more,
days extending before you
waste the past years
of bearing and rearing us,
parish work you've been subdued to:
effortful the while to be
against your temperament and moods.
Long after, the palsy that had frozen
half your face
petrifies again the twisted look;
and informed by an eye that cannot blink
or shut, I'm not sure
if it slurs your words as a mute rebuke...
Another talisman for Robinson is Lowell's 'For Sale': 'Ready, afraid / of living alone till eighty, / Mother mooned in a window...' As with Davie, Fisher and Larkin, however, the influence of Lowell transcends recurrent images. Robinson can be as recklessly revealing as Lowell; and at times as blind to his own revelations. The more I read 'In My Father's House', the less filial it appears. There is a desolating coldness about the studied depiction of the central figure as at once a petrified Niobe and a Gorgon. 'Childless' is so strongly declarative that the hypothetical 'as if' struggles to signify, and the implications are of 'mute', stony unresponsiveness rather than of grief or loneliness. Unblinking eyes, symptom of Bell's palsy, are also a classical trope of cruelty; and the 'twisted look' combines with the cross-grained 'temperament' to charge that 'mute rebuke' with the power to freeze. The figure is metonymically 'of a piece' with the closing image of a 'squat church tower', bleak emblem of 'emptiness'. There is no mention of the father or God to which the title alludes, with a cutting invocation of plenitude (as well as a bitter reference to constantly changing 'tied accommodation'). Has even Larkin achieved such an effect of composed yet deeply felt familial coldness, or such a nullifying audacity as 'days extending before you / waste the past years'?
Again, however, as befitting its title, Lost and Found effects a startling resolution. The final lyric of the climactic sequence, 'A Burning Head', offers a Lowellian translation of 'In My Father's House':
Bell's palsy twice froze half your smile.
My right eye will not blink or close.
But it's no tragedy if a son grows
to look like his mother, said Oscar Wilde.
Mum, you look to me with fond eyes,
relieved a curious fate has spared
your first-born, though faintly marred,
and marred in a way you recognize.
In the single word, 'marred', Robinson's obsessions are crystallized. Afflicted eyes have a special horror and poignancy for his imagination ('death will have your eyes... perhaps before their body dies'), and that he should have suffered a brain tumour with those particular permanent after-effects is a moving and extraordinary fact. It gives the allusion to Milton's 'On His Blindness' an extra dimension; though the specific source for his association of the word 'marred' with 'eyes' and with feelings of shame may be Herbert's 'Love': 'Who made the eyes but I // Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve'. The word also evokes the original trauma, the eventual failure of his marriage, and the way we mar our lives, together with those of our nearest and dearest: 'marred, here's married love, / irretrievably broken' ('A Warm Spell', Entertaining Fates). Even in a context in which 'rapes' is rhymed with 'traipse' ('Making the distance with coffee cups, I traipse / After hiss of sap and smoke that goes / Rising above her spinney now breeze blows: / Yesterdays marred by quarrelling or rapes'), the word has an incongruous authenticity. For Robinson, there would seem to be nothing fortuitous about the nearidentity of 'marred' and 'married', and there is a suggestion that the connexion holds good for his mother; that she recognizes not only her own symptoms but also her own 'married love'. The distillation of intimacy from the images of alienation shows Robinson's 'self-righteousness of technique' at its subtlest.
'Lost and Found is his best collection, by a long chalk'
Lost and Found is at pains to repudiate the image-complex activated by 'marred'. 'Clearing the Wood', a sonnet antiphonal to 'For Lavinia', closes with clumsily explicit disavowal: 'Never again these intertwining branches'. Yet Robinson's second attempt to clear the wood results in perhaps his most beautiful poem:
Seven pheasants adventured this far
into your city, along its river fringes
(despite threats from the hunter's gun),
are sign enough of life for me.
Strollers paused above a parapet see
their proud green necks held straight.
Eyes have bluish, white and red patches.
They stoop between grassblades to eat.
These ones beside the wall's foot run
at first hints of a danger we must be -
not meaning any harm, allowed the time -
late morning in our hiatus holiday.
We've been needing some heartfelt changes,
things accepted for what they are.
Take courage: along the river fringes
seven pheasants had ventured this far.
The familiar trope of 'the way we miss our lives', 'our hiatus holiday', is redeemed in images that recall The Tempest. The tone and weight of 'fringes', the sense of distance and of a risky or tentative encounter ('adventured' as against 'had ventured') and the image of beautiful eyes (unafflicted, though, poignantly, the colours of contusion) are all paralleled in Prospero's instruction to Miranda: 'The fringed curtain of thine eyes advance, / And say what thou seest yond'. In the face of all that is symbolized by 'the hunter's gun', there is a defiant sense of reconciliation, if not of Miranda's 'brave new world'. In 'Leaving Sapporo', almost the same word finds itself squeezed between two sharper words - 'city fringe's details' - so that 'forgive' sounds as much the squeezed husk of 'fringe's' as a rhyme for 'live', an elegant mimesis of hard-won self-forgiveness at the end of a sentence as long as the psychic process. Having worked on his sense of shame for twenty years, he is now able at least to contemplate self-forgiveness, expressed again in the lovely paradoxical phrases of 'Seven Pheasants': 'heartfelt changes, / things accepted for what they are'.
Robinson is as ambitious, as competitive, as much a prey to the anxiety of influence as any of his contemporaries; perhaps more than most. The image of a long-distance runner, temporarily 'winded', but out of sight of any rival is only one meaning of his elegy for Davie (PNR 122):
...I'm tired after work and winded
by the sudden death of someone
I hoped to impress or improve on,
who helped me, and I had let down.
'The Late' (denoting the Bloomian latecomer-poet as well as the deceased) implies dissatisfaction with his current status ('"So what did you expect?" he said, / " Flowers all the way?"') and ends, like many a Robinson poem, in solipsistic self-communings: 'Nobody's under the hill tonight: / You're really on your own.' The 'car headlight' that picks him out then leaves him 'in the deeper dark' is charged with traumatic experience, yet the careerist in Robinson is allowed to speak unguardedly. He may be reassured that Lost and Found is his best collection, by a long chalk, and that it rekindles interest in his previous work.
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