The North no 46 2010
Review by Belinda Coke
Peter Robinson’s English Nettles is a delightful text to own, combining as it does the poet’s experience of relocation in his newly adopted home of Reading with Sally Castle’s delicately coloured pen and ink wash collages from the poems’ settings. A natural sequel to ‘The Look of Goodbye’ (Shearsman Press 2008), which focussed on departure from Japan, here we have the look of hello where we see him exploring the disorienting effects of return after working so long abroad. The reference to ‘English’ in the title offers clues to his feelings of distance from his own culture made all the more complex given that he has an Italian wife and two children brought up
[in] Japan speaking three languages. As with some of his poems of the seventies, economic difficulties, in this case the credit crunch, offer more bitter fruit for his muse. Yet in spite of this, Reading, not generally considered that exciting, seems particularly suited to Robinson’s fondness for urban settings where nature is alive between the cracks: the mix of brick and fauna, house gardens, gas works above canals, and period buildings, seeming to provide him with adequate compensation as he writes in ‘Huntley & Palmers’: ‘no I wouldn’t be without it,’ looking at what’s left and gone.’ Added to this, he clearly relishes Reading’s well-known (Wilde) and less well-known (Rimbaud and Pope) literary associations. Notions of the self in time and space have long been central to Robinson’s poetry and here we have further exploration of the subject with a focus on personal versus economic worth. As always, his skill at drawing on language’s natural polysemy enables the theme to speak for itself.
Though not a laugh out loud poet, Robinson does use a lot of humour to lighten the economic gloom clearly present in his poems’ titles: ‘ Pension Scheme’, Personal Credit’,‘Ode to Debt’ and Owning the Problem’. Thus we see him unearthing entertaining quotations such as Wilde’s ‘The Salesman…knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging too much for it.’ And in tandem with this he draws on ironies present in the language in ‘Personal Credit’ where, he and his wife when applying for loans are told they have ‘no history’.
I lend a mind caught in the wars
of nerves set going by today’s cold calls.
They’re offers to let us pay back our way.
Although we have no history,
Everyone wants to confirm our postcode.
Likewise, on its rain-greased road
We’re reflected in the flood
of dead cats, floated furnishings,
The flashed-back pasts, denied facts, things,
Insurance claims and more.
What gives this poem its power though is that its polysemy also allows the poem to become a form of self-validation, a reasserting of his own ‘personal credit’ for it is also a poem about the poet’s mind albeit ‘half-woken’ but one that can ‘lend something of a mind’ to make poetry of gasholders, flood pools, lemon verbena’.
So consulting the Oracle on Saturday
We flow with the crowds, as flow we must,
Into that double-edge ledger,
The future …
Indeed it is Robinson’s acceptance that he must ‘flow with the crowd’ while offering us a route out of our contemporary economic hell by reasserting that the individual will always defy complete definition which allows his poetry to be quietly affirmative. Robinson in English Nettles provides a counterbalance to the dehumanising impact of bank credit ratings by offering a philosophical examination of the self. This is particularlywell done via the skilled syntax and intelligent argument of ‘Like a foreign country’ where he opens with that[sic] point that ‘That much would have to be explained’ which by implication makes clear that there is so much that can’t be:
Days gone, terraces, terra incognita,
Were like our faces redefined
At a bathroom mirror when it’s cleaned;
For time has taken its advantage
Overus, the gained
And lost perspectiverealigned.
That much would have to be explained.
These lines beautifully convey the fact that we all do indeed have ‘history’ which is a complex of all the experiences that remain with us both psychologically and physiologically. The balance of end-stopped and run on lines helps reinforce how change is central to what we are and is ultimately our most powerful means of asserting ourselves against the daily trivia that contemporary life attempts to impose on us. Herein lies the book’scomfort and strength.