Carol Rumen of the Guardian writes about…
Poem of the week: Otterspool Prom
by Peter Robinson
Robinson’s sonnet to Britain’s early spring sunshine, with kites flying over the river M
This week’s poem, “Otterspool Prom,” is a sonnet by Peter Robinson, from his latest volume, The Returning Sky, published last year by Shearsman Books.
Gathering poems written in England after a period of 18 years working in Japan, the collection focuses a refreshed, penetrating vision on a far from idealised, sometimes un-homely, homeland. But here, late-capitalist corruption is almost on hold as the speaker looks out from the green spaces of Otterspool Promenade across a River Mersey irradiated with mid-February’s almost-spring sunshine.
The three-word epigraph, from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5 (“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!”) brings a whiff of foreboding, soon swept away in the opening images of brightness. The mood rises in pitch so that the end of the quatrain becomes almost wordless with excitement: “bright as never, never,/ ever before. The reminder of never-never land, imagined by JM Barrie as the country where children never grow up and are able to fly, almost banishes the fainter echo of King Lear’s last speech.
“You see” in the next stanza could suggest an addressee other than the reader or the speaker’s self. It might have formed an intensifier (“You see!”) but grammatically the transitive “see” enacts the process of understanding or simply noticing. The tears are ambiguous: they may imply emotion, because deciduous winter trees are beautiful, but at the same time, eyes may water simply in response to brilliant sunlight. The poem re-balances itself after that momentarily overwhelming excitement earlier. The descriptive pitch is low-key. The “winter boughs” call up no obtrusively eloquent metaphor, no effortful adjectives or verbs: they are simply “spidery” and “twitched in a breeze”.
That breeze leads to the kite-flyers, and rhymes building up as the wind strengthens. From now on the “D” rhyme of the second quatrain (trees/breeze) becomes prominent and persists to the end, with the last two tercets rhyming DED EDE.
The “dragon-tailed kite” flies and the sun performs another sort of “release,” so that “the frost on the pitch is shrinking” in its warmth. “Shrinking” is a significant choice of verb. So much of the current English experience involves “shrinking”. It goes with austerity. But it’s also associated with magic: wicked people in fairytales may be shrunk by enchantment. The frost’s retreat is a sign of returning life.
And then the speaker remembers the student’s dismissive comment, “England’s shite!” Milan Kundera once wrote that the opposite of kitsch is shit. Here, perhaps, the opposite of a flying kite is “shite”. The very sound takes us back to the epigraph and seems, initially, to explain it. The spite must surely lie in the student’s remark?
But the poem, it turns out, doesn’t exactly disagree with the judgment. The Hamlet allusion has hinted at something rotten in the state of England. The dismissal is rebuffed (“Please/ yourself”) only to be conceded in the qualification, “sunshine born as if to set it right.”
The youthful idiom (“her going,” instead of “her saying,” and “I’m like”) reinforces the notion of spring’s casual vitality and insouciance. But now the sharp edge of the epigraph becomes fully apparent. The despair of Hamlet, charged to avenge his father’s murder, seems humorously, ruefully, translated into the “cursed spite” of the fact that spring-days, for all their luminous power, can’t change anything. Perhaps, too, there’s an allusion to the cursed difficulty of writing a poem which, without a false note, celebrates the post-industrial English civilities of riverside parkland, sports pitches, strolling couples and kite-flyers. The challenge is met; the poem gracefully and even light-heartedly insists on its epiphany. The student’s comment may reverberate, and even rouse a certain assent, but the familiar, sunlit scene of Otterspool Prom remains imprinted on the sonnet’s retina. Finally, the date, 17 February 2008, adds its own flicker of optimism, 17 February being the day before the poet’s birthday..
Peter Robinson was born in Salford in 1953, and grew up mostly in Liverpool. He has a distinguished career as a poet, critic, teacher, editor and translator. His forthcoming publications this year include Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories (Two Rivers Press) and a chapbook Like the Living End (Worple Press). He’ll be appearing on Saturday 8 June in the first Reading poetry festival, at the Museum of English Rural Life in Redlands Road, Reading, Berkshire, and at the highly recommended Bridlington poetry festival on Sunday 16 June at Sewerby Hall and Gardens, Bridlington, Yorkshire.
‘O cursed spite’
There’s a dazzle of sunlight on the low-tide river
and our far shore
has a silver-grey blur, bright as never, never,
You see it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes
by silhouetting trees,
winter boughs spidery on mist-like white skies
twitched in a breeze.
But then down the promenade its flyers release
their dragon-tailed kite;
frost on the pitches is shrinking by degrees;
a student’s words return, her going ‘England’s shite!’
and I’m like ‘Please
yourself’ in sunshine born as if to set it right.
17 February 2008