The Returning Sky, Peter Robinson, Shearsman Books, 108pp, £8.95 (paperback)

Peter Robinson’s new collection, The Returning Sky, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, brings together sixty-one poems written in the four years since his return to England after eighteen years teaching in Japan. His second collection to be published by Shearsman, it is an impressive adjunct to The Look of Goodbye: Poems 2001-2006, written while he was living and working in Sendai and Kyoto. It brings to a conclusion the poetic output of what has been for him a highly productive decade. Born in 1953 in Salford, Lancashire, Robinson grew up in Liverpool. He is now professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading. In recent years, along with writing some of his own best work, he has been a prolific translator of Italian poetry, most notably that of Vittorio Sereni, Luciano Erba and Antonia Pozzi. He has also published Spirits of the Stair, a collection of his aphorisms, Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible, and has edited Reading Poetry, an anthology of contemporary poets associated with his new home town, and Bernard Spencer: Complete Poetry, Translations & Selected Prose.

In‘AsLikeasNot’fromTheLookofGoodbye,Robinsonportrayedhimself as ‘an alien/gazing at an alien horizon’ and making a half-hearted attempt ‘to seem at home’. In other poems from the same volume we saw him processing the formalities of his ‘alien registration’ or sitting in a ‘transit lounge’, with his Italian wife and trilingual daughters, waiting for flights between England, Italy and back to Japan. However, after so many years of living abroad, he now seems faced with the choice of having to re-learn the meaning of ‘home’ or accepting his role as a permanent outsider, even in England where, to quote Philip Larkin in his poem ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’: ‘no elsewhere underwrites my existence.’ Moreover, Robinson’s sense of unease has been exacerbated in his recent work by the global financial crisis and the disillusion and uncertainty which it has brought in its wake.

Although, by and large, the poems in The Returning Sky deal with Robinson’s life in England, they are preceded by a small number which were written after an ‘unexpected visit’ to the United States. The opening poem, ‘Westwood Dusk’, sets the tone for much of what follows:

At the corner of Wiltshire and Westwood
what looked like a corpse
had collapsed on the sidewalk,
a smear of saliva
expressed from his lips.

The circumstances which have reduced this individual to his sorry state are not entirely clear. However, it seems of little importance in a world where everyone is obsessed with their own concerns and simply walks by. Even the poet himself is fearful of becoming too involved in this strange, new, and potentially threatening environment: ‘I stepped off and ran for my life./That corpse was out cold/but breathing’. The poem’s alternative take on the parable of the Good Samaritan is not only tragic but clearly an indictment of contemporary values. The piece then ends on a surreal note when the poet’s eye is drawn to an advertisement for a film:

Fixed under a sky glow,
Stranger than Fiction
had opened at Westwood Crest;
I was checking my direction
with best foot forward,
seeing and believing it there in LA.

In ‘South Shore Line’ the poet passes through various stations on a private railway line that runs along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. He gives us a series of snapshots in which we get a sense of America’s post- industrial decline:

Further, more snow flurries turning to thin rain,
WELCOME TO GARY it spelt out on the town hall,
but still your familiar rust-belt squalor
couldn’t make me feel any more at home.

By painted clapboard houses ran our corrugated train,
screen doors tacked up with cards that read FOR SALE
(sub-prime, though I didn’t know the term,
and, granddad, they so weren’t going to be sold.)

While the desolate suburbs of America may bring back memories of the derelict mills and factories of the north of England, elsewhere in the poem the poet’s grandfather and his ‘panic/over train-times’ that ‘must have been a fear of losing jobs’ also remind us of an earlier economic meltdown. And so, from LA and Chicago we find ourselves in Reading. Though never a part of England’s industrial wasteland, and traditionally a prosperous town in the Home Counties, it is one where, nonetheless, inflated property prices and a relatively high cost of living bring their own challenges. This is particularly so in a period of retrenchment, when job losses and high levels of personal debt can spell disaster. It is also a place where the returning ex-pat can still feel that it is ‘Like a Foreign Country’:

That much had been left behind.
Cloud-diffused sunlight would soothe
my jangled nerves. You’d find
it was like our daughter’s school report:
me too, I’m happy as can be
expected, coping well
with moving … in a foreign country.

In ‘Recovered Memory’ one of the poet’s daughters is again depicted, when she asks: ‘Dad, is there anywhere you feel’s home?’ However, in spite of this rootlessness, or perhaps as a result of it, Robinson has not been short of subject matter in Reading. Indeed, he seems to have an uncanny knack for finding his inspiration in the strangest of places. An accomplished painter, who has himself supplied the artwork for his last two collections, his ‘Unearned Visuals’ is a masterly poem in which a mysterious bungalow squeezed in behind some advertising hoardings gives the poet plenty of scope to make use of his ‘artist’s eye’:

That bungalow protected by Decaux hoardings,
a one-off industrial cottage has
two chimney pots, bayed windows
the green door in between them
and lemon-daubed brickwork, smutted now;
it blanks me, close up, appears to hide
behind those images.

Having pinned down the haecceitas of this intriguing relict of a bygone era in a few deft strokes, he then goes on to highlight the inflated claims of the present as exemplified by the hoardings behind which ‘it’s hidden from package holiday vistas,/spectacular bank accounts, high-definition/ pay-as-you-watch-them-franchise wars.’ Reviewing Robinson’s previous collection in Poetry London, Martyn Crucefix rightly praised Robinson for his ‘vivid and truly memorable observation’. Certainly, among contemporary poets I can only think of Charles Tomlinson who is so adept at capturing such a multitude of visual impressions: changes in light and shifts in the weather, the patterns of leafage, or the textures of brickwork and flagstones. It is no surprise, therefore, that The Returning Sky is replete also with the names of visual artists, from Charles Scheeler in ‘At the Institute’ to Rembrandt, Hals, Seurat, Brueghel, David, and Camille Pisarro in ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’.

Frequently inspired by Reading’s architectural heritage, in ‘Huntley & Palmers’ he shows us the little that is left of this great enterprise that became one of the world’s first global brands and whose philanthropic founding fathers did so much for the town: ‘A sudden scent of wood smoke/rises across locked, sluggish water/where a drowned white bicycle/ seems to float up from the depths’. In ‘Cemetery Junction’ he describes a landmark dividing two streams of traffic:

Cemetery Junction, under the rain …
its entrance, death’s triumphal arch,
stands out against the sky’s plain grey
and dirtied life in ephemeral floods
of traffic choosing east or south-east
separates around fume-smutted sandstone.
That neo-classical gatehouse bars
buses and cars the choice of straight on:
it’s imposing, in its way

In ‘Reading Gaol’ he refers, somewhat unsurprisingly, to the figure of Oscar Wilde. However, he then draws a marked contrast between the ‘sheer, featureless, brutist walls’ of the prison and the less austere structure of Homebase, where the poet and his wife have gone ‘to cost soft furnishings,/to match non-toxic paints’.

Robinson is also adept at digging out and exploiting the town’s lesser-known literary past. In ‘165 King’s Road’ he unearths an obscure connection with Arthur Rimbaud. In 1874 the French poet gave this address in a small ad in The Times in which he offered his services as a man of ‘high literary and linguistic attainments’. In ‘Whiteknights Park’ the urban pastoral of what is now the campus of Reading University is beautifully rendered:

Pigeons poised at grey pinnacles
struck by summer sunlight
ruffle feathers like ghosts in stone.
A squirrel darts along black fence-work,
pauses on some vertical bark;

However, in a note to the poem Robinson points out that Alexander Pope was a frequent visitor and that the original house, the scene of extravagant parties, was allegedly torn down by its creditors.

Other poems, which are more directly inspired by our own ‘slow down’, ‘crisis’ – call it what you will – are informed by punning ironies that may have been reinforced by Robinson’s recent penchant for writing aphorisms. In ‘Personal Credit’, playing as it does with the concepts of authenticity and economic expediency, he puns upon the fact that he and his wife have ‘no history’. In ‘Ode to Debt’ he consults ‘the Oracle’, Reading’s fortuitously named shopping mall where ‘arcade emporia’ are ‘filled/ with promise to be bought with promises’. In ‘Owning the Problem’ F. H. Bradley’s philosophical terminology is used ironically to suggest the costs involved in maintaining a property; while, in ‘By a Wayside Shrine’, what is actually being described is an ATM beneath which ‘Advice is trampled like confetti’.

A richly textured and highly allusive collection in which each poem is underpinned by resonant diction and authoritative cadences, The Returning Sky is structured around a series of powerful dichotomies: public and private lives, materialism and authenticity, homelessness and belonging. It is the work of a poet who is writing at the height of his powers and one who now seems able to find ‘a theme from whatever/happens to be happening’.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.