Luke Roberts’ new, self-published book, printed, released, and distributed for free towards the end of last year, all quietly, all without fanfare, is called To My Contemporaries (a title borrowed from Edwin Rolfe). As this title might suggest, it relentlessly foregrounds referentiality, by which I suppose I mean naming, something that Roberts has been concerned with for a while, but in a way that develops from its use in both of his preceding books, Left Helicon (Equipage, 2013) and Keep All Your Friends (MATERIALS, 2014). Left Helicon’s invocations of historical, political and literary figures often function as often hard-to-place jokes:
Now I imitate Neruda from memory;
Engels, the beautiful walrus;
Samuel Beckett feeding ice-cream to a three-legged dog, it is the saddest thing;
The name of my band is Theodor’s Swimsuit, it is the second saddest thing;
[…] if you bring Mussolini into this, I will shoot him in a duel. I will use the robot Bertolt Brecht to travel back in time, and I will go to town (Most of those examples are from the poem ‘People from the Book Kept Entering the Room’, whose title suggests that these proliferating references function as much as interruptions to the present moment of composition, or inhabitation, as to points of clarification and contextualisation for it.) KALYF deploys such naming them more as part of a sublimated(?) or ambiguous research project (without wanting that term to sound like the subsumption of poetic concern to academic funding-drive), perhaps in the mode of the earlier False Flags, with its take on conspiracy theories, moon landings and Cold War chess games. Thus, the argument about secrecy and clandestine political movements which references Comrade Bala, Patty Hearst, and the like, in the book’s concluding poem, ‘Agitprop: An Ode’.
In To My Contemporaries, however, the names are more explicitly posed in terms of what they can teach us: the poem is about reading, and learning from the poets of the past and the poets of now, disagreeing with them, recalibrating them, etc. Or it functions as a survey, a summing-up, reckonings and engagements with the feeling of a particular poetical and political moment, mournful lookings-back and reassessments, workings-through. TMC is very much a poem of address, as its title suggests, but it’s not exactly a grandly rhetorical, public poem – there are all sorts of ironizations, disguises, feints and so on, familiar to readers of Roberts’ poetry over the years, though there is here a definite change in register.
The poem is, in essence, a political pastoral – pastoral elements having crept into ‘Agitprop’, and here being more explicitly fore-grounded, in setting at least, though this is perhaps more background, or ambience, than the explicit and obsessive concern it might be in the work of, say, Lisa Robertson, or even the scrupulous attention to natural detail found in such writers as R.F. Langley and Peter Larkin. Such vagueness is explicitly remarked upon and turned into a joke – how simultaneous recall erases the distinctions between seasons, the specificity of the landscape supposedly attended to, the unsuitability of the poet themselves for that purpose: “It was summer, it was autumn, it was spring […] Implausible that the revolutionary bucolic / should fall to me, the bearer of gratuitous hayfever.” The poem is also suspicious of an attachment to place that romanticizes any inherent quality of – say – racial belonging – “If you absorb a place it absorbs you / is wholly untrue […] a porch in the West of the military tract […] afraid of desolation / but doing duty to where you belong offends my sensibility”. Likewise, its presentation of culinary delights is tinged by its obvious metaphorical overlay with the discourse surrounding migration and economic inclusion within the European Union: “Now fed on Polish blueberries most days / a harvest of European plums, / Greek honey / abundance / waiting for the ground war to slow its circle.”
Despite these self-conscious asides, half-apologies, and criticism, the poem’s pastoralism is not exactly programmatic, though it has the structure of this in some manner – in part, perhaps, due to the fact that it’s a single sequence, in three books, rather than a collection of single poems, as in the previous two collections. It begins with an un-named second person plural, in a particular place, looking at plants and waiting for their washing:
We were in the ice-cold pagoda observing the angiosperms we were outside the actual laundromat
These lines immediately establish a play between inside and outside, the reality of the place and incident described and its transformation and re-framing within an (often obscured and non-linear) poetic narrative. “I” and “we” are insistently there from the beginning, and the poem describes its own mission statement as early as the fourth line – “This is a poem about timing and advice” – even as it also betrays a scepticism about the grounds for this mission, and the poet’s suitability for accomplishing it:
how to begin when versatility’s in thrall to caution falling short of what we’d shyly call an ethics.
Indeed, the claim is that this is a poem about timing and advice, rather than an actual enacting of a particular kind of timing or a giving of a particular breed of advice. A concern here is whether the poet themselves has something to teach their readers, or whether they themselves might accomplish the task of self-interrogation – itself potentially instructive to others – or whether both these things might fall apart in ironic feints and half-declarations which are almost immediately backtracked upon. Such a problematic would seem particularly to be encapsulated in the line on the following page: “you could finally be divulged”. This is an odd grammatical usage, reversing the usual subject-object structure associated with the verb, so that rather than the speaker divulging something, making it known, they themselves (and, moreover, addressing themselves in the second person) would be the one divulged. ‘Divulged’ sounds here something like ‘divested’, a casting off of secrecy perhaps: though what exactly is meant by the “twofold office” of the previous line which, again, sits in an awkwardly elided grammatical relation to what follows it, is unclear. But what’s central here, nonetheless, and however much apparent disclosure and foregrounding actually functions as another means of giving the slip, of – perhaps, and intentionally, dissembling – is the poet as narrator: in this sense differing from Edwin Rolfe, whose own To My Contemporaries opens with the following ‘Credo’:
To welcome multitudes – the miracle of deeds performed in unison – the mind must first renounce the fiction of the self
This is not to suggest that Roberts’ poem lapses into a kind of idealized bourgeois individualism – however much that term suggests a crushing, anti-poetic Stalinism, and however much I’d see the opposition between ‘poetry of the individual’ and ‘poetry of the masses’ as crude and unhelpful – but that its negotiations of “what we’d shyly call an ethics” are more intimate than Rolfe’s “strength and togetherness / of bodies phalanxed in a common cause, / of fists tight-clenched around a crimson banner”. So the narrator in Roberts’ poem draws in elements of intimate or private reference, perhaps intelligible in their full sense only to close friends, and also reaching for a more public form of address – though ‘public’ here might mean as much those friends as an ambition towards a soap-box oratory, an imagining that the poem will mean anything to an imagined political crowd just waiting to be inspired by revolutionary poetry. The poem is more coy and double-bluffing than that, though this shouldn’t imply that there is a secret key, that there really is such a thing as the “secret poem” on which Joseph Persad focuses in his recent review of Left Helicon for Hix Eros. This is a work that so insistently and consistently draws attention to and thinks critically but not distantly through its own circumstances or concerns – it feels and is, I think, a poetry that really means what it says and means something, does something with it.
So, the pastoral, then, as background; the slow, drawn-out process of grinding defeat inflicted by the Coalition, and now, Tory government in the UK, the slow fade-out from the hopes of the Student Movement of 2010-2011, at its most publicly visible, active and radicalized; the impact of certain disputes and fallings-out amongst a ‘community’ of Anglophone poets over the past few years as well; and all these as part of a coming to terms with certain things that the poet’s past poetry has done, which this poem attempts to explicitly bid farewell to. Leave-taking more broadly is something the poem is concerned with –geographical departure, or the death of the poet Stephen Rodefer, mentioned twice in the final section – as well as spring, new starts, the pastoral, the harvest, the birds, the flowers; that balance.
The poem is in three sections (‘Books’): the first, from which I’ve already quoted, establishing something of a narrative, or at least a sense of place, whose dipping in and out of real landscape and a more ephemeral or idealized pastoral variant is played on. Thus, “the actual Laundromat” is a half-joking claim for factual accuracy, the absence of place names and the generalising specificity of locations which are also mythological and poetic tropes – the sea, the forest, et al – a co-existing counter-tendency. There is a distinct and distinctive sound patterning here, more exaggerated even than in Roberts’ previous books, which, for a whole section, leads to a series of end-rhymed lines, with plenty of internal rhyming echoes across these lines as well. This relates to the developing theme of beginning, ending, and return. A familiar move in Roberts’ poetry for years now has been the placing of an adjective at the end of a line (often equating with a syntactical unit), rather than before the noun to which it refers. This is also done with adverbs, often playing on the English-language ambiguity wherein words like “forgetful” implicitly read as “forgetfully”. One could say that this marks a displacement from objects described to quality, the imbuing of those objects with feeling, but I think it functions more as a way of maintaining simultaneous meanings, so that that process of imbuing something apparently solid with something more confusedly personal is deliberately fore-grounded and keeps the sense of the phrase mobile. Some examples: “to write this down forgetful”; “on certain shores uncertain”; “with our justice under-nourished”; “parallels of impressive orchestration unavoidable”. This kind of suspension, or inversion – a suspension whose quality of syntatical and line-ending resolution problematizes as much as it resolves – as an equivalent to what the poem names in the following manner: “nourished endings, solemn and inevitable / the starting point is flinching in compression.” (Inversion also echoes in the inversion (or reversal) of the Biblical creation myth, in which the (male) poet is created out of the rib of their (female) lover - “And Jack knew all the flowers’ names” / therefore I would be her rib” - taught by or (in the second section), spoken through by them
: “So Jack spoke through the imperfect medium of Luke” - itself a reversal of Alice Notley's
phrase about Jack Kerouac. This is, after all, a love poem of sorts.)
After all this, a transition, nicely managed, a marked shift in register, from first to second book: the end of the first asking what story “you” (either the poet themselves, or its readers) “want to be told”, abruptly concluding “well okay” and then beginning on the next page with a declarative citation of George Oppen. The second book is the shortest of the three, in terms of page numbers at least, though with far longer lines substituting for the three-step structure of the sections that surround it – and is more didactic (from “timing” to “advice”), while carrying on the fragments of narrative reference to place, the metaphorical use of pastoral setting: for instance, the fire in the forest, “curated entirely by unreliable poets”, which seems to be a dig at the unthinking fetishisation of would-be revolutionary activity (“a fire in the forest”) within a situation not yet revolutionary, where the conditions aren’t right. I say ‘didactic’, but one might better substitute the word ‘rhetorical’, or even expansive, as references to flowers and the writing of poets about flowers (the “insurgent botany” of the first section) transition into a list of “these poets [who] are your friends”: a roll call, without naming names (save the late Stephen Rodefer, who recurs in the final section), but rather places, which function as a “parallel of impressive orchestration unavoidable.” This list of Anglo-American poets, recognisable in terms of who exactly is being referred to, to those in the know, recognisable at least as an index of international poetic kinship to those who aren’t, seems to be one of those who might give both the poet of this poem, and the ‘contemporaries’ to whom it is addressed, advice. O’Hara is obviously lurking around here, and not just in the obvious joke about “our lapsed curiosity about the poets / in Ghana”; but the advice sought here is less fleeting, less part of an on-the-move sociality than O’Hara’s.
Apart from this list – a single stanza – this section carries over from the first a recurrence of ribs, ribcages, hips and the heart – again, internalisation, this time on a specifically physical plane, as well as the play between privacy and disclosure, sometimes explicitly in contrast to the address to the dispersed poets, its play on a kind of internationalism, an “impressive orchestration unavoidable”, distance, with the flower functioning as symbolic object both specific (through reference to its uses in literary and botany trivia) and “undefined.” The poem wrestling with definitions, schemas, clarity on the one hand, irony, turning away, shifts in scene and reference on the other, the set of declarations within the final sentence seeing the poet apparently “renounce[ing] my title”. (This perhaps a reference to the joking boasts from from False Flag’s already-ironized ‘Colossal Boredom Swan Song’, with its “withdraw[al] to my ethical bin bag” and “accept[ance] of everything, every tiresome imitation of flight”. Here, the phrase ‘champion of poetry’ reads both as a claim to skill, with poetry as competition and act of mastery asserted over other poets, and as a more generous championing of poetry: “I champion of poetry, salute the elders, put my / foot in a desk, kicking poetry with a desk lamp / strapped to my heart”). Having renounced this title, they propose to reconvene later on “with exacter measures, with better poems, / celebrations of a less sacrificial nature”, and the section ends ominously on the lines “blame all over the ocean.”
If solidarity has broken down into recrimination, there’s nonetheless some promise held out: but the third section doesn’t provide the triumphal assertion of a new programme for poetry, Rolfe-ian or otherwise. Instead, it functions as something like a coda to the second, with its gathering together of the disparate or distanced (by geography, circumstance, straitening of circumstance, suspicion, paranoia, moving on, betrayal, the inability to cope and deal with violences of all kinds – all the rest of it). It functions as a chastened or careful way to begin again after a grand gathering together which is both invocation and farewell. The formal workings here echo this double sense. Such workings – echoed in three poems, outtakes from TMC, which appear in the Xmas magazine YULE LOG – play out mainly through repetitions of words or phrases, the poet deliberately tweaking or rather, spannering (but not quite) the works of the poem. Maybe they could be more accurately figured using a sonic metaphor, as little glitches, distortions, feedbacks, which mesh or extend a different way the use of rhyme and particular cadence, within its frame, the frame of a particular style, troubling it without destroying it.
Towards the end of the poem, an anecdote appears, in which the poet encounters a homeless man outside a late-opening grocery store / off-licence, stopping to call the emergency services. There’s a risk in this sort of move, perhaps, of the return of a kind of philanthropism, a demonstration of the poet’s ethical commitment, as a person, through a specific act of inter-personal kindness; but the way the story is recounted belies that. “Here is my realism”, writes Roberts, preceding to describe waiting with the man and calling the emergency services and concluding “I didn’t love him at all”. What I get from this is that an ethics of care, that acts of political solidarity, might not be prefaced on love of a specific person, but on a more general sense of solidarity, which in itself actually functions as a more reasonable, expansive, useful and practicable sense of what love might mean -- however much poets like to go for extremes, to put themselves through the wrangler of love, elevated in triumph or abjection, aggrandizing and narrativizing their emotional lives, meshing them with politics, making claims for them. “Meet me with everyone / you love, even badly” refigures the roll-call of contemporaries from the second section, on a more intimate scale, and one which, nonetheless, leaves the definition of love, conventional or – given the evidence of this poem – most likely otherwise, open, negotiable, to be struggled with and lived.
The poet concludes with advice that is to himself as much as to his contemporaries, and which might, in some roundabout way, describe the purpose of the poem itself:
write to everyone
write to everyone.
A note to self but also advice in general, encouragement, necessity; in times of dispersal, as any poet, or anyone, might figure them; the necessity of communication, re-evaluation, continued dialogue, and one which might take place more privately, more carefully, with more openness to risk and disagreement, than in the fractious and fracturing fora of an often confused public debate about the political function of poetry (however useful and laudable and central to our thought that might be). The poem, then, engages with and emerges from the difficulties of finding frames for such concerns which don’t descend into bickering and to the crossing of wires, but to a different kind of crossing (a word I’m thinking of here in relation to a recent series of videos made by the poet Richard Owens). We often can’t see these things clearly until after they’ve past – and, in some ways, perhaps even less so after. And we know this from examining the histories of the poets and the poetries we read, the literary histories that are constructed around them, both by these poets themselves and by others, the historians, the critics, the new generations, those who come after. So it can be hard to say just what exactly these words - given, renounced, ironized, declared, affirmed - will mean – and who will read them. But for now, this is what seems important, to me at least, about them.
And then the rest of that conclusion: the burning of the heather on the hillside by the apprentices who “threw their tools / in the sea”, which, perhaps because of a coincidence in my own reading, when I first encountered drafts of the poem, rather than because of something specifically in the poem itself, brings to mind these lines from the poem ‘Landscape with Three People’, included in the late Lee Harwood’s 1966 pamphlet The Man With Blue Eyes:
I loved him and I loved her
and no understanding was offered
to the first citizen
when the ricks were burnt.
Those lines, which I’ve not found glossed or discussed in detail in any of the existing Harwood criticism, explicitly foreground the book’s bisexuality, but what I’m interested in here, in relation to Roberts, is how they offer a removed ambience while apparently tapping into a register associated with acts of historical violence and turmoil – they sound, at least, as if culled from a historical account of machine-breaking, acts of sabotage in reaction to the cruel displacements of the Industrial Revolution; in that sense mirroring the poem’s landscape setting. Roberts, too, plays on the relation between closure and disclosure, historical record and a more numinous interiority, but his poem differs from the elision of temporalities, settings, registers and referents evinced in Harwood’s “and” – a privacy redolent of John Ashbery, the ‘man with blue eyes’ of the title, and arguably associated with the poems’ own acts of privacy or concealment around the issue of sexuality, poised half in and half out of the closet. Roberts’ privacy is of a different kind; is perhaps about the pleasures of concealment, the near-paranoia borne of conditions of political defeat – if ones less dramatic than the references to political torture, resistant fighting and the like that (again somewhat ambiguously and atmospherically) pepper The Man with Blue Eyes and The White Room. In any case, the hillside burning is here a means, perhaps, of imbuing the pastoral with a history of resistance and solidarity, rather than of the class distinctions so often imbued within it, from Spenser on Ireland to the seventeenth- and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landed gentry surveying the harmonious shaping of their estate; to make it something wilder, a site of conflict and violence as much as of pleasure and escape.
But, again, this isn’t explicitly thematic; we could read the apprentices as younger poets, the contemporaries of the title themselves, learning their craft as much through destruction as imitation; or as something else entirely. In any case, to conclude abruptly, I like the poem’s self-reflexive questioning of the problem of love in poetry, and the way that ethical conduct in love might be inflected, in life, by its use as material for poetry: so that the poet says they are (maybe) done with “loving eruditely”. And its final lines, in the wake of Rodefer’s death and personal dispersal, on “holding on to the living” and calling time and closing; true to the spirit of the poem as a whole, in general free of bombast, with the right combination of warmth, generosity, and self-criticism that doesn’t turn into elongated writhing display and is, frequently, genuinely moving.