Layer by Layer

Yellow Studio, Stephen Romer (112pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

Stephen Romer made a big impact with the short, disciplined stanzas of his second poetry collection, Plato's Ladder in 1992, and this fourth collection continues many of his keynote themes. Many are set in France or concern teaching - Romer has been involved in American academia as Visiting Professor of French - and several poems speak of the writer or painter's need for a sacred space in which to work. Specifically, two poems ('Dismantling the Library', 'Dismantlings 2') explore what it means to prise apart such familiar spaces: it is 'removed layer by layer' like a honeycomb, and 'squattable tomorrow / by strangers'. 'Yellow Studio', the title poem, finds parallels in exploring Vuillard's studio: 'I stare with nostalgiaÉand I know the place / absolutely', but other poems here explore the anxiety of age and the melancholic tone of a sense of exile.

The poems here are carefully arranged into five sections and the fourth, loosely about the experiences of teaching in America, seems to me, with the honourable exception of 'Yellow Studio', the weakest. A sequence of short sketches, 'Waindell Shorts', strains to attain a loose-jacketed late Lowell casualness of tone and seems less sure-footed than Romer can be.

Happily, the book concludes with a fifth section of very strong poems devoted to the character of the poet's father, as he approaches death. Whereas the earlier pieces were quite inward and hermetic in their artistic explorations, these work in a different manner. The father-son dynamic often results in precise, heartfelt definitions of the self and thus it is here: Hugo Williams, whose poems often winningly explore his own father's complexities, is right to laud them as a real achievement. Romer begins some time after his father's death, noticing 'this clearance / this sunny space to be busy in'('Pottering About') , then retrospectively describes for the reader his father's school days, his National Service, his love of music, sibling rivalry and passions for ornithology and Wimbledon. When he is finally confined to a hospital bed, Romer is made to recognise his father's essential privacy, his silence and 'adherence to routine' ('No Interruptions'), but still the gulf between father and son remains, mired in silence:

     Something of the grey heron
     the ashen heron
     in your demeanour
     when you stood watching herons...
           ('Further Encounters')

His father's death does not bring what we now lightly refer to as 'closure'; instead, secrets, quirks of character and intellect, aspects of love and family life remain forever unfinished and inconclusive, Romer movingly anatomising 'the intermittent crises / of self-esteem, the struggle / at times despairing, against failure // and self-exclusion'. The need to enter into a kind of dialogue against such a resolute, disciplined figure has brought a new, vivid  precision to Romer's work here.

          © M.C.Caseley  2008