Tremors across time: A conversation.
By PETER ROBINSON and TIM DOOLEY.
Published with Poetry Portfolios.
Peter Robinson and Tim Dooley conducted this ‘conversation’ by email over a period of four months (September-December 2018). Poems by each are linked in the captions under the illustrations. — Ed.
Tim Dooley: MANY OF THE poems in your new collection Ravishing Europa (Worple Press, 2019) were prompted by the fallout from the 2016 referendum on EU membership; we’re both of an age to remember well the UK’s accession to the European Community in 1973 and the referendum to confirm membership in 1975. In fact, it was around the time of that first referendum that we became aware of each other’s work. Your early poems often had a political edge, but one that was focused on domestic issues (economic stagnation, unemployment) and went along with an eye for social detail, which aestheticized urban scenes. I’m thinking of a passage like this from section 10 of your early pamphlet, The Benefit Forms:
There’s a salmoning cloud
in blue that deepens.
We turn at the corner.
Wind comes funnelling down
through the flat blocks.’
And of course the word ‘domestic’ can be applied in a different way to the poems of private life in A Part of Rosemary Laxton (1979) that I think of as ‘interiors’ both for their painterly attention to the contents of rooms and for their focus on the inner lives of a couple learning to live together. Reading Ravishing Europa (2019), I’m struck again by that double-ness in your writing: looking out to wider social developments and looking in to the world of intimacy. Is that something you’re conscious of?
Peter Robinson: THE DOUBLE-NESS YOU mention was there in the occasions: for ‘The Benefit Forms’ they took me off the dole by giving me a job writing cheques for the DHSS, and I worked on the poems to try and get that sharp change of perspective into focus. Then there’s that unspeakable crime hanging over those domestic interiors, which is another unarticulated public and private intersection, one I was only able to approach some years later in the second section of This Other Life (1988) and, eventually, when fictionalised, in September in the Rain (2016).
I was indeed only too conscious of the double-ness you’re noticing in the title poem from the new book, written in May 2016. It came out of the word ‘bullshit’ which I’m likely to have shouted at the television during one of the debates in the lead-up to the Brexit vote. There’s inspiration for you! The whole poem comes out of the mental leaps from ‘bullshit’ and ‘Europe’ to, for example, Titian’s painting of The Rape of Europa and then back to my old theme from 1975—which happened just a few months after we were first in contact—the year of the earlier referendum and the sexual violence witnessed in Italy that same year. It was back on my mind because I was correcting proofs for September in the Rain, which came out just a few months after the referendum.
But I suppose you could say that this is only an extreme case—because of the question about violence and love that it raised—of a common mental process for me, for better or worse, in which I’m likely to take public events personally and see personal things as examples of public or historical processes. I suppose my question would be the extent to which this is not what many of us do? Even poets who, then, for their own political reasons, attempt to efface traces of their subjectivity. One of the things I like about your ‘Interrupted Dream’ poems, which I was reading at about the time of writing those interiors and drafting some of the earliest passages for what would eventually become September in the Rain, is the ability of the voicing to shift rapidly between those same two spheres—in ‘Above Genoa’ for instance …
TD: Thank you, Peter. ‘The Interrupted Dream’ was a sequence of twenty-four poems each composed of twenty-four longish lines that I worked on from the mid-’seventies to 1982 and which became the central section of my first book (The Interrupted Dream, Anvil, 1985). It was a deliberately arbitrary structure, which I used to catch some of the rapidity of thought and feeling I experienced in moments of anxiety or excitement (or that’s how it seems to me now; it was less programmatic at the time).
‘Above Genoa’ was one of three poems set in Liguria inspired by visits to a charismatic friend—memorialised in ‘Meeting i’, from Weemoed (Eyewear, 2017), my most recent book—who was teaching English there. It’s easy to forget how exotic continental Europe could seem in the ’seventies. Not only do we travel more now but a whole range of foods that were once only experienced abroad are commonplace here. It was on one of those visits to Genoa, for example, that I first tasted pesto (now a stock-cupboard staple).
Politically it was the period of Eurocommunism; the PCI were in power locally and there was optimism that ‘socialism with a human face’ (as with Dubcek or Allende) could be a way out of cold war division and nuclear standoff. By the start of the ‘eighties that idea was fading and we had instead the ramping up of the nuclear threat with the neutron bomb. These concerns can be glimpsed from time to time in ‘The Interrupted Dream’ along with the enthusiasms and fears of young people trying to make their way in the world and make sense of it. Of course you reused a phrase from ‘Above Genoa’ for a poem of your own written at the time of the Falklands conflict.
PR: I wonder quite how that came about. My poem, ‘News Abroad’, was first drafted in Verona in January 1983, when I was visiting a language teacher friend of my own, Marcus Perryman (we were working on translations of Franco Fortini and Vittorio Sereni in preparation for the Cambridge Poetry Festival of that year). The prompt for the shape of that one comes from Fortini’s ‘Traducendo [Translating] Brecht’, a poem that as good as reiterates Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ slogan. The last line and a bit read: ‘Poetry / changes nothing. Nothing’s for certain, but write.’ Still, I can’t see how I could have written mine, or called it that, if not for remembering (and I didn’t have your poem with me then in Italy), ‘I am happy / where the horizon is indistinct and news in / another language.’
‘Above Genoa’, as these lines suggest, expresses for me the special pleasure that could be had, back then, in managing to get to Europe at all, to be ‘abroad’, and see the possibility of doing things differently, like that ‘socialist bus’ in your second stanza. I must have thought about citing the phrase as an epigraph, but I didn’t, partly because my poem (prompted by finding out about the Falklands crisis on the seafront at La Spezia) finds me not happy, unable to be sure what the news is (in Italy those islands are called the Malvinas), and it was things being indistinct but definitely facts (not ‘fake news’) that produced my ending: ‘and the skyline still there yet we couldn’t make it out— / News staying news though I don’t understand.’
When I first read ‘Above Genoa’, by way of poems set in Europe, I will have only managed to write that little triptych from Holland (‘Ear to the Night’, ‘Finding the Range’ and ‘Autobiography’, done in 1976-77). It seemed all but impossible to write about something so different, unknown, and, in a sense, unknowable. I was already thoroughly against the Little Englander attitude that produced such comments as ‘nobody wants any more poems about … foreign cities’, but had barely any access at all to that tangled matter of Italy inside me from 1975. Your seemingly happy poem (though I note the edgy enjambment of ‘news in / another language’) will have registered as a challenge. I dedicated ‘News Abroad’ to you to acknowledge the debt, even while anxious I was shadowing your poem with unhappiness of various kinds by way of that allusion.
TD: In Ravishing Europa, you make use of Theresa May’s (to me and, I think, to you) shocking statement: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’. It’s hardly uncommon in the contemporary world for people to have connections to more than one country. Your wife is Italian and you spent many years working in Japan. Your children grew up with access to three languages. My immediate family came to England from Ireland (via Wales) and my father-in-law was an Armenian, born in Baghdad, who grew up in Calcutta. In ‘His Best Piece of Poetrie’, a poem celebrating the birth of my eldest son, I brought this inheritance into one line: ‘Tigris and Suir, Tawe and the Manchester Ship Canal’. The child in that poem, now in his late thirties, has a partner who was born in the DDR. Their children’s names, Liam and Josef, ought to be unexceptional in the post-national world we thought we were moving into.
Going back to ‘News Abroad’, however, I think it’s interesting that in the early 1980s we both wrote poems that registered the presence of the Falklands dispute and both touched on the riots in English cities in the period (for you Toxteth and for me Tottenham). How would you define the way you use topical events in your poetry and does that have any relationship to this phenomenon of living between nationalities?
PR: There’s that other ‘News Abroad’ poem in This Other Life—the one called ‘A Summer Thunderstorm’ that I haven’t reprinted since it appeared in magazines and the 1988 collection. It was experienced in a house on Lake Garda in Italy, while shocked by what I’d discovered was happening in Liverpool at that very same moment; but it was composed only some months later in Aberystwyth, where I was then working: so a triangulation, perhaps, of three perspectives. It’s only rarely, though, that big topical events get into my poems—like trying to find out about our wars in the Gulf when living in Japan, from a very different time zone, or Tiananmen Square encountered in the streets of Tokyo.
My elder daughter is now, for romantic reasons, settled in Switzerland, and recently she referred to England in my hearing as ‘one of my countries’. Both of our daughters hold passports for the EU state of Italy, and our perhaps soon-to-be not EU state; and we’re conscious that the older generation needs to catch up on them in this respect. It’s as if we have brought our children up to be polytheistic when it comes to nations——and they have also inherited Protestant and Catholic cultures in equally lapsed forms. Some of the world’s most pressing conflicts could be eased if the capacity to have and hold, and respect as valid, naturally multiple identities were made the basis of polities and geo-polities. Our current prime minister was attempting to give a warning to tax dodging global financial players that one of the old nation states was after them—but she or her speechwriter, or both, used a far too broad brush and swept up into that false definition all sorts of people. It haplessly included those who have felt obliged to live in other countries because they couldn’t find suitably supportive work in their own—which is the principal reason I ended up as an economic migrant in Japan for so many years. A similarly inept ‘broad brush’ helped create the ‘hostile environment’ and the shameful treatment of our fellow citizens from the Windrush generation. If only politicians, our current ones especially, were as careful with their words as at least some poets try to be.
But the vast majority of what fills up the news cycle doesn’t register, at least directly, on my poetry; but I think you’re right to suspect that distance and cultural disjunction is an important element in what or when things register and need addressing somehow. How would you see that early engagement with politics, British or European, evolving into your more recent collections, Keeping Time (Salt, 2008) and Weemoed (Eyewear, 2017) ?
TD: What seems interesting to me here, and interesting in the way public events are approached in your poems too, is that for the most part the political hasn’t been particularly explored to make a point, even less to make something happen. It’s completely interwoven with personal (even intimate) experience in poems like ‘Working from Home’ and ‘In the Palm of my Hand’. Poets are citizens as much as they are parents or lovers and can’t help writing with a citizen’s concerns.
That said, the poems that open Keeping Time are very clearly a response to what is now a specific moment in history. The September 11 attacks, the beginning of the Gulf War, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib appear in the poems with a sense of immediate shock. I’ve also addressed some issues more directly as part of specific projects such as Catechism (English PEN, 2013), the anthology in support of Pussy Riot, and Wretched Strangers (Boiler House, 2018), an anthology supporting and celebrating migration to which you’ve also contributed. There are two poems towards the end of Weemoed that register the Brexit result: one a rather broad satire of exclusionism that also drags in the Trump campaign, the other a rather abstract imagistic elegy. So I’m still playing with different ways of registering the tremors from the public world within the private voice.
PR: Some of the more memorable things people have said about my poetry involve the idea of seismographs and barometers. It’s as if I’m measuring the levels of stresses between felt ideas, or taking the pressure of cultural atmospheres. Being moved by your own country’s conflicts—within itself or in relation to others—while in a different polity gives peculiarly direct access to such temperatures rising, or tectonic plates moving, and I’ve attempted to compose them without effacing the fissures in the aesthetic finish. The distance between the two locations of such poems occasions similarities and differences, and this is perhaps clearest in the latest of these poems, ‘Balkan Trilogy’ from the new book, prompted because, as chance would have it, I happened to be in Montenegro when the ‘Brexit’ Referendum happened. We had flown to Dubrovnik, crossed from Croatia into Bosnia, then into Montenegro, then back into Croatia to return home. That meant going out of and back into the EU, with border checkpoints and queues—I’ve written a prose piece called ‘Balkan Diary’ about the experience. The tacit fear ‘Balkan Trilogy’ shadows is that we could be doing just such border crossing at Berwick on Tweed. It hadn’t at that point quite dawned on me just how much of a difficulty, in precisely this sense, the Irish Border would present to those attempting to negotiate our exit, but there are tho poems about that in Ravishing Europa. Your poem called ‘The Border’, collected in Keeping Time, encounters the conflicted feelings checkpoints start, yet seems to me from a happier time than the present one?
TD: ‘The Border’, which was written in the mid-1990s, is addressed to my younger son. The setting of the poem is the border between the Czech Republic and Poland at a time when each of those countries was evolving from a local brand of state socialism (and Soviet hegemony) to becoming western-style democracies within the EU and NATO. It was one of several holidays we took in the region during the period following the Velvet revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. That summer was also the summer that my son was moving between primary and secondary school. So the larger theme of the poem becomes a transition between states. Change is considered to be positive offering the possibility of ‘unmaking’ the ‘relic(s) of the recent past’.
An international or transnational perspective doesn’t only come from travel. I’ve lived and taught for almost of my adult life in one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse boroughs in the UK (the most diverse in the 2011 census and the one where the highest proportion of residents defined themselves as ‘British’). You learn a lot from the people you teach. ‘Working from Home’ (another poem from the 1990s), for example, draws on stories told to me by a brother and sister I taught in an English GCSE class, who had come as refugees from Iran. By way of contrast, ‘Afterwards’ tells of an encounter with a former student (one I’d known as a rather lost, but friendly and voluble thirteen-year-old) who in the intervening years had joined the services and taken part in the first Gulf War.
In ‘The Interrupted Dream’, I often—as you’ve said—used sudden transitions to shift between spheres, whereas in the poems I was writing in the Nineties my technique was often to create distance or estrangement through fictional strategies. There was a ‘full supporting cast’ of substitute narrators (O’Driscoll, Lucille, Stanley, Eva and the even shadier ‘he’ or ‘she’), which I used to bring together different levels of experience. ‘Afterwards’, though it derives from my experience, is voiced by a female narrator, and ‘Working from Home’, though it includes a range of topical anxieties, is structured as a domestic love poem.
I’d be interested in what you have to say about the strategies of organisation you’ve needed to employ to include such material in your poems.
PR: I didn’t in the least plan a rebuttal of the opening direct speech (‘I don’t owe this country a thing’) which is inserted, novelist fashion, in the speech indicator, so that in the next lines ‘A cough, the Pennines’ have ‘thickened’ his speech, contradicting his ideas about being not in debt to a place (‘England owes me nothing’), or the place to him.
Two quite different views of the matter are jammed together without overt comment in the opening lines.
Or take that early interior poem called ‘The Lists’ which adapts a two-column style, one I found in Roy Fisher and Gael Turnbull poems from the 1960s, to domestic quarrelling, where at the end it goes across its two columns: ‘Still you refuse to / allow me / the last word’ and the attempt was to make the ‘allow me’ sound like it was said by the other person, and certainly to express an acute tension between the two speakers, which is just about accommodated, hardly resolved, within the strained form of the poem. Those were very early, modernist-inspired, attempts to articulate differences, multi-voicing, and stressed positions into what appear, on the face of it, single-voiced lyrics.
Though in later work I abandoned forms that would draw attention to such overt conflict in the layout of the poem, all the poetry, I would say, has continued to be driven by the occasions of conflicted views, ideas, contradictions, and such – and to be pushed to embody them in forms that don’t efface, and yet don’t succumb. It’s there in ‘News Abroad’, and, more recently, in ‘The Prospects’ from Ravishing Europa, where the people talking about the Brexit situation in late 2016 encounter an Amazon-like Caribbean woman approaching them, and are also put on the spot by being ambiguously asked a question in a café. The entire poem could not have come about if it hadn’t been for the extreme differences of opinion, and angry name-calling (‘remainiacs’) that provides the context and occasion for that poem—as well as the ironies of ‘Brexodus’ in which if you wanted to ‘remain’ you’d feel obliged to ‘leave’ and if you wanted to ‘leave’ you’ll ‘remain’. It was just such tensions and stresses in those two words that more or less compelled me to write the poem that could depend from the phrase used by the Home Office with regard to migrants and Windrush victims of the hostile environment: ‘leave to remain’. So the ‘stresses’ and the ‘pressures’ can be interpretively located even in the minutiae of our hapless usages.
You’ll have noticed, too, that I’m reluctant, on the whole, to use hard or heavy caesuras (‘The Explanation’ is a rare exception). If I put a full-stop half way along a line, I’m inclined to vary the metrical structure and break the phrase by moving down to the next line, or if I keep a half-line, then to step down and have the other half line indented to that point on the level below. I don’t know exactly why this is, or where exactly the reluctance comes from, but it has got more pressing as the years have gone by. Perhaps it is connected with keeping up the rhythmic pressure and stress within the line, to allow no more than a comma pause in the impetus, and thus to focus tensions and potential breaks at line and stanza ends. In any case, as a result, I’m very struck, and moved—almost enviously so—by the ways in which you can accommodate sentence ends within lines and deploy more low-key line endings, as for example in ‘The Milky Way’, a poem I’ve always very much admired, which we published in Numbers, if I recall, and one that contains your O’Driscoll character visiting Holland. So how exactly do you do that? How did you find the alternating long and short lines for that invented stanza?
TD: The relationship between the sentence and the line has been a recurring point of interest for me. Coincidentally, it was the topic of a writing class I taught this week. I see the two working as a form of counterpoint. The caesura created by the sentence break can shift its position along the line and contrast with an enjambment’s micro-pause. Making use of contrasting sentence types (for example following a complex compound sentence with a minor sentence) is also part of the process of varying pace and creating a sense of surprise and uncertainty. It’s a tendency that I became aware of in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s ‘conversation poems’, and pointedly in many poems by Edward Thomas.
I first thought of the alternating short and long lines in the 1980s, while reading a Victorian translation of Horace that used elegiac metre, alternating hexameter and pentameter lines. I then became besotted with James Schuyler’s work, particularly ‘The Morning of the Poem’ and thought that form might offer a new way of setting up the almost random inclusiveness that I had in the ‘Interrupted Dream’ poems. C. K. Williams’s poems were also becoming known at the time and his very long lines that loped round the page had a similar effect. I felt gratified later when I read an interview with Williams where he said, in relation to adopting the long line: ‘I wanted to be able to write something that was closer to the way that I felt my consciousness actually worked, without leaving out so much’. That pretty much expressed my position.
Anyway, it became the form I’d turn to for a longer, more discursive poem that could travel between different areas of concern. I used it from ‘The Forbidding Spring’ in the Eighties to ‘In the Palm of my Hand’, which was written following the July 7th attacks in London in 2005. There’s a move away from that in the poems in Weemoed, which I think are more varied in organization. In your last-but-one collection, For the Small Mercies, there are a number of discursive poems organized in groups of quatrains. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Der Philosophenweg’ (where we’re back in Europe). It seems a more ordered way of moving between themes, signposted as they are with ‘No …’, ‘Then …’, ‘and …’, ‘But …’. Was that a conscious decision?
PR: The first of those I managed to write is called ‘Gasometers’ and it’s in The Returning Sky (2012). There are a number of others there, and then a couple in Buried Music (2015), one called ‘From Amsterdam’ that has its verses rhymed throughout as well as the paired quatrains separated with asterisks. Besides ‘Der Philosophenweg’ in For the Small Mercies, there’s also ‘Bristol Voluntaries’, a commissioned poem. I’ve also attempted to do the same kind of thing with paired tercets. Ravishing Europa has ‘On a Walk to Sonning’ (the poem which takes Theresa May’s notorious remark as its epigraph) in that form, and ‘Plaza de las Monjas’ in quatrains. I didn’t consciously set out to write the first of these (‘Gasometers’) in that disjointedly conjoined style, and in fact the manuscripts show that it was in eight-line stanzas until quite near the end: the jumps there are between different eras, moments in my own life, and dream and waking. The decision to use asterisks to separate out paired quatrains somehow resolved a conflict in my thinking about combining the need to narrate complex things—yet only by concentrating on the moments of perception, images, epiphanies, or whatever, that came by way of impulses for the poem. The use of asterisks like that is adapted from poems by Bill Manhire (I was very struck with how he uses the device to write a poem about long-distance air travel in ‘Breakfast’), and he may well have adapted his usage of them from Robert Creeley sequences. Then, of course, Roy Fisher does something of this sort in his ‘Seven Attempted Moves’, a poem from the 1960s that went in very deep very early.
Perhaps ‘discursive’ is the right way to think about them, but I’ve tended to imagine I’m combining lyrical moments of perception with elements of narrative, though this story-telling is crossed with what might be embedded argument—at least signalled in the sorts of conjunction and exclamation that you indicate. When I once gave a talk about writing ‘From Amsterdam’ in Bristol, a member of the audience suggested that separating the parts into those eight-line groups served the purpose of focusing attention on the formal structure of each element, encouraging the finessing of rhythmic pausing and moving on. This mode has been able to catch a lot of conflicted things into what you called their ‘ordered way of moving between themes’. They have helped me escape from the compulsion to have the lyric poem located in a single place, for instance, and while a sequence of poems can shift locations between its parts, I have tended to want each one to be a singularly positioned occasion of its own. But with this style I could cut from one moment in time and place to a different one: ‘Bristol Voluntaries’ is intensively collaged in this way, and ‘From Amsterdam’ moves quite freely about the city with the aim of catching up its various topics into a single poetic experience. So it has helped me with condensing and sharpening too.
‘Die Philosophenweg’ unwittingly foreshadows quite a lot of what falls out in Ravishing Europa, being inspired by a brief trip to Heidelberg on the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme, where I offered a lecture on Edward Lear, assisted in a seminar on contemporary British poetry, and gave a poetry reading. Some years after writing it, I came across an Italian lyric by Alfonso Gatto with the same name, and inspired by the same place where the likes of Hölderlin and Eichendorf used to walk among the vine rows above the town. I made a translation of it (unpublished as of yet). But inevitably when in continental Europe I’m reminded of how poor my knowledge of languages is—and yet since late teenage, when an undergraduate, I’ve felt compelled to read as best I can, and sometimes struggle to translate, poetry from various of the European languages. I don’t think my work would have come out like it has had it not been for innumerable European poets, of whom Reverdy, Sereni, Fortini, Bachmann and Erba would be among the more prominent examples. Although you haven’t published many translations (there are those versions out of Philippe Jaccottet’s ‘Parler’ from A la lumière d’hiver and his ‘Le travail du poète’ in your books), did his example contribute to the forms of ‘At the Coast’ in Weemoed?
TD: There may be a link, but not quite in that direction. I came across Jaccottet’s work in the ’seventies, at about the same time that I became interested in W. S. Graham, and in my version of ‘Parler’, I was more interested in the poem’s interrogation of language than in its particular focus (language’s inadequacy in the face of loss). My main interaction with poems from other languages in the meantime has been freer, using the original often as a starting point for a poem of my own either in tribute to, or in conversation with, the primary work. So the sonnets ‘The Folding Star’ and ‘The Cavalcantine Lure’, which derive from very famous European poems (Horace’s Ode I, ix and Cavalcanti’s Sonnet xviii), start as loose translations and move into other territory as they develop (the first referencing Tacita Dean’s film of Michael Hamburger, the second Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’). In Weemoed, ‘Swan Song’ is a little more closely anchored to Mallarmé’s ‘Plusieurs Sonnets’, but its images are frequently re-ordered and a reading of the original implied which may be my invention.
It was when I had completed the longer poems in Weemoed in 2014 that I returned to Jaccottet and made a full translation of A la lumière d’hiver (with its accompanying works Leçons and Chants d’en bas). There’s an elegiac mood in much of Weemoed and I was in a better position to empathize with Jaccottet’s ‘livres de deuil’ than I had been in my mid-twenties. My concern this time was to be as faithful as possible to their sense while creating a tone that felt natural in English. A publisher has expressed an interest in the versions and there’s a vague possibility they may come out as a book in a year or two.
Several of the poems in Weemoed reflected the passage of time and the losses that come with it. I think there’s a similar concern in some of the poems I enjoy most in Ravishing Europa. I’m thinking of ‘Bloomsbury Way’, where you’re with your daughter in Marchmont Street. How aware of this are you in recent work? Or am I right in suspecting the concern has been with you for some time?
PR: Good to hear there’s more Jaccottet in prospect, and that you like ‘Bloomsbury Way’, prompted by my early morning reading habits. I was working through Richard Zenith’s bilingual volume of Carlos Drummond de Andrade and came across his ‘Coração numeroso’ (Multitudinous Heart), which ends, in his translation, ‘the city is me / I am the city / my love.’ What started ‘Bloomsbury Way’—not a free translation like those ones of yours you mention, but a poem set going by an adaptive response to another’s—was the intuition that if the pronoun were ‘you’ instead of ‘me’, then the ‘love’ could simultaneously be a vocative and the object, which would then give an unusually slowed inflection to the final two words. That’s how I got ‘where the city is you, / you’re the city, / you, love.’ This poem was, then, in effect written backwards, the ‘city’ theme being spun as you say from meetings with my younger daughter, Giulia, the dedicatee and addressee, who had begun studying geography at the LSE, and did canvas for ‘remain’ outside the Russell Square Tube Station. Yes, it does include the passage of time and loss, because the opening verse takes us back to the year we were first in contact, the year I was working at ‘that old mind hospital’ in ‘Queen Square’—and everything that followed from it.
The crisis our country is still in as we speak, the withdrawal agreement from the EU not likely to be got ‘over the line’, never mind the treaties that are to establish our future relationship with continental Europe, brought back, as we’ve already touched on, a lifetime of personal and public vicissitudes, and the poems in Ravishing Europa came relatively quickly under the pressure of public events as felt on my barometric pulses. In that sense, though an ‘unexpected development’, as the blurb puts it, the book is a development of materials that had emerged earlier—and in this I could link ‘Bloomsbury Way’ to ‘Coincidences’, the other poem of mine dedicated and addressed to you, and your wife Jo, the one set not far from my later poem, but underground between Kings Cross and Baker Street. There’s also a touch of lifetime retrospect in that piece when it recalls how ‘we’d waited for cadences slowly to form; / had conjured from nowhere the ghost interlocutors, / characters, their lives coinciding / a moment to gather discrete turns of phrase’—and concludes by going back to ‘Against the Great’, that early poem of yours in which you turn Yeats’s line from ‘No Second Troy’ (‘Or hurled the little streets upon the great’) upon itself, and which I borrowed to evoke the vastness of London through which we were both moving in our travelling coincidence.
TD: Your Larkin allusion reminds me of his reference to time’s ‘long perspectives’ that ‘link us to our losses’, though I wouldn’t want to associate myself with that degree of melancholy. Politically though, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the present situation. It takes imagination and some faith in the resilience of the young to glimpse positive openings. I think that’s what I responded to in ‘Bloomsbury Way’.
PR: You might say this sense of loss and time is rather a ‘long moment’ in our country’s history, one in which it is enduring a great spasm from its post-imperial climacteric, and in which those with long memories are called upon to remember how complex things are and have been. That line from Yeats, after all, is contextualised in Maud Gonne’s form of Irish nationalism, something that a hundred years ago helped create the conditions in which the ‘ourselves alone’ of Brexit would have to collide with independent Ireland’s European connectedness, and help thus to reality-test our current fantasies of recovered global greatness. It is also up to the likes of us, I would say, to employ the cultural connectedness of our poetry, as an integral part of the wider European poetry, to protect—by reasserting—such cultural belonging as this unhappy moment of ours so gravely threatens. Still, as one of the poems in Ravishing Europa puts it, ‘scratch and you’ll touch an optimist’. It is, after all, possible that these convulsions of now are indeed a form of reality testing from our currently exacerbated island story, and that beyond them doesn’t lie the ‘sunlit uplands’ cliché of deregulated isolationism, but a recognition of how—to twist Robert Frost this time—good neighbours don’t need fences.
Peter Robinson has recently published a novel, September in the Rain (2016), his Collected Poems 1976-2016 (2017), and The Sound Sense of Poetry (2018). The poems published here are Ravishing Europa, published in March 2019, while a second work of fiction, The Constitutionals, will appear for the tercentenary of Robinson Crusoe in April 2019. He is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. Peter Riley has reviewed his Returning Sky here. An archive of his work for the Fortnightly is here.