Subject Matters: Jeremy Robson, Smokestack
Jeremy Robson, a key figure in the poetry reading scene of the 1960s and 70s, opens the floodgates of memory wide in this collection as if eager to make up for the 35-year writer’s block that only ended with Blues in the Park in 2014.
The writer’s block is not entirely forgotten. In the title poem he contrasts the rich subject matter available to painters in the search for originality with what’s on offer to poets:
So what can poets do that’s new, confronted by blank
sheets of unhelpful paper. . .
They’ll just talk about themselves again, I guess, their
amours, broken hearts, lost youth, betrayals, death.
And talking about himself is something that Robson does with infectious enthusiasm. The 51 poems here range from the day he was born in 1939 to the day he retired, taking in along the way childhood memories, jazz nights in Paris, the second world war, his Jewish heritage and personal recollections of close friendships with the poet Dannie Abse and the actor Ron Moody. His two poems in memory of Abse have a bittersweet tenderness:
Darkness starts to spray the scene with black.
The peacock’s feathers are scattered
on the ground. There’s thunder in our head
as we wait the news we dread
It’s almost closing time.
Somewhere a gate slams back.
(‘Poet in the Park’)
He writes about his childhood with unashamed nostalgia though younger readers might be forgiven for wondering who Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Dick Barton and Biggles are. But there is little sentimentality in the fondness. Robson is at his best when he draws sharp parallels between past and present events and wonders why we have failed to learn from our mistakes. After recalling how he and his family took refuge “in the Anderson Shelter in the cold front room” he brings the poem bang up to date:
Nightly now at home we watch
dry-eyed as the latest clash detonates
across our TV screens, shut ourselves off
from the screams of bereft mothers, fathers,
of children orphaned in a rocket’s flash …
Will someone finally sound the all-clear?
An elegiac tone pervades the collection but the sense of sorrow and loss for a world that once was and one that might have been is punctuated with wry humour. When writing about the Aldermaston marches and CND rallies in Trafalgar Square he says:
At readings you only had to mention the bomb
or Vietnam to get a cheer, but whether that
produced good poetry is far from clear.
(‘Signs of the Times’)
His attitudes to certain aspects of modern life invite similar comically caustic commentaries. When discussing the aggravations of information overload he takes potshots at ‘mobile Babel on every side’ and in a highly topical couplet – before dashing home to climb back into bed with his wife - writes: “There’s breaking news too of a major bungle / and a tearful someone leaving the jungle.” (‘The Facts That Fill My Head’)
And so from 1939 we’re right in the middle of 2017 where politicians clearly don’t match up to his ideal. Passing the statue of Churchill outside Parliament, he wonders:
What would he make of the minnows who
packed that House now, with their laptops and
iPhones . . .
(‘Meditations on Giving Up Work’)
Given that this collection ranges from 1939 to 2017 and from birth to old age, there is an acute sense of time passing quickly, of “the finishing line”, “the final whistle” and “the ticking clock” (and it’s not Michael Barnier’s); of the sense that we are being let into the secrets of a life well-lived and well-loved.
Trevor Breedon worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper sub-editor. He started writing poetry in 2014 and is a member of two writing groups based in east Kent: SaveAsWriters in Canterbury and SoundLines in the Deal/Sandwich area. He won poetry competitions run by SaveAsWriters in 2014 and 2015 and was long-listed in the 2017 Canterbury Poet of the Year competition.