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Manifestos for a lost cause.

A Sequence of Poems


who reads here:


Our early, near-deserted street
has limbless trunks of trees
(as if they were straitjacketed)
clustering with this year’s leaves.

Care workers from the hospital
are coming off a nightshift.
I’m on my daily stroll.

Across the sun-struck flags, bereft,
are shadows, likely phantoms,
imaginary fears, our own
left abandoned in their homes.


There’s furniture laid on the street
emergent from that darkness.
A sign says: free to take away.

As if this were our secret change,
you see the drowning persons
whose whole life’s flashed before them
every lockdown day.


I’m crossing in and out of those
shadows at someone’s approach
and see two pigeons raise their tails
over a sleeping policeman;

they back off then, agree to differ,
while, tentative, I’m still and watch
a robin on its dust-bin perch,

retiring, now catch up ahead
a traffic light still held on red
amidst full, ruffled leaves.


In the heart of the lockdown campus
is a vast, abandoned poster –

The world’s a bluey-greenish yonder
on that corporate propaganda
but we’re not going anywhere,


anywhere much beyond its lake
(yet what a time to be alive!)
and gone on past our testing centre
still not open at this hour,

look how the lakeside care home
is raked in sudden sunlight –
like merely going for a walk
could so improve the day!

Look how these twenty-twenty visions
follow us as we’re withdrawn
from all our sullen offices –
the book-lined, out of reach, forlorn!


The very word, yet here’s a thing:
you haunt an empty swan’s nest
by the sluice gate near a wood.

It’s like our lives hung by that thread,
the survival of their brood,
a brood I’d counted too –
but there’s no sanctuary in the wood.


Withdrawing, see, tree cover opens
sky to new growth on dwarf pines,
the more sage-coloured leaves;

and, see, to these you are united
now that with a loser’s hindsight
we’re as sick at heart …


A chilly breeze brings this suggestion
of cloud wisps from the west, and on
a roofless lockup’s padlocked door
the spray-gunned, signed graffiti says:
‘Suicide is Not the answer’ –

and it’s as if those words’ ghost writer
had tried it, he would let us know,
us here still in the park with seagulls
pecking at their council grass …
But, tell me, what would be the question?


On this three-parks’ walk, historic
cast-iron lamps by railway lines,
I’m rummaging its moments for
when that past was intercepted.

Street views, daily routes, routines
by Health & Safety lamp-standards,
and all the social distancing,
they see us frayed, become untied,

see on a valley-side’s south crest
facing down towards the coast,
how time’s left in alternative
futures, ones we’re not to live.


Their caravans corralled around
a big top on the park,
music’s blurring from its tent
now a circus is in town –
clouds scudding towards an early dark,

but with that sense of emptiness
as when its upped and gone,
another groundless accusation
spreads on social media
and there’s nothing to be done.


You find the one word ‘Sorry’
stencilled on a wall
without an explanation,
nothing else at all,

and over pavement, front lawn,
find patterns in the leaf-fall
this dying year –

for by an empty bus stop
on the way back homeward
its Perspex screens are summed up
in that enigmatic word.


Then all the things you meant to do,
worlds discover, praising folly,

couldn’t happen in this pause
when time would have to be repurposed,

because that future’s gone forever,
a manifesto for a lost cause.

Peter Robinson‘s 2020 publications are a sequence for poems, Bonjour Mr Inshaw, from Two Rivers Press, and the literary criticism Poetry & Money: A Speculation from Liverpool University Press. He is a professor of literature at the University of Reading and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. An archive of his work published in The Fortnightly Review is here.

Top image: Manifesto for a Lost Cause, by Paula Rego 1965. Canvas Acrylic paint and Collage Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon © Paula Rego, 1965. Used with permission.

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Helen Hackett
Helen Hackett
3 years ago

As fellow academic, I’m particularly struck by the lines about ‘our sullen offices – / the book-lined, out of reach, forlorn!’ I’m not sure I miss my office, but I do sometimes feel troubled by the thought of it lurking there without me for all these months. The simple phrase ‘this dying year’ says so much. And of course the final stanza perfectly sums up how ‘all the things you meant to do … couldn’t happen in this pause’. Such perceptive observations and distillations of our times.

Adam Clarke-Williams
Adam Clarke-Williams
3 years ago

The sequence gathers up, much as the poet did, the apparently random sights of an urban and suburban place in a reflective way; what results is not a catalogue, not a disruptive instrument manufactured in some misguided effort to fracture, or mimic the supposed fracture, of an onlooker. Peter, by contrast, and in contrast, finds meaning in the world about us, truth in the heart and mind, and honour in the craft.

Daniel Gallimore
Daniel Gallimore
3 years ago

It’s difficult to say which one of these poems I like best. They all seem perfectly to express this remarkable time.

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