Mary Robinson is here on her second collection, in which she shows that she has some interesting ideas of her own, particularly about imagery. It isn’t just that she can coin a striking image – though I especially liked her comparison of an iron ring, not the finger sort but more like a mooring ring, to “a hagoday to knock/on the earth’s sanctuary. (A hagoday, for those who like me would have to go online to find out, is a door-knocker on a place of sanctuary.) It is more that she has interesting things to say about the purpose of imagery. For instance, in “Beech Trees”, she opens with
They remind me
of those women
who had been to Girton
or the Slade
From here on, you can forget the birch trees: the poem is wholly about a certain type of woman she recalls from her youth, and whom she evokes with a wealth of tender detail, from the “long grey hair” and “brown tweed skirts” to the cottages they turn into refuges for artists and poets. The birch trees do put in a brief appearance at the end:
It’s the way the trees are curious
shapes and look down from the hill
and do not think about themselves.
But essentially, the comparison object has completely taken over from the nominal subject of the poem – which is now not so much about beech trees as about what memories they stir in one particular person.
In another poem she attempts to find a word for “the sound of a dog’s paws/on frozen leaves”. She details exactly the immediate circumstances: the dog’s weight, how his movement disturbs the leaves, and the background of the chilly morning:
Far off to the south-east
dawn burns. A heron studies the river.
But then, coming back to the sound, she tries and rejects various verbs like crunch, crack and snap before concluding
It’s the sound of movement on a still morning,
the sound of a dog’s paws on frozen leaves.
This premise, that sometimes exactitude is achieved not via one perfect word or image but via the building up of details and situation, strikes me as interesting and the polar opposite of those ill-advised creative writing manuals and lesson plans which would have us believe there is always a dead-right verb or noun that will eliminate any need for those despised chaps, the adjective and adverb. From the acknowledgements, it is clear she spends a lot of time in writing groups, but she is obviously capable of striking out beyond groupthink and doing things her way.
However… It seems odd to say that one thinks a poet is too self-effacing, still odder to say she is too collaborative or too eager to credit influences, but I do have some such thought. It comes through in some of her title choices. The poem above, about the dog’s paws, is one of the best here, but its title, “You asked for a poem about listening”, does it less than justice, making it sound like an exercise. Another is titled “Poem with a phrase from Amy Clampitt”. The phrase in question, to judge by the italics, is “Nothing stays put”, and I really doubt Ms Clampitt would claim to be the inventor of that phrase or the only one who ever used it. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for poets acknowledging any borrowing, but this one could have been credited in a footnote, or still better, notes at the end of the book where they don’t impinge on the reader unless wanted. It didn’t need to be elevated to a title, as though the whole point of the poem had been to re-use this phrase.
Influences work best when they have been absorbed so far into the poet that they act almost unconsciously. Here, one senses that she feels a need for something to lean on, as if she hasn’t enough confidence yet in her own ideas. There is a sequence of poems about, and often in the voices of, various Shakespeare characters, “A Comonty”. These poems work best when they add something new - Dorothy Wordsworth reflecting on Timon of Athens, or the poet herself re-reading the Merchant and recalling how it was taught at her school with no reference to
why there were Polish girls in class
with long hair and longer names that plaited
round the teacher’s tongue.
They work less well, for me, when they simply give a voice to a character who already had one. There are times, too, when she tells us a bit too much about the writing process, as in “Clustog fair”, where we learn that “I look up the Welsh for thrift”, and later “I read it is from the plumbago family”. This is to leave the scaffolding up, or the pencil lines on the painting. Again this feels like a lack of the confidence to go boldly in and just tell us what she now knows, rather than how she came by the knowledge.
To judge by the best poems here – I could mention also “daffodils da capo”, in which, as in others, she shows a refreshing willingness to experiment with lineation rather than being bound by left-hand justification all the time – she could well afford to be more self-assured about her own voice.