Sniffing the Air

Ghost Characters
, Peter Robinson
[60pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press]


Peter Robinson's latest accomplished collection takes its title from a short lyric sequence  about spectral memories invading cities and social events, 'like glimpsing from a tour bus... people you have lost', puzzling refugees from a Wim Wenders film killing time on the edge of groups of people. 'What do they come back for?' he asks, but in the end there is only a beachscape and no easy answers. Other poems patrol cities, seeing them anew: 'January Sales' envisions an economic apocalypse - 'everything, everything must go' - while 'Impossibilia' and 'Electric Storm' are fine, gritty exercises in weather description, the former painting a vivid tableau of the junk-shop world:

     Sheltered where the old world was still stored,
     we were repairing from life's main force
     among poor daubs, musty tomes, and the worse
     furniture, pieces to be restored.

In this collection, Robinson seems to be exploring elegiac tones, autumnal, clouded afternoons with the sky about to break into downpours. Many poems meander into the past tense of memories recalled, 'Untitled', one of the strongest,  concluding with a melancholy note of 'the next to last of England', recalling the iconic painting, but the poet remains on the verge of departure, sniffing the air, rather than under way. All of this is to my taste, but just occasionally the rather inert reliance upon description need to be leavened by more variety. 'Paper Work', a quiet family poem, and 'Unpopular Song' a jaunty five-stanza lyric, are the nearest Robinson comes to this, but even in this latter it is not long before 'exorcised ghosts' appear. This shouldn't really matter when a poet is as scrupulous as he is, but somehow it does.

Some of this territory has been explored before in collections like About Time Too (Carcanet, 2001) and whilst it is good to see a strong writer doggedly pursuing his interests, there is a slightly passive, reactive element to many of these new poems which prevents a totally enthusiastic endorsement of Robinson's many virtues as a poet. Here are some of them: clean stanza patterns, courageous appropriation of phrases from Hardy, vivid creation of a sense of place, a refusal to overstay his poetic welcome... this is a good collection, which I will re-read and enjoy. It just feels a bit narrow at times.

                  Martin Caseley 2006