By PETER ROBINSON
With an Afterword
by TOM PHILLIPS.
‘I have found it a great relief to stop pretending to be an
artist; and in my reaction against over-estimating all forms
of art for so long I am going through a period of complete
contempt for all artists; which I don’t suppose will last long.’
—John Cornford to Frances Cornford, September 1932
‘feel free to stand by the vanished English line’
Still now, you’re not alone: although those three
have strolled ahead along a coastal track,
from his cab a farmer waves, come back
to the rick with more straw bales …
His cropped field slopes towards that shore,
a pale-yellow stubble; there, on top of its hill,
new clinker-built cap white-glossed and pristine,
there stands Ringstead Mill.
Poor loves, your ghostly absences
fill the windmill’s sloped interior,
its lime-wash flaked off brickwork
in his convalescent respite from a war –
Garcia Lorca dead already
that September nineteen thirty-six,
but oh, to have each other in their arms
despite the Spanish politics …
Composed along the horizontal,
mostly cloud-filled sky, you say,
this salt marsh looks like a mental
landscape, a paysage moralisé,
horizontals intercut by church,
lighthouse or wind-curved tree:
the only spot beside the Wash
to watch sun setting into sea!
WIND AT NIGHT
The gusts up here are as they should be
round an old mill without sails.
So, no, it’s not her ghost-lover wails
about our bed past midnight,
nor that his loss would be the less
were Loyalists about to lose,
leaving her, dear heart, a poem
for grief, regret, and others’ blame –
or what his mother might want,
that he show a like ‘generosity’
which were why her son had to be
left in some corner of a foreign front …
From re-made dykes we could observe
out-flows of receding tidal foam.
They undercut mud banks where the furze
has swollen into rounded, low forms.
You like them. Somehow their shape calms
the sudden jets’ overflying roar –
because they resemble concrete domes,
the unused shelters for avoided war.
Open-mouthed swallow chicks nest in eaves,
the starlings gone already from July’s
unlikely heat, and we see an egret rise
on stretches of bare sand the low tide leaves …
Among dunes where he played war games,
you point out a camouflaged birdwatchers’ hide
to three offspring of a century’s wars,
their ruined victors. No outcomes or aims
or consequences, unforeseen, could have satisfied
all the tangled desires that were their cause.
‘You could paint this scene,’ that’s what I said
gazing from its top floor to the coast
while a front of grey precipitation
offset by sun, bright on a reaped field,
golden, dark hedgerows framing it,
swept across the sea horizon
past trees as if in silhouette –
with world enough or time to do that light.
‘August for the people’: yes, and how
we cluster on this beach to face the sea
with windbreak territory, bucket and spade,
building bulwarks against some enemy.
There’s nothing quite like it to bring
out the alien within, to encourage
more distance and responsibility
beside a trodden-down water’s edge.
For ‘the people’ are still people too
here at Hunstanton, where a D-Day Duck
drives holidaymakers to the low tide view
and you feel at home, at home with luck.
Love, my incorrigible forager,
when we turn you disappear
behind the hedgerows of wild plum,
or into a blackberry thicket.
You stoop down out of sight
to gather the sea cabbage leaves
or else up-cycle others’ waste
as lampshades, baskets, bowls …
Love, you have foreseen a future,
and how beautiful would be
its landscape in the moonlight,
my incorrigible forager.
Like kids putting both hands over their eyes
so they can disappear,
or somebody walking by a loose-slatted fence
who only looks half there,
I keep coming back to what you can’t quite see
while you’re brought to glimpse what I don’t exactly say,
and both are shown again to sight or ear
when they take their hands away.
FROM THE PATHS
Walking seaboard paths like a guide
through fruit shrubs as if by wayside shrines,
along precipices, you leave them behind,
or glimpsing the windmill, pick out signs –
bird refuges, the flood-pool lakes
for wearied migrants in this elsewhere,
their point of change, now waterfowl
drop in to land from thinner air.
LAST OF ENGLAND
Seabirds from the sanctuaries’ sedge
cried out across an emptiness
of cracked reeds, samphire, selvage,
as we were taking exercise
one blustery February, at a loose end,
when, driven on by a punitive wind
and me too about to leave England,
I had stared, as grass shadows lengthened,
stared towards this flat horizon
at others striving headlong
together over desolate marsh, alone,
and wondered at the right of it, the wrong.
—for Martha Prevezer
Where among bailed dinghies and parked cars
owners have checked their land for flood damage
and mock townee talk in audible class wars,
ideals of his remain, still, unfulfilled.
Yes, as good as dead and buried in us too,
he’s one ghost stranger haunting you
by the carstone walls and duck-egg paintwork
of their second homes …
Beside fish-quay sheds a dark, opened door
or what low tide reveals
of crafts, activities, the local trades,
you’re far from indifferent to tirades
reflected in the creeks and pools,
like my asking: ‘But what is money for?’
Her grandmother fled that Revolution,
the October nineteen-seventeen one,
its pogroms; oh, but those ’thirties leftists,
Don Quixotes to a woman or man …
tilting at giants, though, not at windmills,
for ‘with a bullet in the brain
how can matter think again’
when the waste, oh, what he said, remains and kills?
Poor art, the beach detritus
you gather for a sculpture,
a mockery of piled stones,
our wasteful habits, pure
impulse goaded into sense,
those playing children point
out to harassed parents –
exactly as you meant.
Beyond dune defiles, sand-whirls dance.
They scoot across this broad expanse
of flatness where we, each of us, bend
tired heads into a headwind,
become specks of colour, the staffage
for somebody else’s seascape scene –
our hurled words blown out to the edge
of a big sky’s pallid ultramarine.
I could envy myself this inspiration,
unruffled touch, motifs, and role
in life, like it’s my missed vocation
to be a painter of the Norwich School
and to think whatever I’m ‘interested in’
were motive enough to begin.
—for Jenny Polak
A red fishing boat stands out on the staithe,
Briscoe-fashion, to pull all this together.
For where some simply sunbathe,
we’ve come to the end of our tether.
It’s like your Murphy bed, a cubby hole
designed as a hide for the alien within,
encouraging sensed changes to begin
(and everybody needs to feel useful)
had joined up with my poetry inspired
by an idea of making things happen,
but the charcoal’s smudged, the paper tired,
and there’s no understanding the weapon,
understanding the wound when impact
were all art’s usefulness wanted or lacked.
‘I’m an artist!’ she exclaimed
after hearing all our talk
of poor and useful art.
Then she too can be blamed,
just like he had his mother
as if to moralize the song,
but that contempt for artists,
it wouldn’t last long.
—after Giorgio Bassani
Heard in the earliest morning, gulls’ complaints,
their reiterative cries come serenely on the air
tenderly addressing you … and in a wind up there
you wave at them as at stray passing planes.
Already far away, beyond curved river margins,
they’re lost in the low blue mist of willows
against its current. Yet memories of those
gulls disturb your sight, still, with their fragile wings.
For us to be back here, again, together,
after more than thirty years,
it was all so unexpectedly other
than their fates, dear hearts, poor dears.
Where they had talked at a banked fire,
we talked around the kitchen table,
catching up, able to admire
our different children, grown or growing
to make decisions for themselves –
being more or less in that same phase
those lovers were with their resolves
to part, as for a few days.
Then from the diaspora drifts
that had taken us away
to Brooklyn, Sendai, Fiesole,
how time itself shifts
past other marred friendships
not forgotten or forgiven,
and finally comes to grips
with life for the living …
Like a squeezed concertina,
it brings out before me
what’s vital in memory
da capo al fine –
the view from Ringstead Mill,
its known associations
with ‘The Breaking of Nations’,
while not alone, now, still,
we’re sustained by these clear
vistas that would serve
to take us up and down its stair
in a rounding curve.
Although they did meet in September 1936, John Cornford (1915-1936) and Margot Heinemann (1913-1992) probably didn’t spend a last few days together at Ringstead Mill, Norfolk, then owned by his parents, the classicist F. M. Cornford and the poet Frances Cornford. She had known Rupert Brooke, whose Christian name was given to their son, born in the year of his death, but never used. According to Peter Stansky and William Abrahams in Journey to a Frontier, Julian Bell & John Cornford: Their Lives and the 1930s (London: Constable, 1966), they and a few friends had spent the Christmas vacation of 1935-6 there (p. 243). John’s poem ‘To Margot Heinemann’ (1936) and her ‘Ringstead Mill’ (1991) are both alluded to in this sequence. John Cornford was killed in unclear circumstances fighting for the Loyalists on the Córdoba front on 28 December 1936, the day after his twenty-first birthday.
The first epigraph can be found in John Cornford, Understanding the Weapon, Understanding the Wound: Selected Writings, ed. Jonathan Galassi (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1976), p. 151. The second is a line in ‘Wish You Were Here’, the fourth part of ‘Postcards to Spain 1986’, from Ian Patterson, Time to Get Here: Selected Poems 1969-2002 (Great Wilbraham: Salt Publishing, 2003), p. 91. His Guernica and Total War (2007) also contributed to completing this sequence. —PR
‘The Ringstead Poems’ were composed during the late summer of 2015. It was accepted for publication in a festschrift for Ian Patterson that autumn, which eventually appeared in Josh Robinson (ed.), A Small Thing on the Air: for and after Ian Patterson (Privately printed, 2020), pp. 122-33, and included an authorial note. In the meantime, it was published, without the note, in Collected Poems 1976-2016 (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2017), pp. 473-81. The text above is a lightly revised version of the sequence, kindly provided by Peter Robinson and published online here for the first time.
The Rounding Curve
of ‘The Ringstead Poems’.
By TOM PHILLIPS.
THE TWENTY-ONE SHORT poems that constitute Peter Robinson’s ‘The Ringstead Poems’ incorporate ample evidence of the immediate circumstances that occasioned them. Precise observations of scenery, weather and time of day are complemented by specific place names, personal dedications or, in some cases, dates that locate them even more firmly in time and space. Ringstead, Thornham Staithe, Brancaster Staithe, Holme-Next-the-Sea are all villages in north Norfolk and the Ringstead Mill named in the first poem, ‘Harvest’ (see below), was once owned by the Cornford family, the Cambridge academic Francis, his wife, the poet Frances, and their son John, himself a poet, who was killed in 1936 while serving with Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Robinson, his wife Ornella, and their friends, the engaged artist Jenny Polak and economist Martha Prevezer – to whom poems in the sequence are dedicated – stayed with other family members at the Mill for several days during the summer of 2015 and initially perhaps ‘The Ringstead Poems’ might appear made up of a series of discrete moments and specific experiences from that stay, much in the manner of a poetic diary. There are walks along coastal tracks and through salt marshes, visits to bird sanctuaries and beaches, conversations, reunions, a memory from 1989 (just before Robinson migrated to Japan) and encounters with the ‘ghostly absences’ of John Cornford and his lover Margot Heinemann, whom the former famously described as ‘the heart of the heartless world’.
These autobiographical specificities, however, slide – like a tectonic plate, to recall Roy Fisher’s simile – beneath a broader thematic terrain that’s opened up by the sequence’s two epigraphs. The first of these is taken from a 1932 letter from John Cornford to his mother and, in addition to introducing the historical connection between Ringstead Mill and the Cornford family, points towards feelings and questions about art, artists, society and value that emerge later in the sequence, but without offering a proposition that the ensuing poems then either prove or disprove: Cornford himself admits that his ‘complete contempt for all artists’ born of a ‘reaction against over-estimating all forms of art’ is a temporary opinion rather than an enduring philosophical position. The second shorter epigraph from the poet and academic Ian Patterson – ‘feel free to stand by the traditional English line’ – appears to relate to a similar nexus of feelings and questions, even though we can’t be sure whether the ‘line’ we’re invited to ‘stand by’ is poetic, political or military – or what kind of traditions and notions of Englishness any such line might embody.
In this context, Cornford himself might be said to have deviated from ‘the traditional English line’ in all three potential senses: he disdained the traditional poetry exemplified, in his eyes, by the Georgian poets, despite or because of his mother’s connection with them; as a communist, he rejected conventional English political opinions; as a volunteer with the International Brigades, he served on frontlines which were neither wholly English nor strategically traditional and, in so doing, ignored the English’s government’s non-interventionist policy towards the Spanish Civil War. Patterson himself also seems to be distancing himself from ‘the traditional English line’ and its various associations, albeit whilst acknowledging that others have the freedom to toe it, should they wish to. Whichever way we choose to read these two epigraphs, however, they set up tensions that manifest themselves in and energise the following poems as they negotiates networks of relationships through which art might be constituted and acquire value.
With the opening poem of the sequence, ‘Harvest’, we might feel that we’re arriving on solid, recognisable, and indeed traditional English ground.
Still now, you’re not alone: although those three
have strolled ahead along a coastal track,
from the cab a farmer waves, come back
to his rick with more straw bales …
If a version of pastoral emerges here and is sustained in the second and final stanza, in which Ringstead Mill itself comes into view with its ‘new clinker-built cap white-glossed and pristine’, we’re also among deictic uncertainties. Not only can we not be sure whether ‘Still’ is an adjective, adverb or imperative, we also don’t know who ‘those three’ are, who ‘you’ refers to, whether the pronoun is singular or plural, why this ‘you’ is ‘not alone’ or who the farmer is waving to. These variables generate multiple possibilities from what appears to be a relatively simple set of circumstances – a pause during a walk, a waving farmer – and yet, as we continue reading, these ambiguities, whilst remaining unresolved, fall away and the poem brings visible solidities into focus: the rick, straw bales, cropped field, yellow stubble, and the Mill itself. The elements of a landscape are composed into a poem and the act of composition brings with it a certain composure, a restoration of equilibrium: the movement of thought and feeling suggested by the uncertainties of the opening – initiated by the ambiguity of the word ‘Still’, paradoxically – gives way to the stillness of Ringstead Mill, a stillness encompassing both its immobility and endurance. This transition from uncertainty to composure seems to be what is happening for the poet, both at the time of the lived experience and again at the time of writing the poem. At the same time, the poem itself doesn’t simply relate or describe that subjective experience, its movement from the ambiguity of ‘Still’ to the solidity of ‘there stands Ringstead Mill’ – a solidity lightly affirmed by rhyming the first and last words of the poem – enacts that transition and, in so doing, offers us a similar, though not equivalent, experience. Both landscape and poem are – to use a phrase from later in the sequence – ‘making things happen’ in their own ways.
With the second poem in the sequence, we might again feel we’re on solid ground. The eponymous ‘Poor Lovers’ aren’t named, but the references to the Spanish Civil War, Lorca, September 1936, the sequence’s first epigraph and the connection between Ringstead Mill and the Cornford family mean that we might readily identify them as John Cornford and Margot Heinemann. Cornford was certainly back in England that September, convalescing from an illness contracted while fighting in Spain, and no doubt did spend time with Heinemann before returning to the war and being killed in action near Lopera on 28 December, the day after his twenty-first birthday.
The poem, then, appears to be an elegiac lyric addressed to the ‘ghostly absences’ Robinson detects in ‘the windmill’s interior’ and imagining a lovers’ reunion shadowed by Cornford’s imminent death, but also offering a consolatory image of Cornford and Heinemann in each other’s arms ‘despite the Spanish politics …’, an allusion to Yeats’ last poem called ‘Politics’. Robinson’s poem seeks the possibility of temporary solace in the fact that, shortly before Cornford’s death, the lovers at least had time together, and of compensatory personal experience that might be set against the destructive social practices of politics and war.
As with ‘Harvest’, however, the textual surface is less certain than this reading suggests. In what ways, for example, are these lovers ‘poor’? The adjective hovers between possible significations and significances. Poor lovers, after all, might be impoverished, inadequate, even incompetent, as well as being unfortunate and deserving of sympathy. That the title is, in fact, taken from Robinson’s own translation of Giorgio Bassani’s 1944 poem ‘Towards Ferrara’, the original of which registers a not-dissimilar atmosphere of threat and uncertainty, and that the absent lovers are directly addressed in the first line of the poem as ‘Poor loves’ – a colloquialism which like, many of those deployed in Robinson’s work, here regains something of the now-distant emotion that originally inspired it – direct us towards a more secure interpretation, but without entirely closing off other possibilities.
Further uncertainties destabilise the sense that we are encountering a conventional elegy. The ‘ghostly absences’ of the dead lovers might ‘fill the windmill’s sloped interior’, but the following two lines – ‘its lime-wash flaked off brickwork / in his convalescent respite from a war’ – are less certain, both in terms of their syntax and meaning. On the one hand, ‘flaked’ can be read as an active verb, making the lines a statement of simple fact (the lime-wash flaked off the walls while Cornford was there, recovering from his illness); on the other, it can be read as a descriptive participle, turning the lime-wash which flaked off while Cornford was there into one of the things that these ‘ghostly absences / fill’. That these two lines follow a comma, rather than a full stop, suggests the second reading (as does the version published in the Collected Poems where the flaked-off lime wash is more specifically identified as the sole evidence of the ‘ghostly absences’), and that, in turn, suggests a double absence or a paradoxical absence and presence: it is, after all, highly unlikely that the lime-wash which did actually flake off the brickwork in 1936 would still be there. The traces of the poor dead lovers, in other words, might be found in both the ‘sloped interior’ which still exists and the lime-wash flakes which don’t. That we also know – thanks to Robinson’s note included here – that Cornford and Heinemann ‘probably didn’t spend a last few days together at Ringstead Mill’ also shifts the apparent consolation offered by the poem onto the hypothetical level. We could read it as wishful thinking, on our part and that of the poet’s.
These first two poems in the sequence, then, establish a pattern that recurs through the sequence: surface textual uncertainties lead towards complexities that draw away from or subsume the autobiographical. Themes emerge gradually. Each catalysing moment generates its own connections, its own set of thoughts, its own variation on the themes which run through the sequence as a whole: ‘avoided war’ in ‘Thornham Staithe’, ‘wearied migrants in this elsewhere’ in ‘From the Paths’, ‘the wound’ in ‘Arte Útil’, the politically inflected question of what money might be for in ‘Brancaster Staithe’ or the upcycling of ‘others’ waste’ and attendant thoughts of love and beauty in ‘My Forager’. Given the brevity of each poem (with a few notable exceptions, the majority consist of two quatrains) and the varying rhythmic impulses of the verse, these shifts might seem abrupt. One minute we’re looking at a ‘sea horizon’ and how it might be possible to paint it ‘with world enough or time to do that light’ (‘Picturesque’), the next at the territorial behaviour of windbreak-partitioned tourists on the beach (‘Alien Within’) and not so much further on at ethical distinctions between ‘the right of it, the wrong’ (‘Last of England’).
These thematic shifts may also contribute to a sense of ‘The Ringstead Poems’ being a poetic diary, recording impressions, associations and reflections generated by the poet’s encounters with landscapes, buildings, people. They might also be considered as expressions of Robinson’s emotional and psychological states, both at the time of the stay at Ringstead and of revisiting it while writing the poems. We might detect a strain of disquiet or discomposure running through the sequence as if it too had been written in a period of ‘convalescent respite’ shadowed by anticipations of future losses and trauma. Even as the sequence moves towards it close with the image of friends ‘around the kitchen table, / catching up, able to admire / our different children’ in ‘Kitchen Table’ and the thoughts in ‘The Mill’ of ‘how time itself shifts // … and finally comes to grips / with life for the living’, of ‘what’s vital in memory’ and of being ‘sustained by these clear / vistas’, the two last poems also refer to imminent separation, ‘other marred friendships / not forgotten or forgiven’ and, in an allusion to both Thomas Hardy and the prophecies of Jeremiah, ‘The Breaking of Nations’. Given that allusion, we might even speculate that at least part of this discomposure derives from the election of a Conservative government earlier that year and its declared intention to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union – an event that would subsequently prompt Robinson to write the often openly engagé poems gathered into his 2019 collection Ravishing Europa.
Such speculation is possible with any poem, any artwork, even those which manifest a conspicuous effort to remove, occlude or disguise the subjective presence of the artist. To focus on the autobiographical as if it provides a key to deciphering the whole work, however, is also to risk missing the other levels on which a work is communicating. As Robinson himself has said, art is a social practice founded in intensely singular experience and that idea is evident in how ‘The Ringstead Poems’ sequence operates. If individual poems originate in the experiences of the subjective ‘I’, they extend outwards from that, forming connections, not only to the life and work of both John Cornford and Margot Heinemann because of their connection with Ringstead Mill, but also, through a complex of allusions, to other poetry (by Auden, Marvell, Empson, Hardy, and others) and to Arte Povera and Arte Útil (the Italian and Spanish movements that emphasise the value of art originating in the everyday and being socially functional outside speculation-driven trends), while the sequence’s poetic structures can be identified as having derived from the work of Giorgio Bassani, with the dedication to ‘The Gulls’ (a rare outing for Robinson into imitation, rather than direct translation) alerting us to that connection. It is a sequence, in other words, that repeatedly offers opportunities to consider the question of how intensely singular experience feeds into the social practice of art and what value that art or the money attached to it might have, considerations that are perhaps most clearly articulated in the question at the end of ‘Brancaster Staithe’ (‘But what is money for?’) and in ‘Arte Povera’ with its reflection on the poet’s wife Ornella’s ‘Poor art’ – that word ‘poor’ being loaded from earlier reverberances in the sequence – being a ‘mockery of piled stones, / our wasteful habits’, but also appreciated by ‘playing children … exactly as you meant.’ These questions and juxtapositions encourage a reading that goes beyond the subjective and directs our attention back towards the aesthetic and thematic construction of the sequence as a whole.
As the last line of the sequence has it, ‘The Ringstead Poems’ are in themselves ‘a rounding curve’, a reminder that poetry has multiple potential functions and values and can be read as something other than a performative expression of a fully identified individual’s response to specific encounters with the focus on the foregrounded ‘I’. It’s a sequence which points us towards ‘their point of change’ – a ‘their’ figured by the birds of passage which incorporates both the individuals who appear in the sequence and those who exist beyond it – and it is the opportunities encouraged to read these poems beyond this ‘their’, and beyond their singular subjectivity, that offers us, as Charles Olson put it, ‘a complex of occasions’.
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. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is indexed here.
TOM PHILLIPS is a writer, translator and editor living in Sofia, Bulgaria. His poetry and translations have been widely published in magazines, anthologies, pamphlets, and full-length collections including Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016) and Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012). He teaches creative writing at Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski and is the editor of Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, published by Shearsman Books, who also published Robinson’s The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs (2021) and his translations from Pietro De Marchi, Reports after the Fire: Selected Poems (2022).
Note: Minor edits made subsequent to publication.