“as if life were a table laid”

Like the Living End, Peter Robinson, Worple Press, £7.00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Like_the_Living_End
The title poem and centre-piece of Robinson’s pamphlet is the long meditative poem ‘Like the Living End’ occasioned by the death of an old school friend, with whom Robinson shared an early interest in Bob Dylan and his lyrics. This poem, like others in the pamphlet, seems to draw on a conflict between Arcadian imagery and post-industrial decay. For instance in ‘Rubbish Theory’ we have echoes of Shakespeare colliding with an entropic view of society:

The streets are paved with takeaway
wrappers, strewn sheets, cans
and posters for elections…

In fact, the gravitas, settings and metrical meticulousness of Robinson’s poetry reminds the reader at times of Tony Harrison, but Robinson’s tone is more singly elegiac as compared with Harrison’s satirical and polemic bite. Robinson’s urge to unite the secular, contemporary world with that of the past, of the Ancients, often yields striking poems – such as a latter-day Orpheus stuck in the London underground or a middle-aged couple in their bathroom, ashamed of their bodies, cast as Adam and Eve. However, the focal point of the collection is grief, and how poets are to deal with the loss of friends and the guilty urge to make sense of this in poetry:

(forgive me, forgive me I’m co-opting you now).

But what else can I do with our dead ones
as we become people from history too?
Glad to be of use, you’re helpful still,
don’t want to cause her pain,
are practising duets with me
like this one in a minor key
with black notes to be borne in mind?
Let’s try it one more time again.

While this poem conveys real pathos, the reader is occasionally struck by the hermetic nature of the experiences/ reminiscences the poem discusses, as it is effectively a conversation with a dead friend. There are a number of poems in the pamphlet which give the impression that they are just filling space, providing a vehicle for this long poem. These poems are ‘Next to Nothing’, ‘All Change’ and ‘Between Parentheses’. All three discuss the fleetingness of life convincingly but seem to be geared up to a serio-comic and glib ‘punch-line’. The ‘I’m next to nothing now’ which closes ‘Next to Nothing’ is a homonym playing with the clichéd use of the phrase and the fact that the bed is missing a lover. ‘All Change’ is about literal and ontological distances travelled on trains and ends with the interjection of a tannoy announcement ‘All change, please, all change’. Finally ‘Between Parentheses’ is a poem of liminality where the speaker is ‘a multi-storey car park / where we can’t find the car’. Yet this poem seems to limp somewhat to its ending where the speaker is projected out of himself – ‘it’s as if I could see me now’.

However, I’d argue that the main poem of this pamphlet is ‘On the Esplanade’ and the few poems which mourn the death of the poet’s father. These surpass anything else in the pamphlet for their lyricism, insight and emotional heft. In this poem, the father (a retired rector) is nearing the end of his life when his son urges him to remember all of the people he has served:

…into a general amnesia go
all the babies he baptised,
the thousands married, churched and buried,
who prided himself on his good funerals…
‘Remember them, dad?’
                                    ‘Do I have to?’ he said,
those words come murmuring back to me
now low tide laps at mud and rocks
and I’m alone along the last
stretches of Grassendale Esplanade,
stopped by the wartime pillbox
still guarding an entrance to Garston Docks.
Then, look, two black birds, male and mate,
come pecking at somebody’s dusk patio
as if life were a table laid.

In keeping with some of Robinson’s poems about urban decay, it is worth noting that he comes closest to visionary poetic statements when he acts like an auspex, reading into the behaviour of birds the wider patterns of mankind.

Richie McCaffery
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery

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