Pasts, Presents and Futures

The Look of Goodbye,
Peter Robinson (140pp, 9.95, Shearsman)
Gregory Woods (80pp. 9.95. Carcanet)
A Few Late Flowers,
Cliff Ashby (30pp, 3.00. Happenstance)

Peter Robinson is a prolific poet. The Look of Goodbye is his fourteenth book the poems in it written between 2001 and 2006. After years of teaching in Japan, Robinson is now a professor at the University of Reading; having, too, an Italian wife means he also spends time in Italy. He was born in Manchester and brought up in Liverpool. It is therefore not surprising to find that many of the poems in this collection brood on the theme of displacement, on the now common experience of shuffling between different worlds or, if you are more at ease with it, inhabiting the global village. Robinson is a chronicler of ambivalent feelings arising out of being in one or other location whilst remembering and thinking about others wondering where one's roots are, where home and its insistent loyalties may be or may have been, contemplating what it is, when one leaves a place, that's being left behind Some poems find him in transit, flying between places, or waiting at airports or railway stations. Liverpool, Manchester, Japan, Scotland, Italy, France, Austria all provide backgrounds for impressionistic musings, musings that might carry the marking andante - i.e. take at a walking pace. This offers a contrast to the speeded-up world Robinson moves in and is something that helps to exemplify the kinds of disjunction the poems explore. At the end of 'As Like as Not' he tells us
            Then yet once more, in this far-off sunset,
            I'll start on a theme to reconcile
            ourselves with precipitous mountains
            and the benefits of exile.
We are not made confident that he achieves the reconciliations he hopes for. I'll quote the opening stanza of 'Languages of Weather' to give an impression of the quiet, almost casual, thought processes I find typical:
            For the momentary feeling of changed
            idiom in the atmosphere,
            I'm listening through static, white noise,
            through the chores and challenged
            dutiful attempts to be here;
            I listen for the sound of a voice
            as for a passing, brief sensation
            in the languages of weather,
            something that might have been sensed by
            a relative or someone
            at the corner of a street, the sky.
Not all the poems come off. Sometimes the impressionism gets smudged, the andante pace is slowed down by over-long sentences to become more like ambling; and sometimes one is not always sure what setting one is in; again, sometimes the poems feel somewhat introverted with the consequence that one feels left outside; it is not always easy, for example, to appreciate who the 'you' of a poem is. Inevitably, literary allusions are woven into the poems but they are there playfully rather than for sophisticated showing off. The poems travel between past and future; they look into matters of childhood, family; are troubled by wars, so that the future doesn't always feel like something to look forward to. What I like about Robinson's poems apart from their sensitivity to light, clouds, sky, weather is that they possess an honesty which doesn't shirk expressing vulnerability, bewilderment, doubt, disappointment, tensions between remembering and forgetting ('what it is we could take from those years/or must give away'). In 'Platt Fields' for example, we find him revisiting the Manchester of his grandparents and asking
            Then what was it supposed to mean
            if not that the life of streets has an end
            yet something else stretches beyond?

The poems of Gregory Woods have never failed to impress me. When a book like Quidnunc, his fourth collection from Carcanet, makes its appearance it makes me seriously wonder what the selectors and pre-selectors for prestigious awards are up to. Why isn't Gregory Woods' name up there? For a start there are few poets around who can rival him technically. Peter Porter's comment on the back of the collection claiming that Woods has 'the sharpest technique for social verse in Britain today' is spot on. Not only does he impress with his gift for sustaining poems over some length, he can dazzle with spectacular rhyming. In 'The Newstead Fandango' we find him gleefully pursuing triplet rhyme, not just through a single stanza but through five at a time:
            A hot September afternoon, a roasting field of barley,
            Largesse in such abundance, all the world seems touchy-feely,
            And even the moist misanthropic farmer waxes jolly.
            The Earth is manifest in such variety, it daily
            Demands to be acknowledged with an attitude part holy,
            Part blasphemous. We owe a duty to esteem it highly
            But estimate its future under man's control but poorly
            Ill-chosen habitat for such a self-destructive bully.
            While Satan was condemned to surf the landscape of his belly,
            Man stands aloof from it, perhaps remarking in its silly
            Quiescence his disruptiveness. Could he but fly he'd duly
            Remove himself from gravity with levity and sully
            The very breeze with his inconsequence...A steeple's hourly
            Reminder of mortality rings out across the valley
            And fools with time to kill accuse the clock of being early.
This ventriloquises Byron beautifully but it is not the only point of admiration: the poem in question is written in nineteen sections of five three-line verses, each one of which pursues a single rhyme. And not just that: Woods employs, as James Joyce had done, the Homeric story of Odysseus to construct his poem. It is an astonishing achievement.
In the equally brilliant 'Sir Osbert's Complaint', which also employs triplet rhyming, Woods enjoys anapaestic rhythm, which not many poets today would think of attempting:
            The society our parent kept we mimicked in our own:
            Their jejune, dogmatic arguments; that hyperbolic tone;
            And the scenes we'd seen two adults act without a chaperone.
Needless to say the 276-line poem is a tour de force, a way of mocking the pretensions of the Sitwell family whilst at the same time ensuring our sympathies for its narrator, Osbert, who, at the end of the poem, is left pondering
            What endures? A thousand pages of my memoirs. Little more.
            Edith's poems, at a pinch. And Sachy's offspring. Little more.
            And the Sitwell seat at Renishaw. There's this and little more.
This is a solid and hugely readable collection with many more things to admire than just the technical accomplishments adumbrated above. Woods is a poet whose thinking is razor-sharp, his wit highly inventive, his sense of history acute, his narratives finely sculpted, his feelings deeply sourced.

Cliff Ashby, who began writing at the age of forty, is now in his late eighties. Born in Norfolk in 1919 the son of a preacher, he is the author of three Carcanet collections and one published by Hodder & Stoughton. The sixteen poems in this pamphlet are, as you might expect, to do with final things. The collection ends with the poet tottering 'towards the/Final resolution' and realising he has 'finally run out of words'. The first poem Happy Sundays looks back to earlier days of simple family tea-times followed by church-going:
            Evening found us in chapel
            Listening to the Christian doctrine
            Of love and not understanding
            Its implications, distracted
            By dad's histrionics
            In the pulpit.
Those implications remain at the heart of the poems:
            Yet here I sit
            Watching at my window,
            An impotent old man
            Listening to Sinatra
            Singing the standards
with God denying him 'the Grace to face/My dwindling days/With a cheerful and grateful/Heart'; and in A Spent Force
lamenting loss of virility. Having early found and quickly lost 'a great peace' offered him by Christianity, he is still, as the title of a further poem states, bothered by God. The central feeling is one of loss: 'Where did she go/The beautiful young woman/Whose body I adored/Who joined me on/My journey to the tomb?'
These are undemanding poems but their straightforward honesty is undeniably appealing.
                  Matt Simpson 2008