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PETER ROBINSON (3) - 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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go back Interview with Peter Robinson - (3)  

 

Marcus Perryman: Whatever the relation of From a Memory to Sereni, The Harm explicitly alludes to Sereni's poem Un incubo [A Nightmare] in the phrase "clearly pleasing each other".

Peter Robinson: Yes, The Harm was prompted by reading Sereni's poem, but the event which it relates is from 1978, before any knowledge of Un incubo. I've found a draft of it which tries to get in the words "Now others have found a limit / within us"— that's an attempted lift which didn't survive. The allusion to Sereni that has stayed in the final poem isn't so directive, more an incidental note, and I'm sure it's there as a form of acknowledgement for the future. There is a debt to be registered. When Emmanuela Tandello made versions of these poems in Italian, I asked her simply to render that passage by quoting Sereni's poem in the original.

I'd like to read the word "arouse" at the end of A September Night and the word "imperatives" towards the end of' The Harm, coupled to the word "awake": arouse not simply as arouse out of sleep, but sexually arouse, and imperatives as sexual orders. The words "awake" and "arouse", almost mirrored images, have switched over, traded their meanings. In the first poem something delicate is turned into a kind of sexual appetite. In the second, a sexual appetite is expressed as an awakening a sexualized vocabulary in which the thing that is being denied is the possibility of sexual love, uninterfered with by the nightmare of another event overshadowing it and making it impossible.

In Sereni's Un incubo the poet, similarly, overhears others making love, and the sound is like being tortured. In his canon the poem is unusual and, in a sense, inexplicable, almost without context. It registers damage, the inability to feel or ignore others' pleasure and the acute sense of being offended by it, a kind of living death. In your poem the context is much clearer, and the poem is far from mysterious about the living death that is being registered. In a chaste kiss, others are lurking in the background, "pressing to be near"
pressing forward and, as it were, replacing the poet, evicting him from his own most intimate experience.

The "incorporated wrong" is wrongdoing made flesh and physically inflicted. But it also seems no less incorporated and suffered in the poet's unsure lips not quite able to press a kiss, merely put "my lips to yours", no longer able to express passion, driven to distraction about how intimacy could possibly be recomposed or achieved.

The difference between Sereni's poem and mine, like my sequence and Philip Larkin's rape poem Deceptions, is that I'm writing about a couple. We're in bed together, and she's also woken up by hearing the other couple making love in the flat upstairs.

The lines from "Only it startles her so much" to the end of Cleaning are the emotional centre of the sequence. Here nearly all the words resonate across a range of meanings, from "only" which is not a qualifier, pegging the meaning back, but a way of reinforcing regret, and shadowing in the opposite: if only it didn't startle her. The conclusion of the last line—a summing up of all that has gone before—nonetheless sits uncomfortably, because the directness of such an expression as "My love" has been deflected, and the poet is left feeling that his own love is also somehow contaminated (as previously in the colloquialism "My mistake," where the nature of the mistake, of being mistaken and mistaking others, is crucial to the whole sequence). These possessives and their objects are all in question, aren't they— "my victim", "My mistake", "My love"? I wouldn't want to change a word, but I have an odd point to raise, which maybe you could help me on. The word "streaming" rather than steaming: it looks absolutely right, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what it means

Cleaning is a poem that surprised me when I wrote it and surprises me still especially the last line. There's a trace of the grafting youthful maker here and there: "dispossessed, possessed" looks worked on, and the "overfaint quiet" is a lift from Sidney's Apology for Poetry. But the last seven lines or so how did I come to get that? As for "streaming", what I will have had in mind is the effect you get if someone has been almost submerged in bathwater and then suddenly stands up, or when someone is using spongefulls of water to rinse their skin. The water is streaming off her upper arm..

Vacant Possession picks up from the previous poem's "dispossessed, possessed" and turns on a similar contradiction, in the form of an oxymoron. The line that looks to me to give the poem its pivot is "I'm keeping my proximity", where "proximity" replaces the diffidence of the colloquial "distance" but not with a humanly warm, relaxed or intimate word. "Proximity" is a technical word, entirely in keeping with the technicism of the title, as if, again, we are being given the way words potentially can say so much, but here need to be refined back out of sensitivity. The poem is about a form of over sensitivity, just as Cleaning contrasts the violence of the cleansing action with the delicacy of the misunderstood touch. The status of the "keeping" seems to me entirely ambiguous and fraught— an act of generosity that sounds comically like a lie, a way of fulfilling something by recognizing your own solitude, a physical nearness that needs to express itself out of the normal human register and leaves her "'weakly fortress'd from a world of harms".

Perhaps this is the point where whatever I may have been able to do with this style and this subject matter begins to break down. As you say, the poem seems to be about oversensitivity, about the problem of finding that the world resonates with images of harm: the sandtex like goosepimpled flesh being one of the 'poor examples', and the only conclusion I could find for this poem was managed a few years after the original drafting, when, living in a different house entirely, we were burgled. The ghosted handprint and the muddy soles are adapted from an intrusion of another kind, though people often do feel personally soiled by such house burglaries. In the title "Vacant Possession" you could feel that the sensitivity to language has become "oversensitivity", because the phrase in its house purchasing capacity has been usurped by the rape theme. I thought that the title The Counterpane was too much for that sort of reason, but there the "pane" and "pain" pun, which is deployed at the end of Vacant Possession anyway, does feel rudely forced. "Rudely forced" you can see the problems inherent in analogies here between technique and theme.

For Lavinia is a truncated sonnet which cannot finish but must cut itself off in the recognition that, like Marcus in the play (and maybe in this conversation), too much has been said. Yet there has been precious little saying in the sequence. The couple have exchanged only a few words. "I concentrated on his tie" is the only direct quote. "Shall I speak for thee?" is the phrase from Titus Andronicus that the poem directs its care and outrage against—with its poet who dare not speak for her and barely dares speak at all. Even the little that is said is too much. And this gives the reader, perhaps, an uncomfortable feeling since, albeit invited, he has trespassed on these poems.

Just last year I was asked to water the plants in a neighbor's flat while they were back in the States, which I did, and the odd thing was that although I'd been invited and had been given a key, going into their empty flat and walking around in it, even to do what they had asked, still felt like a mild trespassing. Why? Perhaps the feeling of trespass is a sign that you are actually respecting someone else's privacy even as you are given an unusual occasion to get a glimpse of it. The reader's position in relation to these poems may well be uneasy, but I can't really see how it could be anything other.

I never thought of For Lavinia as a truncated sonnet; for me, it is a set of quatrains. However, it did have a real lopping off. The poem I wrote had 13 lines: three quatrains and a tie-up last line. When I sent it to the Poetry Nation Review, the editor thought I cut the last line and suggested promoting the penultimate to function like that. So I never had a sonnet in mind, but there is a formal sense of something having been brought to a stop, perhaps.

I can't help thinking that "I've said enough already," which goes dumb and understates the case because the poems have shrieked, is just the right way to end—with all-round trespass. Even the reader, rightly, is rather shunned. Poetry, though, is not something you read, but live with. Presumably, for a poet it is something you stand by, too. Do you think the cycle has itself survived? Staying power might make people think about stamina, but the notion of duration is more closely linked to enduring

Time alone will tell. The earliest one I wrote is only 20 years old this year. I like to think that There Again, Cleaning, and For Lavinia are among the strongest and most resistant pieces I've written. The Harm and September Night seem slightly less so, though, for me, the latter's "I'd only make amends" suggests more about the art of reparation in four words than my critical book In the Circumstances (1992) in thousands. From a Memory suffers perhaps from being a stuttering start, and Vacant Possession ends in images because it can't find a conclusion. As for enduring: can readers endure them?

Can they take them? Well, I'm not too squeamish about poetry. I don't see why anyone should feel troubled by these poems more than by the things that occur every day in the world. I suspect the problem of reading the poems might come not just from the subject matter but from gender problems, i.e., a male writer on rape—he can't know anything about it. Or: they can't be about rape. And the poems are not about rape, or knowing anything about it, in fact....

I don't wholly follow you here. Only one review of This Other Life picked out the sequence for direct criticism of this kind; the Poetry Review piece, which I don't have, accused me of re-raping the sequence's "victim". Needless to say, I was disturbed by the review, but my wife relieved me from that burden, she being perfectly placed to distinguish between a violent act against a woman and some short lyric poems which very discreetly refer to one. Do you mean to say that the poems really aren't about rape and don't know about it? Or just that from a fiercely genderist point of view they can't be and I can't know? I could see some justice in the first sense of the sequence as, rather, about circumstantial guilt, agent regret, moral luck, the soil of rape (but not rape itself), reparation, making amends.... The poems don't have much to say about the rapist, do they?

I meant only that the poems are not "about rape" in that they are about the consequences of it and that they do not let their lyricism be sidetracked into psychology ("Why did he do it?"), sociology (Nicole Ward Jouve's writings), or a misguided attempt to imagine having another body. And they are "not about knowing anything about it" in the sense that they do not know, but they do not make the knowing something to write about, but to show, in writing. I raised the point only because you mentioned the criticism of the word "humbling," it having been said that this word reflects more the man's predicament than the woman's—criticism based on the poet's "not understanding" what had happened to the woman. The final verse and appalled conclusion to A September Night seem to me to show a very keen understanding of what had happened to her, to him and to them. No reparation is possible. Love becomes an echo of something that certainly was not love.

I owe Nicole Ward Jouve a debt of gratitude: she was my personal tutor at York University, before she had become known as a feminist prose and fiction writer, and encouraged me, by, for example, commenting on some juvenilia that I clearly had things to write about but hadn't found how to do it yet. She taught me for a paper on the French Symbolists and was, above all, tolerant of my poor French. Later I read her book on the Yorkshire Ripperafter I'd written all the poems in the sequence barring For Lavinia.

In The Harm, the "fat moths rub their bellies" trying to get in. Lurking underneath is the sense of envy, of others more fortunate. But envy is a spoiling feeling, and the sequence works against resignation to it. How is it that so many of the poems appear to end on a note of resignation—"I'd just make amends", "My love, this is the dirty thing", "I've said too much already"—yet the overall tone is not one of resignation?

Well, I don't think the poems end on notes of resignation because of the ways in which the forms of utterances can deploy significances quite other than their apparent surface senses. In "I'd just make amends", the poem's narrated context suggests that this is somehow a lesser thing than, say, happily making love. And it is, but the statement is a simple direct assertion at the end of a series of more interwoven statements, so the reader is released into an ambiguous but directly expressed aim: "I'm not giving up, though it may sound like it; I'm going to do the best I can."

In "My love, this is the dirty thing," from Cleaning, as you note, the first two words either can refer to my emotion or can address the object of my emotion. The poem begins "Seeing as she submerges", so in its course it makes a move from a third-person distance to an attempt at a voiced second-person relationshipthe pronominal shift dramatizing a bid for intimacy that may seem to be denied by the merely descriptive reading of the last line, which refers to emotional damage.

Something similar is true for "I've said too much already," because the line begins with the Shakespearean character's name: "Lavinia." In that poem the "she" is,  until the last line, the theatrical character, and the "'you" is my wife. With the last line, I speak to the character as if she were my wife, speak to her as if in the voice of her uncle Marcus. I'm acknowledging in the form of a question to the reader that my words cannot ease her pain, or fathom it, but not letting up on the need to want to do it; I'm leaving the reader with that question "And what would I be trying to achieve?" The necessarily impure motives in making art can also be implied. Here, perhaps, the effect is to close the sequence in a falling-away that makes an end of the poem but not of its issues and concerns.

___


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Marcus PerrymanMarcus Perryman was born in England in 1957. He has lived and worked as a translator, teacher, vocational trainer and consultant in Italy for over 20 years. With Peter Robinson he has published Six Poems by Ungaretti (Plain Wrapper Press: Verona, 1980), The Disease of the Elm and Other Poems by Vittorio Sereni (Many Press: London, 1983), Selected Poems of Vittorio Sereni (Anvil Press: London, 1990)

 

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