How I Learned to Sing is Mark Robinson's first collection this century. A senior job at the Arts Council meant that he did not send his poems out for over a decade, in case of potential conflicts of interest. Now he returns with a series of ambitious new poems alongside the best of his work from the last 25 years. How I Learned to Sing is a book about the industrial and cultural transformation of the North of England from the Miners Strike to the Big Society, about gain and loss and change, rootedness and flight, a series of bewildered elegies for people, times and places. Some poems argue with themselves, others with society or with other poets. Some attend to the domestic and the personal, some to the political and the public. Variously tender, angry, surreal and grave, keening, hollering, ranting, whispering and singing, Robinson is an allusive and richly entertaining writer, exploring how here and now make 'two halves of nowhere', and wondering why 'of many parallel worlds / I choose this one.'
Angel of the North, Gateshead What use are angels when the wind blows back our sighs with the sand? What use this song, nosing through undergrowth like a dog roots out smells, tired of its own hot-blooded clichés, bored with knowing how lost and forgetful we are here in this reciphered, recycled world. If we knew how terrible it would feel to be reminded that beauty exists just a fleet moment from the walkers' path, in mould on a leaf or mud in a footprint, what would we do, would breath catch or guilt grip? No, if I were to shout, now, on this hill above the Team Valley Business Park, how many angels would hear it? How many would care that my grief had blown their cover? The change in my pocket occupies me for a cold minute or two. The sobbing dark chokes on my whistling, a tune that visits and then forgets to leave. Forgive me. I only mean to console myself. This is a song for my mother, the past, an echo I hear of a better world, a trail worn out of knotted grass, folly that pushes you on into the woods, a place torn down that started again, dark native mud still on its boots, unilluminated wings stretched out. Magpies croon and croak and try to catch it, trees sway bare and brown, wind-blown hedges mime the river rushing seawards while it takes in this hopeful new song. The angel rusts a welcome to its brothers, its wings embrace prayers, its sore heart escapes the buried pithead in a gasp of song, over the seasoned museum of the land where the worm is king, turning like a screw in a rawlplug, a bradawl into wet bark. The keening rises on the valley's thermals, rolling and tumbling into low hinterland. But there are shadows left even by angels, where the coal sleeps soundly, silent miles down. The wild coast between here, there, now and then is not so solid as it used to be. This song was only meant to warm the air. If it could do more it would be unbearable. There are things only angels can forgive.
Dalton Park/Murton To join the Dalton angels you must drive past terraced rows as straight as dentures, detached from town like a retina, head for the purple lights of the outlets, the fun. The backs of shops open like old tallies used to spill their wires when broken, lorries emptying themselves into the maws. The streets are being unmade like sick beds, cobbles long gone but still no tarmac. Bassi's Golden Chippy sits the top of a line of harsh steps and jagged cuttings to the sea. The wind feels like history. The wind hurts. It doesn't know, and neither do the angels, where the backs end and scrubland starts. Something could get undone here, on these scrappy municipal football pitches. Someone could get their name engraved on the war memorial even now. The Colliery Inn still hangs on to its paint, but it's a backyard really, to the fresh landscaped heart of retail you head for. Fat where muscle reigned when this land was cleared, the reverse somehow of a hunger strike, this place belongs now to families, not men. Between waddling girls and their tattooed fellas, slow moving traffic with walking sticks shops. Old men on the surface trying on slacks, faces veined with years of black, delighted now that bastard pit is gone, built over. They dream of the roof falling above them, wake with a cough, even the young ones. Their grandas watch them as they pass by and are envious, in the way angels can be, giddily, tetchily, puzzled at themselves. When they see a coach arrive they quicken, run towards it, to stop it, but its only daytrippers from Durham. They keep feeling things that are memories of when they were young, blush at the innocence of their mistakes. Hopeless shop girls buy their lunchtime coffee from hapless scrunched up time-killed waitresses. Old women open sun-dried tomato wraps and flash right back to that first frothy coffee. Their friends are dying but they do not know why. This is a bargain of a bright morning, there is no need to spoil it for everyone. An angel rips off his shirt, spreads his wings and feels the watery sun on his chest. Trees exist, but not here, not yet.
Dockside Road, South Bank Down Dockside Road things divide imperfectly, containers block entrances to hallowed ground. The cooling towers' pinched waists leave a smudge of grey upon grey, cack-handed, over-looked. Curtains cover hills that linger behind the long back gardens of Lackenby. In South Bank the show has not changed for years. Parmo has left his mark in graffiti and gravity's pull on paid-for bellies. The betting shop is the brightest thing here. The granddads pushing prams are whey-faced ghosts of their granddads walking down to docks in the bright heyday. Sculptured roundabouts, all molten steel and welders muscles, cast in the downtime so we remember, could tell you a thing or two. It's not true, that story about the sign on one of them, ‘Happy 30th Birthday, Grandma.' Behind the last hoarding plastered with posters lies the market stall of consolation. There the angels fight over slim pickings, crumbs roll into balls going back to dough, a candy-pink dolphin-edged ashtray, a 30 miles an hour sign from the estate, a brochure for luxury detached living with no garden, an artwork made of string and nails on a black-painted board, two daffodils, an oak leaf and an umbrella, three lengths of cornicing and a loo seat. The angels engage with messiness, they say, but you can take it too far. They are not here for the good of their health: you will find them in the karaoke.
'It is extremely observant and honest work, and many readers will nod or shake their heads in recognition… Robinson's poems do play for high stakes, though. They are utterly serious, and that's admirable'
'His work is distinguished by its energetic and ferocious language. There's a high level of ambition and risk on display... Robinson's poetry is a fruitful exploration of the tensions between loss of place and taking a stand.'
'It's good to see well crafted angry poems in a world full of cynicism and sparkling wit and detached observation. As he says, the world is hard but worth it'
'Mark Robinson's strengths are his political sensitivity and his wit. he is a shrewd analyser of contemporary foibles and he is able to make telling juxtapositions. he blends cultural icons, past and present, profound and ephemeral, to conjure a mosaic-like synthesis which questions life.'
'Clear-eyed and rooted in reality and with a finely hones sense of social justice and sparky wit.'
'his poems speak of the best of England, its industrious past, its still untapped potential and the dreams of its people with clear-eyed honesty, compassion and wonder... a world away from streetwise, metrocentric concerns and rhythms, or the allusive and elusive language often found in Poetry Review; and none the worse for that.'
Write Out Loud
'Robinson has no time for daft ideas or political shenanigans, wants to cut through the crap and make it right; ask questions and get direct answers.'
Rupert Loydell, Stride
'a solid collection of poems whose language is muscular and discursive... the great strength of his work is the straightforward human warmth it demonstrates.'
Poetry Salzburg Review