After breaking a thirty-five year writer’s block with Blues in the Park, Jeremy Robson’s new collection of poems is his second book in three years. Subject Matters takes us into a world that is both contemporary and timeless. Many of these poems are personal, recalling the pleasure of a smile, a landscape or a song, and the lives of friends like Ron Moody and Dannie Abse. Others evoke scenes and subjects from an earlier era – Dick Barton, Roy Rogers, Paris in the 1950s, London jazz clubs, CND rallies, telephone exchanges with sexy names – occasionally drawing on his Jewish experience to give context to his depiction of a modern world where violence explodes with increasing fury and the sirens rarely stop. All subjects that matter.
Cover image: David Abse, ‘Revolution’
Author photo: Kt Bruce
She woke me with a song, quietly sung, almost whispered, an old French classic about the sea dancing along the glistening bays, and how its silver colour changed as rain fell. Entranced, I lay quite still, watching the sun as it edged through the half-open shutters, holding my breath, listening, not wanting to break the spell as she sang thoughtfully on, as though to herself, oblivious of all else. To me it seemed that a memory was being conjured from a distant French childhood long lost, one I couldn’t reach, intimate and all the more precious for that, an enchanting way to welcome the day.
The days will slowly stretch themselves, I know, and I’ve watched many winters come and go through different eyes. Nothing should surprise. Once they were those of a raw young boy cycling home in the evening gloom full of promise and expectation, eagerly awaiting summer’s invitations, cricket and tennis on seamless lawns, endless seaside days, and, later, girls to cavort with beneath the sun’s fading rays. And now these eyes have become those of an ageing man, and each turning year another hurdle, an unkind countdown from a time whose end, one always thought, would never come, too young to care, illusion’s snare. Yet seeing dear ones vanish each fragile year stiffens the resolve, reminds that dark, light, dark, light is the way our world revolves, gives you the will to fight on, value all you have as, once more, the dark dissolves around you, and light restores.
…the unholy smell of bacon fills the air At school it was always the returning day after the December break, as those ‘What did you get for Christmas’ questions were bandied round the upper deck of a schoolboy-crowded bus. I’d respond as best I could, but Chanukah could never hold a candle to all this. …a lobster eyes me from a neighbouring plate Morning prayers were also testing times. Faced with alien hymns I’d somehow mouth the words, changing some to avoid the ones I knew I shouldn’t sing, for God, I felt, was listening in. Clearly, a Pilgrim I would never be. …I hear an anti-Jewish jibe I wasn’t meant to hear ‘But you don’t look Jewish’ was the surprised riposte when, fists flying, I weighed angrily in, cheering classmates egging us on as we wrestled on the cold playground tarmac –until, mercifully, a passing master firmly called a halt, realising it wasn’t a game. After that it was never quite the same. …fresh croissants tempt when Passover forbids In church for a celebration or commemoration it’s the kneeling moments when, while not wishing to offend I contrive not to bend, and when, if a communion wafer is proffered, I shy quietly away, anxious to avoid an unseemly display. …Jewish graves have been desecrated again It is not so much the beauty of the Kol Nidre and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur, with their echoes, shadows and memories, or not only this, but also that indelible moment in an empty Moscow synagogue when, led through a half-hidden door by a nervous guard and standing hand-in-hand with my wife and daughter in the silent sanctuary, tears overwhelmed us simultaneously. …the echoes, the shadows, the Babi Yar memories, the wary eyes everywhere as we approached. So often the Prayer for the Dead to be said… In Prague, amidst the gravestones of the ancient Jewish cemetery, layered one upon the other over the centuries for lack of space, the scholars, the cobblers, the well-to-do … in Cordoba too, under a ruthless sun, where Maimonides’ statue ignites memories of a people forced to convert or flee – my own wife’s history … and in the cobbled streets of the Venice Ghetto, where the Doges decreed the city’s Jews must live and pray, as some do to this day. Shylock might well think there is still a debt to pay. …anti-Jewish stirrings in France spark an exodus Strolling in safer times as darkness embraced the hills of Judea where the Prophets walked – the vivid stars of a Jerusalem night like no other sight – or gazing in wonder from the heights of Masada with their martyrs’ history, or afloat in Galilee’s beautiful Sea, miracles always seemed to be near at hand in that biblical land as they seemed to be again when hundreds of Hamas rockets blackened those timeless skies, though suicide bombings, beheadings, terror, gas and rape continue to be the everyday language of the surrounding states. …there are calls for an academic boycott of Israel Still the hostile voices that distort and abuse. Do I hear the ghosts of history cry, ‘J’accuse’? I know I’m Jewish when…
I liked to think I was in the swing of things, in tune with the times in a heady age when poetry took centre stage. The Beats had left their mark, and Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the rest seemed to our young eyes to matter more than the muted poetry on which we’d cut our teeth. So sipping Scotch to loosen the larynx and calm the nerves, we in turn would read with verve to cheering students who’d otherwise be jiving to the Lyttelton and Barber bands at the Hundred Club in Oxford Street, sweltering in the heat or marching and singing on the great CND rallies to Aldermaston and London, where the oratory of a duffel-coated Michael Foot would electrify the thousands who packed Trafalgar Square, determined to be there. 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. It was an era too when love was said to be free, though it always seemed expensive to me. Perhaps I wasn’t really in the swing of things then, and am not now, and while I like to think I’m still in tune with the times, it could well be they’re not in tune with me. Despite the words, the rhymes, and though the wars may have different names, bombs fall just the same with increasing might, and when I look at my contemporaries now I flinch at what I see, for they all look remarkably like me and a far cry from the men we used to be. It’s not the times that have changed, it seems, but we.
You never know which way the dice will fall. I pledged to hold you tight and win the day. If left too late it could be beyond recall. A gambler’s ruthless tactics may appal, He’ll look you in the eye then make his play. You never know which way the dice will fall. We seized our chance to answer love’s rare call, Dodging clouds, embracing the sun’s display. If left too late it could be beyond recall. We’ve tried to keep in step, not let love pall, Whatever the stumbling block, come what may. You never know which way the dice will fall. It’s many years since we first set up our stall, And there are debts I know I still must pay. If left too late it could be beyond recall. We’ve called the bluff of those who’d see us sprawl And sent them packing in disarray. We’ve always done our best to stand up tall. You never know which way the dice may fall.
‘Jeremy Robson’s new poems refer to the familiar and find wonder in earthly things. Often deeply moving, they remain as direct as a surprise while having a double satisfying focus which makes them as much for the study as for the page.’
‘My test when reading a new book of poems is to stick a post-it wherever there’s a poem I want to go back to. They sprout like a small forest from Blues in the Park. This is the work of a poet whose experiences, transmuted into fluent, accessible poetry, will strike a harmonious chord with many readers.’
‘A monument to patient skill and gentle craft. Robson writes with a beautiful autumnal Melancholy.’
‘Makes the long wait since his last volume extremely worthwhile. His poetry is enticing.’
‘Powerful, poignant, and piquant.’
Camden New Journal
‘Robson’s vision is both gentle and steely, and on top of his ability to touch one deeply is a marvellous, wry observation of the sweet, sour and savoury in life. I love this collection.’