A SEQUENCE OF POEMS
With an Audio Track.East Cliff, West Bay by David Inshaw 2004. Oil on Canvas. © David Inshaw, 2004. Used with permission.
By PETER ROBINSON.
‘I have tried to be aware of the way
things relate to each other.’
1. GOING WEST
THE swifts dart up ahead
as if to guide our car.
Black crows are taking flight
above the summer grasses.
Now like a Van Gogh omen
or some trigger warning,
they flap across cow parsley
to shadow out our day.
Then to this shoreline’s interrupted
breakers broken on the rocks
we’ve been detoured, sent as chance
would have it near Lyme Regis.
And this is how you are alive
to shadows of a family’s grief
coming and going, while we drive,
like the radio interference.
2. THE ROADMAP
‘UNLOCK!’ as the Speaker cries
when the vote is won or lost.
But then we do, in fits and starts,
secluded to survive –
and we must bear on through now
from roadmaps out of nowhere
as past the upward warning signs,
headed for rising curves, you drive.
The contours close at Abbotsbury.
Beyond blind summits we veer
over the crest to find coast, clear,
dropping in on some near future –
but which one, you might ask me,
rolling through the cloudscapes
for Chesil Beach, its Swannery?
We’re too close to be sure.
3. ABOVE AND BEYOND
THEN the distancing pays back in kind
whether it be with a low horizon,
piled clouds traversing big skies
or that optical illusion –
the water seeming vertical
with bands of brown and green
up to its sea-and-skyline.
High clouds at random altitudes
moving in diverse directions,
they’re driven on as if competing
always to be somewhere else.
We’re braking as their shadows track us
north-north-west beyond the rows
of isolated bungalows.
Their Union Jacks and St George Crosses
underline the spaces opened
up before us, and the losses
coming to that end.
4. WHAT FILLS THE EYE
THINGS picked out from vast expanses –
I’m better off down at sea level
amongst spots, flecks, and spills of colour,
the white specks flocking in a tide-pool
or people on a strewn-out beach
observing social distances.
What fills the eye’s beyond me.
With flies and wasp-like insects feeding,
cut adrift, one mussel-farm post
has washed up on that shore.
Some of its emptied shells, dislodged,
lie picked clean, ex-feasts-of-life
for the swooping seagulls.
Then even as life runs from the surf
two kids in costumes on this shingle
take their tangled shadows with them.
The far dune-grasses bend away
at gusted breeze from farther south.
What fills the eye’s beyond me.
5. INNER EMIGRÉ
IF you leave the country in your mind,
its self-complaisance and illusions,
if you attempt to leave behind
the echoes of mis-speaking tones,
you’ll leave the country in your mind
with convocations of more seagulls
gathered on dock walls to find
you’ve left the country in your mind.
And after having spent a lifetime
waking from its waking dream,
once again, you’re cresting blind
summits beyond a false plain.
Transfixed by hidden curves you find
it true, but not as once imagined,
for now chalk cliffs and bays compose
encroached, eroding limits to the view.
Elsewhere, going to extremes
climate brings its droughts and rains,
wrecking floods, bombed forest fires,
not only to Europe and her pains …
We hear talk of green revolutions,
how industry will make repairs
wasting our time and times to come
now as they waste theirs.
6. GONE ROUND THE CORNER
BLIND Summits, exclamation mark!
Then Danger, Unfenced Cliffs!
On the road sign: Sudden Gunfire!
Ground’s crumbling beneath our feet …
A hedgerow onto nothing, nowhere,
the curving arrows in white lines,
they’re painted by a drunkard or
your too nervous passenger.
Then as the camber of the tarmac
turns upward and, already there,
on curving route or sloping road,
steep climbs, the long descents
you disappear around a corner,
death, it’s just one more blind summit,
and every turn as near as damn it
bends before us, seen no more.
7. ODE TO JOY
SEEING now what’s owed to joy
when even in defeat, look here,
two hedge-hopping fighters
roar down valleys to the sky.
Clouded uplands, here and now,
our journeys lead too into sky
even if anger and an angel
will be driving at my side.
8. WEST BAY VARIATIONS
OUT on West Bay’s pier at twilight
one of its memorial benches
has wilting flowers on display.
Below the sheered-off downland
forming crusted, flaked East Cliff,
there a natural beach gives way
to concealed sea defences –
the ballast-rock emerging
from a tumulus of sand.
Drowned leaves glaze the standing water
and puddles in a pitted car park
film dark-mottled clouds above them
whatever else there is to say –
as if to make me think again
about the only problem
raised by jump-cut conversations,
and other things that fill a day.
You read stray writing on the wall
half-covered by a framed-up painting,
over-lit and hung too high.
Cormorants fish the quiet harbour.
Pigeons, seagulls, a carrion crow,
and other things fill up our day –
sea cabbage left un-foraged
coming back in twilight
along the West Cliff’s pathway.
Now its pier’s red warning light
leads your eye right out to sea
in deeper darkness as our day
wears out without a sunset.
It’s where this morning in stiff breeze
gig boats were rowed against the swell,
but now there’s almost no horizon
and as little point of vantage.
Yet still our jump-cut conversations
past the once warm, pink-cool house,
bring at least two things together
as leaving out the accidentals
(mast-work, golfers, or what-have-you)
clarifies scenery, adjusts relations
of one thing and another.
Despite the over-lit, hung too high,
still art’s definitive resolutions,
as you implied, are only found
when coming to that bitter end
out beyond West Bay’s dark tide …
as now a smattering of raindrops
shatters in its bubbled ringlets
cloud-filled mirrors for the twilit sky.
9. THE ISLE OF PURBECK
STONE hoists, the cliffs at Portland Bill
on his Isle of Stones, my dreams
are of a further back-turned couple
seated on abandoned blocks.
Look, both are staring out to sea.
Beyond them, a yacht in high swell
beats its course oblique to the wind
with one strained jib for sail.
Now on the stones at Ringstead
their dog won’t learn to swim,
and a child cries for his mother
splashing in the waves before him.
What age reserves to a survivor,
no crisis wasted, self-derivative
as you like, is still to strive for,
undefeated, an only way to live.
Yes, and still one early morning,
we find beyond the stones here
oil-smooth, glass-like water
at Lulworth Cove’s so clear
you can stare into its shallows,
see green minnows swimming
in the stillness, peace at least,
if only every now and then.
10. AFTER BECKETT
AND if you’re ever in East Dorset
don’t miss emptied Tyneham
(twinned with Oradour-sur-Glane
though only in memoriam).
If you have the time for it
eternity is there.
But only if you have the time.
Peter Robinson’s tribute to the painter, Bonjour Mr Inshaw, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2020. This year the same firm will produce in a second edition his 2010 collaboration with the artist Sally Castle, English Nettles and Other Poems. Other recent publications include The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs (2021) from Shearsman Books, who simultaneously published Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, a collection of essays edited by Tom Phillips. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is indexed here.