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PETER ROBINSON (2) - JUNE 1999 FEATURE  

  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Peter Robinson
Occasion to revise or think again:   Marcus Perryman interviews poet Peter Robinson.

John Kinsella
The Globe of Death - The next chapter in John Kinsella's autobiography series at TCR.

Peter Robinson

 

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Marcus Perryman: But the words of the poem are attuned to echo with words close to them: the word "relieve" sinisterly ghosts over the fatal word "relive." Even the word "driven" resonates and flickers, with a shade of sex drive, and "driven mad." "Object," with its grammatical undertone, and "serve" turn on similar flickers. And when finally we reach the "occasion to revise or think again" it positively shrieks with a sense of damage and the need to do something about it. The poem concludes with a different view (echoed in another poem) that seems to invoke a very literal form of negotiation, i.e., a long conversation in words and deeds to reach a common experience, a common ground, and an end to a certain kind of living, to youth, say, and the beginning of a form of difficult coexistence with others, one's own past, and a new, and harsher, form of "otherness." It looks, in other words, like a negotiation between familiarity, intimacy and estrangement.

Peter Robinson: I'm grateful to the meanings of words for the possibilities that are opened up by their ordinary uses. They are what help generate these constructions of a counterweight to the burden of experience.

I don't think definitions of art get very far, but art has something necessarily to do with survival. It's a way of overcoming something and living on. Did this cycle have this purpose?

I was young and had the idea that poetry ought to be able to heal me, to heal my love, and benefit life. I had to write those poems, because their burden was making itself felt both in my life and in the other poems I was writing. It seemed to me that I was producing poems no one would ever understand because the crucial thing they were "about" was not being said. So those eight poems were written to free other poems from side effects and make it possible to write about other things too. The extent to which I succeeded in any of this is inevitably in questionbut I certainly made it impossible for anyone reading my work with any sustained attention to be unaware of this fact about it.

The original second poem in the rape cycle, A Trial is in two different forms, a long preamble with a tricky grammatical structure, then three verses which are not quite quatrains, where the thought looks a little grafted on. Formally, the poem seems unsuccessful, and I'd like to look into the reasons for this. The subject matter and tone equally split over the hiatus at the center of the poem. It begins with the same flickering feel of There Again, where suspected innocence tilts the word "innocence" towards a guilty culpability, i.e. she was ingenuous (A trespass against the "common sense" floated at us in the first poem of the sequenceonly there with a vengeance). And then you are asked to acquit yourself of the charge of pimping by denying payment. Here the situation is enough to jar and stir. Then the young interpreter is introduced and looks herself (the feel is of the interpreter being a woman) to be a victim caught up in this process.

A Trial has got more characters in it than the rest of the sequence put together. Since publishing it in This Other Life I've made some small revisions to a few of them, but no sooner had I published A Trial than I began to have doubts about it. I've tried to revise it but can't: it's had to be dropped. There, the obligation to give some of the story has defeated the lyrical impulse. It reads to me like a note for the trial chapter of September in the Rain, which I wrote about five years later.

Let's come to From a Memory. The title makes precisely what memory is rather difficult to understand. The grammar is fostering a sense of memoir, i.e., of something deliberately composed but at the same time claiming to be partial and flawed. It's from a memory, but it isn't the memory. The effect is of images being snatched at, "disordered," as the opening line says, with its reference to the trees used in Italy to line cemeteries. The opening stanza may carry a hint of the ruffled trees in Sereni's great poem On the Zenna Road Again.

Your poem ends with "that pink blank of a wall," which registers a series of conflicts: the finger-pointing of "that," where an accusation is escaping onto an object; the skin-colored blankness like an illegible face; and the wall, a barrier you can't maneuver around or negotiate yourself across. The poem is framed against the necessary indifference of the world: the bedraggled strands flurrying; the dolls in plastic bags (fear of the need for an abortion?); the irritating flies, tatty, squalid othernesses getting on with their own existences, as if the one thing that makes these things meaningful has been sucked out of them. This seems to be the thing remembered rather than the objects themselves. At the end of your poem, memory makes the present
not the past seem blurred, a mere contre-jour, a counterfeit, and there are no details in life to feed off, just a "blankness"that Shakespearean word you're so fond of. And this is precisely the Serenian feeling of being ousted from life. Some of these Sereni echoes may have been deliberate, but others I suspect were not. Is that so?

The idea of trying to render an inert thing responsive as in The Yellow Tank from Lost and Found, for instance, seems to have got under my skin. But I think it was there in experiences of decaying urban environments before September, 1975, and Adrian Stokes writes about the aesthetic experience of cities in more or less those terms: contemporary art as a compensatory response to an environment without resonance and echo. But I note that "the sky, like a blank drawing board" in How He Changesfrom that late spring or early summer of 1975is a blankness of potential and possibility. That's a distant glimpse of my perhaps culpably innocent, very youthful optimism.

What you say describes just why I feel so close to Sereni's poetry. His must be the most important in my life, and I read something of his work almost every day. But when I started on those poems, and when I drafted From a Memory in 1979, I had not read a word of it. All those echoes are entirely fortuitous. I don't think the dolls in plastic bags were prompted by the fear of an abortion that possibility had been quickly ruled out in 1975 just the sense of a contrast between these inert objects which are treated fondly and used as things to remember with, and an animate person treated like a thing. The idea for the revised title was that it was taken from my  memory except for the one detail about the tie, which is plainly from hers, via mine. As for "that pink blank of a wall," I've never been quite able to fathom why it sounds like swearing, as you say, finger-pointing, but it seemed right, and I ended it there. The poem concludes with English people in a hot climate not liking all the flies, but that is, of course, a figure for involuntary memories that come in disordered disturbing bits and pieces. This poem manages to register a few of the problems that the sequence sets out to externalize which is where, perhaps,  From a Memory gets its other sense: I'm taking glimpses of the past and shaping them into something other than them. The poem is, as you note, from a memory and not the memory itself.

Perhaps I should think of it the other way round: that these poems shade in some of the words in the later translations we did. Be that as it may, this kinship with Sereni seems to me quite evident, all the more so if some of these poems were written before beginning to read Sereni's. His sense of being ousted from life may have been present in his pre-war writings, but, as Franco Fortini says, it was certainly sharpened and deepened by his imprisonment and "failure" to join the Resistance or take part in history. The backdrop to his Dante-esque Algerian Diary is a world conflict. Your sequence has no public setting, and so it is harder for it to "speak for others", to be exemplary or emblematic. Sereni would be the first to say he was but one of many and indeed says almost precisely this in From Holland. There may be precious little consolation in that, but there may be some. Sereni became the leading poet of the generation after Montale, perhaps because of it. Do you think your poems lack this kind of consolation, as if people could feel uninvolved, unimplicated or untouched?

One reviewer in 1988, who spent some time on these poems, described my work as "love poetry . . . of an exemplary kind." The problem with that word "exemplary," though, is that it puts me up on a moral pedestal and suggests that people who want to love or be love poets should be following my example. The very idea is painfully absurd.

As for being a leading poet, everything's different, isn't it? The reviewer who in 1983 described me as "the finest poet of his generation" may have seemed to be making a generous gamble, but he didn't really know what he was talking about. There's no clear sense in English poetry that there is or has been a leading figure in the generation before me (there have been a fair number of good English poets), and if we take the British Isles and Ireland, then it's conventionally Heaney and Paul Muldoon who have occupied that "leading figure" position for almost two decades. One reviewer has said that my poems display skill in "representing natural detail and the way it can seem to bear on our most private and troubled moments." Given the poems we are discussing, it's to be expected that people would locate their arena, as it were, in private trouble.

And as for "consolation", why does it keep coming up? Poet acquaintances who write in a more abrasively difficult style where intelligibility itself can be an issue have talked of the consolations my poems provide in their syntax, forms, rhymes, and the like. I'd be inclined to say that the poems I write attempt to deploy all the means at their disposal to construct counterweights to the destructive and damaging in experience, but I don't think of those counterweights as "consolation." That's the prize you get when, frankly, you've lost. But the game's not over. We're still playing. And when the game's really over, you don't need art any more anyway. Actually, I would find the burden of being some kind of cultural representative for a generation's sufferings unbearable and I don't believe that Sereni thought of himself in those terms, or wrote as if he were..

A September Night is poised between the "here and now" of the first verses and the recalled event, making what goes before a sort of sonnet and what comes after a truncated one. The line "the livid dark enfolded us" echoes the creases of the first part and wrenches the word "lived" into something more sinister. At this line it is far from certain whether we are in a bedroom or elsewhere, reliving the aftermath of the event, whether the September night was then or now. The second half of the poem superimposes itself onto the first, a kind of now structural echoing and jarring. The final line "I'd just make amends" has a word you use often.

In the next poem, "we'd just bear" gives it a twist. Earlier, "until you just forget them" was used in From a Memory. Between the poems the word "just" is being given twists and turns of meaning, hovering around but never actually leading into a word that is not used in the sequence: "justice." Earlier, you said you didn't wait in Milan for the sentence and actually you seem not to have had any interest in "justice" of that kind at all. A heavy prison sentence (extremely unlikely) would have "just made amends" or mended nothing at all? This is not a question about your relationship to law courts but about the subject matter of the poems..

Going back for the trial suggests that one or both of us were interested in justice being done, in some sense, but (since the verdict was of no interest) not in punishment being meted out. I suspect that leaving before the verdict and not making enquiries about what it was could also have been a way of cutting off a continuing interest in the "eye-for-an-eye" aspect of justice. Knowing that, for example, he had got off with a three-month suspended sentence might have added fury to the other feelings that were already in place. I suppose that writing poems about something like this, which couldn't be talked about at the time, suggests the need to give an experience its due, to give its implications and consequences form and, in a sense, reality: to make them objects in the world. That might count as doing justice to what happened in a way that a criminal trial can also function whatever the outcome as a way of making the truths in a sequence of events matters of public knowledge. That aspect of justice can take place without a sentence being passed. Perhaps the poems try to do a form of justice to those events and, as such, stand as emblems of reparation, even as they question such a possibility.


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