St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia
Having a Hope: with Peter Robinson in the Balkans
‘For a poet it may not seem rare to be present at the inspiration of a poem, but there have only been one or perhaps two occasions where I was there at the conception of someone else’s.’ Peter Robinson’s suggestion – from ‘Charles Tomlinson in the Deep North’, first published in the Bristol-based journal Raceme and now collected in The Personal Art – that it is rare to be present when another poet discovers the occasion for a poem came to mind when I first read his 2019 collection Ravishing Europa and realised that I had been present at the conception of four of the poems: ‘Balkan Trilogy’, ‘The Prospects’, ‘Wall-to-Wall’, and ‘Don Quixote in Sofia’ (reprinted below). The first of these was occasioned by Peter’s visit to SE Europe for a conference at the University of Montenegro on the eve of the Brexit referendum which I also attended, the second by a conversation Peter and I had while walking around Bristol Docks later that same year when we discussed my recently taken decision to leave the UK, and the third and fourth by Peter’s second visit to the Balkans, when he and his wife Ornella came to stay with us in our new home in the Bulgarian capital in the autumn of 2017.
Unsurprisingly, of course, this means that my reading of these four poems is inflected with distinct personal memories. In ‘Balkan Trilogy’, for example, I not only recognise, but can very clearly picture details like the ‘bloodied, fallen oranges / in the moat’ around Old Dubrovnik, the ‘switchback mountain road’ and the bridge pillars emerging from ‘mist rising from a reservoir lake / after temperature-changing rain’ on our drive through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Similarly I know that the ‘moored black stern’ in ‘The Prospects’ belongs to the Thekla – the coaster that Viv Stanshall and his wife Pamela brought to Bristol and transformed into the Old Profanity Showboat – and I recognise the opening image of ‘Wall-to-Wall’: ‘A car windscreen opaque with leaves, / the pavements’ brick and bricolage / or plane-tree like, / these flaked facades backlit by storm- and sunlight, / they’re in need of some renovating care’ – as a description of a street in our neighbourhood in Sofia and a repurposing of a remark Peter made while we were walking through it to the effect that the buildings, many of which date back to the early twentieth century and do indeed have noticeably ‘flaked facades’, needed a bit of tender loving care.
On the face of it, this seems to give me an advantage as a reader. I know that – as another example – one of the paintings we saw when we visited the Quadrat 500 wing of the National Gallery in Sofia does show Don Quixote ‘kept in a cupboard, / striped lance sticking out onto the floor space.’ Similarly, the ‘Accordion-band arpeggio’ which opens that same poem, ‘Don Quixote in Sofia’, was played by a pair of buskers we came across on Vitosha Boulevard while we were walking to the National Palace of Culture one evening. To know those things might seem to make these images – to use a phrase much-favoured by my creative writing students – more relatable, if only to me and the others present. Being there at the conception of these poems also means that I have access to contextual details which don’t make it into the poems themselves. The allusion to Under the Yoke, Ivan Vazov’s 1894 novel about the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, in the Quixote poem, where Peter refers to successive tyrannies – imperialist, communist, capitalist – as ‘different yokes’, for example, almost certainly derives from conversations about Bulgarian literature we had with Bulgarian writers during his visit. Needless to say, I also know what Peter and I were talking about on the occasion of ‘The Prospects’, and that he read that particular poem at the party my wife and I held to mark our leaving the UK for Bulgaria in order to remain in the EU.
At the same time, however, there’s no need for anyone else to know this to find meaning and value in the poems. When reading ‘Balkan Trilogy’, for example, you don’t need to know what the pattern in that ‘worn carpet’ and the ‘door marked exit’ in the hotel in Nikšić actually looked like in order to imagine them. Nor with ‘Don Quixote …’ do you need to know that the ‘EU-backed renewal work-in-progress’ were taking place in advance of Bulgaria assuming the EU presidency the following January and that, thanks to them, our walk to the National Palace of Culture that evening proved pointless (in a Quixotic kind of way) because the palace’s literary bar, Peroto, that we’d intended to visit was closed.
Indeed, this sort of ‘insider knowledge’ – being able to locate specific details in time and space – may not be an advantage at all. Or would only be if the poems presented themselves as miniature romans à clef or attempts at literary hyperrealism. When I read ‘Ah then the rashes of tagged graffiti / sourced quotations (‘to be or not to be’) / stencilled over its junction boxes’ in ‘Wall-to-Wall’, what I see is very specific: the junction box with the Hamlet quotation is directly outside the non-stop, 24-hour off-licence just around the corner from our apartment. And so, when I read those lines, that’s what I see very clearly. This produces an emotional response, but it’s one founded on recognition and familiarity, as if my mind’s happy enough just to verify the verisimilitude of the image. As if I’m nodding along with the poem rather than allowing my imagination the space to engage with it fully. It’s not at all the poem or the poet’s fault, but it’s a kind of diminishment, rather like reading William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and, thanks to having shared the occasion, finding yourself thinking ‘Ah, right – he means that wheelbarrow, those white chickens and, oh yes, if I remember correctly, it had been raining that day’.
At the same time, of course, reading the work of another poet responding to your own lived environment offers the opportunity to look at the place again, reappraise it, detect meanings you might not have suspected – or suspected but not articulated. That work becomes part of the mental landscape, just as Jan Hanlo’s poem has become part of Sofia’s physical landscape by having been ‘published’ on the back wall of the Natural History Museum. In my own poem, ‘Making Light of It’, which starts from our immediate neighbourhood in Sofia and mentions the off-licence with the Hamlet quotation on the junction box outside, I describe a railway timetable as a ‘palimpsest’, a word that perhaps tangentially acknowledges this phenomenon, while my poem ‘Continental Drift’, which was occasioned by that same trip to Montenegro at the time of the Brexit referendum, was almost certainly informed by Peter’s ‘Balkan Trilogy’ and by ‘The Prospects’ (it was written after the conversation alluded to in ‘The Prospects’ took place), with my line ‘Like after a funeral too’ almost certainly picking up on Peter’s ‘As at a bereavement’, and with both of us referring back to our conversation on the seafront at Herceg Novi when we expressed our reactions to the referendum in terms of grief and loss.
In these poems from the Balkans, however, there is also a sense that all is not lost – a sense that runs counter to the conventional image of SE Europe as precisely the place where the concept of a unified continent or any kind of cross-cultural unity disintegrates. Peter’s line in ‘Wall-to-Wall’ that the Hamlet graffiti ‘might mean, just so, you’ve got a hope / here on the yellow brick cobbles of Sofia’ may be ambiguous, both in its deployment of a phrase that’s most usually used to express doubt in a possibility (‘You’ve got a hope!’) and in its allusion to the fantastical Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, but that ‘here’ and that ‘you’ also firmly locates the hope, making it more actual through its emergence in a specific time and place: that hope is being acted upon even if, in the long run, it might prove hopeless. The thought behind these lines connects back, too, to the hope expressed in the epigraph to the poem from Cees Nooteboom that ‘in the end only poetry can save Europe’ – which is, perhaps, impossible, but, like Utopia for Oscar Wilde, a place worth having on your map.
Sofia, March 2022
Tom Phillips is a writer and translator now living in Sofia, Bulgaria. His poetry has been widely published in journals, anthologies, pamphlets and the collections Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016), Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Burning Omaha (2003). He has translated many of Bulgaria’s leading contemporary poets and his translations of Bulgarian modernist Geo Milev are due to appear from Worple Press in 2023. He is editor of the book of essays Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work (Shearsman, 2021) and teaches creative writing and translation at Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski.
Peter Robinson: Four Poems
in memory of Geoffrey Hill
‘prega per l’Europa’
1. PASSPORT STAMPS
There’s something about those rock outcrops
along the tops above Dubrovnik,
bloodied, fallen oranges
in the moat round what was Ragusa –
something about a switchback mountain
road that leads inland
(mist rising from a reservoir lake
after temperature-changing rain,
bridge pillars emerging from it
as if from out of nowhere) –
something about an exclamation-mark road sign
when we cross more Dayton borders
and the words
switch back and forth between Roman and Cyrillic –
there’s something can’t but point towards
past damage, harms to come …
2. NIKSIC HOTEL
Like a convalescent from this month of claim
and counterclaim, I falter
coming down to breakfast, seeing as the same
worn carpet would soon alter
when overwhelmed by risen shame
I find no shelter
from the Montenegrin sun’s heat, or from casting blame
in a welter
of muffled shouts, disorientation,
hearing news that wrecks it –
plain omelette, bread and tea become
tasteless as the one word: nation …
Not knowing where to turn for home,
I return to my room through the door marked EXIT.
3. HERCEG NOVI
As at a bereavement, when those harms
from your loss are falling
into place with relief like some more evening breeze,
under the prom’s transplanted palms
beside seafront concessions
there come, among raucous darts of starlings
at dusk above the old town’s eaves,
sensible inward migrations …
so from a balcony, soon after sunrise,
no less at home, you see
spectral headlands jutting in an isolated sea
and can hardly believe your eyes.
for Tom Phillips
Dark amazon striding towards us
across a dockland swing-bridge,
she’s not afraid of two grey beards
deep in conversation –
and nor’s the café-terrace waitress
with her ‘How is everything?’
as we wonder what might be amiss
below a coaster’s moored black stern.
Despite the burned-out petrol station
and demolition site we pass,
everything’s plain in an off-scape ahead
as you talk about the docks
amongst its storied populations
remaining, yes, remainiacs
from this seaport’s field full of folk,
trade-winded migratory stocks.
Plain too, your plan to emigrate
cutting through developments
far as where prospects are barred
under the pastel terraces –
for wanting to remain you’ll leave
and, leaving, they have to remain
while the very air’s free movement is
still cleaving to such heresies.
‘Alla fine solo la poesia può salvare l’Europa’
Cees Nooteboom, La repubblica 12 Dec 2015
A car windscreen opaque with leaves,
the pavements’ brick and bricolage
or plane-tree-like, these flaked façades
backlit by storm- and sunlight,
they’re in need of some renovating care –
such as given to a blue, adopted wall
with its Dutch word-cloud poem,
Jan Hanlo’s, and in two translations:
als melk /als leem, like milk /like loam
or kato mlyako /i kato zemya –
where it’s like those words had come
to weigh and find us wanting, wanting
a home in this chilly middle Europe …
It’s as if his lines might save and spare.
Ah then the rashes of tagged graffiti,
sourced quotations (‘to be or not to be’)
stencilled over its junction boxes
might mean, just so, you’ve got a hope
here on the yellow brick cobbles of Sofia.
DON QUIXOTE IN SOFIA
Accordion-band arpeggios and a near full moon
float above hard-liquor-advert neon.
Now this stray character, kept in a cupboard,
striped lance sticking out onto the floor space,
he’s swelling to be glimpsed at distance,
lit by branched lamps in the autumn trees
through twilight on Vitosha Boulevard.
Its namesake mountain’s caked in snow,
La Mancha very far away …
Like the ghost of a father’s political illusion
here he comes tilting, and stumbling on,
an incorrigible dad or thwarted son …
Skeletally thin, with ghastly grey goatee,
he drifts off down by the Palace of Culture,
its EU-backed renewal work in progress,
to be tossed forever between tyrannies
under different yokes, now this one of monies
into which he’s all but gone.
Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, essays edited by Tom Phillips, and Peter Robinson’s A Personal Art: Reviews, Essays & Memoirs were both published by Shearsman in autumn 2021.
Peter Robinson has published many books, some awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize, and two PBS Recommendations. His Collected Poems 1976-2016 appeared from Shearsman, who also publish The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs (2021), Reports after the Fire: Selected Poems of Pietro De Marchi (2022), and Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work ed. Tom Phillips (2021). Retrieved Attachments (Two Rivers Press) and, in the USA, Return to Sendai: New & Selected Poems (MadHat Press) are due in 2023.