How I Learned To Sing: Mark Robinson, Smokestack Books
Mark Robinson sees angels all over the north-east, far beyond the Antony Gormley landmark that greets the A1 traveller heading towards Newcastle. And ghosts, too. In How I Learned To Sing, a generous volume of new and selected poems published by Smokestack, the most interesting section is the opening one, The Dunno Elegies, which takes the reader on a tour of a region dismissed recently by a Tory peer as “desolate”, and locates it with poetic, political and psychogeographical signposts.
In ‘Teesdale, Thornaby’, Robinson mourns the north-east’s heritage, and the destruction of its industry in the late 20th century:
George Stephenson’s ghost stalks the corridors
… He watches over business studies degrees
and daydreams of Timothy Hacksworth
Bashing metal up country, near enough forgotten.
They made things here. The she-devil walked here
clutching her handbag and nearly said sorry.
Lord Howell, who recently recommended that fracking take place in the “desolate” north-east, rather that in south-east districts such as Guildford, which he formerly represented as an MP, was also a minister in the “she-devil’s” cabinet that was responsible for wreaking the desolation of the north in the first place. But in the Prologue from which The Dunno Elegies take their title Robinson confesses to feelings of ambivalence, and asks a series of questions, including “what to do with this rage? What to with this loss? … Dunno.” He recognises, for instance, that there is no point in being sentimental about a past that leaves hacking coughs as reminders for those browsing in “fresh landscapes of retail” (‘Dalton Park / Murton’):
Old men on the surface trying on slacks,
faces veined with years of black, delighted
now that bastard pit is gone, built over.
The coal is still down there, beyond the cliffs, below the seabed:
the dark seams run on beneath,
tunnels silent but for ghosts and gas.
The angels, or ghosts, may be redundant coal miners or the shades of factory hands astonished at the effort expended in a gym:
I look up at the wall of mirrors ahead
and see the angels walking the aisles
between the machines, shaking their heads.
These factory boys cannot believe us.
(‘Fitness First, Eaglescliffe’)
They might even be angels “with swords and curses” who linger centuries later at Hadrian’s Wall and “whisper in the ears of bright young women / those eighteen words for rain, and more for love”. (‘Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads Fort’)
After The Dunno Elegies come more personal poems, including one titled ‘Not Quite Good Enough’, which don’t often have the same resonance. Another section, Esperanto Arrogance, includes performance poems, poems about bureaucracy, and miscellaneous political themes. The earlier, selected work from previous collections is generally wordier, although in his later poems Robinson still utilises full lines and makes his points plainly, not wishing to hide anything. His poetry is a world away from streetwise, metrocentric concerns and rhythms, or the allusive and elusive language often found in Poetry Review; and none the worse for that.
He also includes a number of fine football poems, which of course will not hit the back of the net with many readers, but are applauded warmly by this reviewer. There are a number about Preston North End, including a sestina dedicated to his father, which talks of a terrain of
sheepish workers’ streets
turned into short lets, passing through drugged ground
where the roar for late equalisers sounds like a win
to wretched early leavers too eagerly taking wing,
(‘2nd sestina for Alan Robinson, a Deepdale Finnale’).
There is another, wonderful poem set in Robinson’s adopted north-east, about a brilliant little Brazilian footballer who was improbably signed by Middlesbrough. Juninho lit up the lives of the fans, but his flair couldn’t prevent the club being relegated:
We could have had a gritty midfield battler,
cast from the bits British Steel had left over …
… but then we would not have seen,
walking by the still filthy river one day,
ten thousand yellow shirts dancing in the breeze,
a new look in people’s eyes
(‘Rio de Juninho’)
This is Mark Robinson’s first published collection this century, a pent-up outpouring. His former job with the Arts Council meant that he felt unable to send his poems out for over a decade, in case of potential conflicts of interest. In his poem ‘Angel of the North, Gateshead’, he talks of “shadows left even by angels, / where the coal sleeps soundly, silent miles down”. In many ways his poems speak of the best of England, its industrious past, its still untapped potential, and the dreams of its people, with clear-eyed honesty, compassion, and wonder. Greg Freeman