Issue 9: Ian Brinton on Peter Robinson's The Returning Sky

The Returning Sky: Peter Robinson in the frame

In the opening essay of his recent book The Long 1950s Andrew Duncan gave a clear picture of what poetry can do when he suggested that ‘Great poetry shows a power of movement between the visible and the invisible’. And as if in response an early poem in Peter Robinson’s The Returning Sky presents us with an image that conjures up the world of the great American photographer Charles Sheeler, the self-proclaimed Precisionist, whose work emphasized the exactness of linear framework he employed in his depictions:

He was touching the hard edge where life and art met.

(‘At the Institute’) 

The moving current of life is stilled for a moment within the static frame of a photograph or a poem. In his 1942 publication, Le parti pris des choses, Francis Ponge declared our need for edges and boundaries: in order to obtain a mental grasp of the world we need those edges, contours, frames which define for us a world of differences. In ‘Bords de Mer’ (Seashores) we cannot approach ‘the simplest things in nature without a good many formalities, the thickest things without a bit of thinning out’. Peter Robinson frames human losses in ‘Pension Scheme’ by summing them up ‘with the spiders’ handiwork, quotations, house repairs’ and juxtaposes these ‘memories draped by the beneficent spider’ (Eliot) with the delicacy of balance as swans

With cygnet balls of fluff beside them

float on their reflections

The poems in this volume are haunted with a sense of debt, a reflective voice calling back upon a world what can never be recovered. ‘Ode to Debt’ is prefaced by a quotation from Samuel Butler who claimed that ‘All progress is based upon the universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its means’ and the poet’s visit to West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, at the time of the BBC’s filming of Little Dorrit in 2008, looks beyond the ‘False shutters’ of a film set to recognise the suicide of the false banker Merdle with his ‘shady bathtub end’.  As ‘securities’ run, like the sands of time, ‘fast through cupped fingers’ (‘Mortgaged Time’) and credit flows reminding us that ‘another day’ has ‘been lent to us’ which can never be returned (‘Credit Flow’) these poems of a ‘Returning Sky’ register a world valuable in its very transience; a world caught for a moment through the poet’s lens. When we look at the early gouache sketch of Lawrie Park Avenue which Pisarro made in 1871 before going on to complete his oil painting of the same scene, hanging in the National Gallery, Peter Robinson makes us aware of the palimpsest nature of the past as that which has gone glimpses at us from inside the frame:

He painted out one female figure.

Her pentimenti could be seen

still on the gravel, advancing towards me,

as a darker stain.


Still-ness resides within the frame as the erased past shadows forth into the stillness of the present. Almost in answer to Ponge’s thinning out of the thickest things, Peter Robinson’s ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’ concludes

But lacking such things to do with the past,

like this figure he had painted out

who fills the air with an indelible stain,

there’d be no possibilities.

They thicken into leaf, his flanking trees.

Look, now, it’s as plain as plain.

Graffiti artists may ‘daub the town with words once more’ (‘Graffiti Service’) but ‘council workers are out on their round’ cleaning up the space ‘with industrial spray-gun, solvent and paint’. With wry humour Peter Robinson not only recognises how these cleaners are themselves like artists ‘preparing a ground’, or canvas, but notes at the end of the volume how he is being gently mocked with a quotation from one of his own early poems in the 1980  Many Press publication, Overdrawn Account. There in ‘The Interrupted Views’, after a quotation from Adrian Stokes (‘The world is full of home’) the poet concludes that a return is not only registered by ‘Mute welcomes’ but that ‘Home is the view I appropriate’. The Returning Sky is a testament to life not loss, art’s haunting visibility.

Ian Brinton is currently the reviews editor for Tears in the Fence. His most recent publications include Contemporary Poetry since 1990 (C.U.P. 2009) and he is the editor of A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Shearsman 2009). His most recent publication is An Andrew Crozier Reader, Carcanet 2012,  and he is currently working on both a collection of essays about the poetry of Peter Hughes for Shearsman and a book of Andrew Crozier’s prose.