Nov 17 2023
Poetry review – REMINDED OF SOMETHING: Louise Warren investigates a many-sided collection by Robin Thomas
Robin Thomas is a poet who has a quiet way of making poems. There is nothing fancy about the ways he writes. He tells things in a straightforward way but with an eye for detail, for small and devastating surprises. He has an intelligent, literate way with words. His subjects show he loves art, other writers, film, nature. Yet he is not grand. He is understated. In this new collection even the title and his name are in lower case. This is not a poet who wants to stand out – yet stand out he does.
In his new collection, Thomas gives us a book in four parts. Some parts are very small with just one poem. Other parts are longer. But before all that he slips in an extra poem which gives us an idea what this book is about. The title of this poem is “The Engine”. Yet this is not a poem about a train or anything mechanical. It is a poem, I think, about life.
Who remembers the birches Which swayed in the soft winds of yesterday?
So the poem begins elegantly, even wistfully, before continuing
And who recalls the fires of their heart when the sky was blue and the sun a hot engine, driving through winter?
And there we have the heart of the book. For this collection is dedicated to Thomas’s wife Mary, who died in October 2021; and the first part contains poems about her loss. Grief has a way of both freezing and releasing, and these are poems which have a vivid immediacy to them. Here is “After many a season” in its entirety.
all the things she was compressed expanded to become an event and curtains closing I Was just getting to know her.
This is devastatingly raw writing. It involves finding the words but then keeping them as small and as direct as possible. What else is needed to convey such a loss?
There is an almost unbearable sadness to these poems, so much so that I had to keep putting down the book, then a few moments later, picking it up again. I don’t mean unbearable as in bad, because these are very good poems, but the weight of loss sits upon these fragile, pared back words, and it is their delicacy that brought me to tears. And cry I did.
Deceptively slight, a moment, a thought shared, an intimacy mourned: Thomas also marks the death of his mother and father with the same grace.
The day my mother died was as perfect as you could imagine: a deep blue sky, Spring, shadows, light in every shade from every direction-
So the poem begins. Yet it ends acutely, with the clumsiness of shock: ‘I took out a teaspoon and closed the drawer, / closed it clumsily trapping my fingers.’ How well many of us know that feeling, and how simply, elegantly Thomas puts it.
In the second part of the book Thomas brings his magpie’s eye to his love of writers, artists, animals, memory and place. This is a welcome move from the earlier poems, and it was a delight to rediscover for example, a scene from the film Brief Encounter
‘Don’t forget your glasses Laura!’ And so to Milford for boiled fish, a senseless film, a toothbrush, a hideous clock for Fred.
Elsewhere we walk with Thomas in the sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s Garden. ‘Aahh, thank God, we can relax’ he tells us; and then he adds ‘a thing with a hole / can be a thing with a hole.’ In other words don’t over think it! Don’t be pompous ( he is never pompous) just enjoy something for what it is. See where your mind leads you. Wonder at it. As in this:
I have a spare space-time clock. Wherever I go it tells me the time. Whatever the time it knows where I am.
So far so whimsical, but then ‘One day I shall want to return, and / will rummage around for my clock.’ And then Thomas literally cuts though with ‘Time-space scythe /has done what it does.’ This poem reminded me of Stevie Smith and her almost child-like poems about death that hide a deeper, darker truth.
As always, it is the detail that surprises when ordinary moments are illuminated. Philosophy is lightly handled (and these are often philosophical poems) and is slipped in quietly, so that we hardly notice… Until we do.
The world was full of chattering, swooping, wonder. But nothing lives here, even the living.
Loss is threaded through this section, and not left behind.
In the third part, Thomas gives us an experiment. A long, part-stanza, part prose-piece which begins.
Dark-eyed night Invisible On my street, after dark, outside the pub, where baleful yellow light spilled out, under whose doors leaked raucous noise.
Shades of The Wasteland here, perhaps? Or a homage to that kind of poetry? Lines skitter off at angles, with asides at the far ends to suggest this is a poem written in different voices. I admired Thomas for wanting to take us in a different direction; but did it work? I’m still not sure.
In the fourth and final part of the book we are back on safer ground. It contains only a single poem:
The news In the middle of an ordinary day, the lunch things still on the table, the news came, and stood there.
And there we have it. It is just enough to make us gasp, then start from the beginning again….
This is a beautiful book which I would particularly recommend to anyone who has lost a loved one.