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The Look of Goodbye is Peter Robinson’s first collection of poems since the Selected Poems 1976—2001. That Selected feels structured by the sense of a divide between Robinson’s earlier work, in volumes like The Benefit Forms and Overdrawn Account and the more recent work. The early volumes, as their titles suggest, deal with a quotidian and predominantly English sense of place and being-in-place:
the cumulus hold,
the clock hands slow.
Penurious and cowed,
you have filled in a name
on each handout.
Robinson’s later poems in the Selected continue to be written in Robinson’s characteristic style — intense but nuanced detail, the preoccupation with place, the aphoristic turn of phrase and the drama of a desire to get a mood down on paper — but the setting, now more usually Japan or Italy, is a far cry from the above. Gone were the domestic disappointments of a Scouse graduate in the later poems of the Selected, replaced by the sense of place and displacement in a foreign land.
In 2006 Robinson published a long poem, There Are Avenues, which traversed the ground of Robinson’s childhood Liverpool. This ambitious work and The Look of Goodbye represent a third stage of Robinson’s career in which perspective is the predominating metaphor and mapping change the frequent project. The Look of Goodbye opens by the Mersey:
I’m starting from the teddy-choirboy
who taught us what painting the town red meant
in a city where you simply had to know
who’d done what on any given Saturday
at Anfield or away...
(The Red Dusk)
The collection’s structure, then, has a sense of the circular about it; and the poems about Japan which still make up the bulk of the work are defined, in that ‘look of goodbye’, by ‘Closure’, as one poem’s title has it. ‘Closure’ is a poem that makes the identification between return and loss, marking out the territory of the collection’s concerns, as well as its predominant mood:
In another town you turn a corner,
but it’s not there any more —
the place with hunting pieces, flagons,
a close-hung mish-mash of daubs and prints.
Here clean breasts were made, minds spoken —
our waiter boning fish, all
genial, patient, hardly bothered
if once more we prove the last to leave.
Home for Robinson is defined in terms of the simultaneous absence of presence of memories, and more obviously by death. Foot and mouth disease, family funerals, the London bombings all welcome Robinson on his various returns to England. As he writes in another poem: ‘It’s a smell that lingers... as if I could still feel the cut cord bleed’ (‘Loud Weather’). Just as frequently, though, is the classic Robinson trope of the unaccountable transformation in oneself that the return foregrounds — that, when we look at ourselves back home, our absence from that home has somehow changed us beyond recognition:
He’d had already got in a beer...
He’d got the job we both went in for,
had already had an eventful career,
was a little burned out, sure, overstretched
moonlighting for the papers, yes;
yet his every anecdote’s divided aim
gaining neither love nor praise,
no, he hadn’t changed that much;
we still looked the same.
I liked him; but he didn’t recognise me,
an alter-ego or what-have-you...
(A London Afterlife)
The poems set abroad define the self in relation, if not opposition, to something else; in a London bar, one is forced to confront one’s own reflection.
The poems of exile focus, then, on external things; not least, of course, the sense of place in itself, sometimes purely as a scene of wonder, as in ‘Stranded’:
No shortage of footprints in the sand,
boats aplenty on a sea horizon,
and after ages spent under an umbrella
trying to remain in the shade,
I couldn’t be less like a Robinson Crusoe
wretched lonely for his humankind.
Still here the station looks out over that sea
horizon at sunset, its line interrupted
by shrubs, oleanders in flower,
white lamps aglow for the dusk and all this
niched into a cliff-face with two tunnel mouths
opened at either end.
The station is a stretch of brightness
growing shadowed between
dark gulfs, even now, as a train
breaks up this respite’s last light and place
with its dead weight, its braking force,
and crowded coaches are gone from what was
the most beautiful station you’d ever seen.
The tempting comparison to make with Robinson’s poetry is obviously the work of Elizabeth Bishop, but in spite of the common concern with light and especially iridescence, Robinson is more correctly aligned with English landscape traditions. One thinks of Auden, Spender, or even Donald Davie when reading Robinson’s poetry. The effect of Bishop’s method visually is primarily one of clarity; Robinson, on the other hand, makes a point of mystery and absence, of the things the eye cannot see or grasp, of what we see but that evades the mind — a difference particularly marked in Robinson’s subtle but disjunctive syntax.
There is a sense in Robinson’s work of there being a greater significance in the process of working out over arriving at any final conclusions:
Life in an oblique light, autumn’s
or daybreak’s, comes
like drawn curtains out from flat cloud banks;
open, closed, whatever, it comes
down leaf-coloured hillsides’
casual jigsaws of roof-shapes and corners,
epochs in their building lines;
with intricate grammar, the light
attends to each detail, praises
existence, picks out leaves
still hinting at what made me stay.
There again, they look
like one more invitation
to be off and gone...
The poems that attempt, unsuccessfully, to decode the ‘intricate grammar’ of an episode, where the various undecidable possibilities create an emotion that requires no explicit mention, are always Robinson’s best. The pieces in The Look of Goodbye that too easily push their too-poetic and -epiphanic meaning through — that ‘successfully’ work themselves out — are ironically the more strained as well as less engaging works for the reader. Indeed, it is the poems of this sort that mean the poetry of exile tends to grate toward the end of the book, where the repetitive lament of the outsider becomes a too-predictable turn that the reader is increasingly excluded from.
One the whole, however, The Look of Goodbye leaves one only with a reminder only of Robinson’s originality and uniqueness. The poems don’t look like much compared to other poets who might be considered Robinson’s peers, and it is easy to see why Robinson’s freshness, and his gifts generally, remain undervalued. They look, and sometimes sound, like your run-of-the-mill post-Yeatsian lyric. But a sustained reading of Robinson becomes increasingly attracted to his Shakespearian turn of phrase (‘some holes / are poked in the sky, in the sky / and in our arguments’), the subtle sound mimesis of his lines (‘though you may want to be drawing a line / with time, it can’t be done’), and, most of all, his unconventional rhythmical virtuosity. Robinson is one of few English poets writing today who could write these lines: ‘Balcony guardrails’ vertical rectangles, / scaffolding walkways on latest apartments’. Most of all, the poems of The Look of Goodbye remain, in Roy Fisher’s appraisal of Robinson’s poems, ‘the urgencies of new creations’.
Ben Hickman teaches at the University of Kent
and is currently working on a study of John Ashbery’s work.