Guest Review: Phillips on Robinson

Tom Phillips on Spirits of the Stair by Peter Robinson

Having published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, translated Italian poets Vittorio Sereni and Luciano Erba, amongst others, and written a quartet of critical works, Peter Robinson’s Spirits of the Stair brings together more than 700 of his aphorisms: short, often sharp observations, remarks, ruminations, musings, notebook jottings, insights, witticisms and jokes. This isn’t the first time he’s travelled into this territory. As well as two sets of prose-poems, the 2004 collection Untitled Deeds (Salt) included a sequence of 354 aphorisms – all of which are included here – and further samples have subsequently appeared in both The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006) and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists (2007).

For some of his readers, it seems, this apparently sudden diversion into sound bite-size prose has been something of a surprise. Robinson’s poetry, after all, has long been associated with mapping complex shifts in ‘emotional weather’ and exploring transitory margins through a subtly attuned and innovative lyricism. On the face of it, it’s not the kind of work which readily suggests the immediate punch of aphorism. And yet, even in his debut collection Overdrawn Account (1980), poems resolve on lines with an air of aphorism about them – “Home is the view I appropriate”; “It is not enough just to live” – and the consistently scrupulous attention to language detail and speech-act throughout his career is well-suited to the form. Besides which, as Robinson discusses in the Afterword to this current volume, these “less-is-more morsels” or at least the sudden surge in their formulation emerged from a particular set of circumstances. In the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, he says, “I had perhaps reached a point in life where the self-censorship of a painfully-learned intellectual prudence collapsed under the pressure of the contradictions in my own and the world’s evident predicaments.” Teaching abroad, an interest in the prose-poems of Pierre Reverdy and the Japanese forms of haiku and tanka, not to mention a vicarage childhood, are also acknowledged influences.

Whatever the contributory factors, the result is a wide-ranging miscellany which, in engaging with topics from death, war and religion to money, love and friendship, has both the immediacy of just-grasped thought and the balance of more considered reflection.

Not surprisingly, the business of writing poetry and the poetry business form a significant and ongoing theme, whether that be thoughts on the paradoxes of composition (“In poetry the best way to fly is to be well grounded.”), what poetry does (“Good poems resolve emotions; bad ones provoke them.”) or the frustrations of the ‘literary game’:

“Dealing with some publishers, it’s only too easy to feel like a smuggler engaged in transporting contraband of no evident value across an iron curtain.”

These, though, frequently overlap with and lead into other themes, ideas that bear on other situations beyond the written page or its reception. There’s the bubble reputation (“Fame: it’s inevitably a case of mistaken identity.”), language (“What I like about the future is that it’s made of words.”), work (“Ambition is what people of limited talent use for motivation.”), identity and social relations (“My blind spots about myself, invisible to me as they by definition are, may be, nevertheless, what others’ behaviour in my vicinity allows me momentarily to glimpse.”).

The scope extends much further, too, as does the tone, with self-deprecatory jokes, exasperated one-liners and acerbic, forensic rage all mingling in a kind of literary salle des pas perdus while the more conventional platitudes of received wisdom whizz by on the mainline outside. Not for nothing has Robinson attracted comparison with as diverse a selection of aphorists as Samuel Johnson, Barthes and Baudrillard, and while reading Spirits of the Stair through as a sequence and tracing the ups and downs of its progress, its changing atmospheric pressures, offer their own reward, it’s the crisp precision and inviting open-endedness of individual entries which make this book so much more than a prose addendum to an already significant body of work.

Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and journalist living and working in Bristol.

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