Subject Matters (in hardback)

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

Sample Poems

La Mer

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.

End of the Year Blues

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.

I Know I’m Jewish When…

…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…

Signs of the Times

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

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.

Reviews

‘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.’

Dannie Abse

‘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.’

Bel Mooney

‘A monument to patient skill and gentle craft. Robson writes with a beautiful autumnal Melancholy.’

Morning Star

‘Makes the long wait since his last volume extremely worthwhile. His poetry is enticing.’

Jewish Chronicle

‘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.’

Maureen Lipman