Issue 9: Peter Swaab - commissioning a poem

Robinson’s Commission

Peter Robinson’s poems have many dedicatees, but I may be the first to have commissioned one from him. I say commissioned, but really it was just that I told him I wanted a poem for the occasion of my civil partnership with Andrew McDonald in 2008. I was confident that this would be OK – both that no offence would be taken and that he’d come up with the goods. When something interesting happens, he writes about it in his notebook. Making poems comes to him as naturally as the leaves to the trees. A good deal of his poetry is occasional in that it’s the way of his art to find matter in whatever life brings his way. An abundant gift in that respect, and also a sign of his ethics and politics to believe that nothing is below his notice.

         The commission ended in a handsome green pamphlet, printed by Peter’s Pine Wave Press colleagues at Reading University. It brought together the two parts of his poem and three drawings by Andrew, a joint effort that became a wedding present for us and a souvenir of the days for all who were there.

         ‘Days’, because there were two ceremonies. The first was at Hackney Town Hall. Peter, Ornella and their daughters were there; Matty and Giulia were ring-bearers. The second was at Hoveton House in Norfolk, the home of our friends Tom and Leslie, and the ceremony was in a walled garden. It had no legal standing but felt like the real thing. In the UK you can only be legally married in registered venues, and you can never be married out of doors. Anyway, we liked the idea of an alfresco event. It was delayed by August showers but went wonderfully. Here are the two parts of the poem. 

                  Ekphrastic Marriage

                           For Peter Swaab and Andrew McDonald 


                  Slants of companionate sun

                  are coming to the rescue

                  across slim volume spines, disks, pictures.

                  They touch each scratch and scar.

                  A street scene from an upstairs window,

                  one grandly battered car

                  parked beside the yellow door,

                  is framed too as you draw back curtains.

                  The kitchen sink from last night’s party,

                  banter sounding until late,

                  bares remnants of your taken pains.

                  Slow silence now, first daylight

                  picks across a crusted palette,

                  leaves the pots and pans to do …

                  Found like an ekphrastic marriage,

                  love lies in its element

                  and home is where the paintings are.





                  More, when the sposa bagnata

                  had been rained on enough to bring luck,

                  we were scanning the sky for a change in the weather –

                  advised to hold off with our speeches

                  until cloud thinned, as you did.

                  Then a sun slant broke through orchard trees,

                  mottling seventeenth-century brick;

                  it had painted a glitter across Broad water.

                  Bright in damp air, disturbed wasps from their nest

                  stung neither host nor guest.

                  Careless of such obliquities

                  as gain definition by attacking another,

                  that sun’s oblique beam touched farthest reaches:

                  it struck us all, included.


         The first part calls up many visits to our flat in London. All the details are true, though the yellow door is now pale green and the battered car has a new owner (an Australian woman into documentary film who was the only bidder when we put it on ebay). I like the peaceful way that in the quiet morning scene of the poem it’s the world and not humanity that makes things happen. The sun, the street scene, the kitchen sink and the daylight govern the main verbs. They do the framing and rescuing and remnant-baring and leaving which lead up to love lying in its element and home being where the paintings are. The unstirring people haven’t yet been brought morning tea and coffee (an early riser, Peter as guest tends to write lines of verse first thing and then gets busy with what he thinks the Jeevesian task of making morning beverages for his hosts).

         The second poem is all true too. It did rain, really quite a lot, before turning sunny in the nick of time. Peter has added the Italian proverbial benediction ‘sposa bagnata, sposa fortunata’ (‘wet bride, lucky bride’). I wondered at first if this should be plural as we both got wet, but it’s better in the singular, with no distinction between the two grooms who each get a gender twist for the new-style marital day. Epithalamia have to negotiate the links between a couple and a society, and Peter connects them with one of the thoughtful and disconcerting swerves of syntax which you find in a good deal of his poetry:

                  we were scanning the sky for a change in the weather –

                  advised to hold off with our speeches

                  until cloud thinned, as you did.

The focus shifts from the ‘we’ who scanned the sky and received good advice onto the other advisees, the marrying ‘you’. Each time I read the line ‘until cloud thinned, as you did’ its oddity is fresh. ‘As you did’ sounds momentarily as if the grooms did what the cloud did, and then by another mildly strange grammatical turn it becomes the grooms and not the speech-makers who are in charge of the holding off, it’s their day. The verbal play makes for a thoroughly Robinsonian rejigging; he likes attending to moment by moment changes in how his speakers find and refind themselves in relation to other people and the world around.

         The poem discovers a matter-of-fact uplift, right for an epithalamium, in the sun coming out. The line ‘it had painted a glitter in Broad water’ is about light and air and water, but the skill of the writing gives the scene both energy, in the dancing rhythm of ‘it had painted a glitter’, and solidity, in the spondaic internal rhyme of ‘glitter’ and ‘Broad water’.  And the poem ends, too, with a big generous sense of the day as a communal pleasure, with all ‘included’ under the sun’s broad reach: ‘it struck us all, included’. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Peter Swaab


Postscript from emails.

(i) Peter Swaab to Peter Robinson, 5 April 2010

PS Did I tell you that one of the guests protested that actually she HAD been stung by one of the wasps? Lucky you wrote it before you knew that, as you're not one for the nothing affirmeth nothing lieth get-out clause.

(ii) Peter Robinson to Peter Swaab, 27 April 2010

Thinking of sending 'Ekphrastic Marriage' off to The London Magazine, I had a look at the issue of the fact that someone claims to have been stung by the wasps. So, here's a tiny revision that, I think, doesn't weaken the poem, and covers the history. Actually, I prefer the rhythm and it perhaps adds nuance:

FOR Bright in damp air, disturbed wasps from their nest / stung neither host nor guest. READ Bright in damp air, disturbed wasps from their nest /stung barely a host nor guest.


(iii) Peter Swaab to Peter Robinson, 27 April 2010

I prefer the original version of the poem. A nicely rhymed iambic pentameter followed by a trimeter, felicitous and not entirely expected, like the unstung-ness. 'Barely a host' is a bit of a mouthful, and the grammar goes wobbly with barely-nor, but you like wobbles so maybe you like that. The absence of stings was true to the perspective of the moment of writing. 


(iv) Peter Swaab to Peter Robinson, 26 November 2012

Re: Dichtung und Wahrheit

I saw that Ekphrastic M kept the 'stung neither host nor guest' reading [when it was reprinted in The Returning Sky]. Was that out of courtesy to your (non-paying) patron and first Commissioner of Poems? I've been much enjoying and admiring your new(ish) book, currently at the bedside.


(v) Peter Robinson to Peter Swaab, 26 November 2012

Re: Dichtung und Wahrheit

No I didn't change it, because your comments struck me as correct, so sticking to the original inspiration looked like the higher Wahrheit that I had to privilege on that occasion!