Another poet, for reasons private and obscure, throwing over sprawl. Stephen Romer's fourth collection in twenty years shares the luminous compactness of its predecessors. The stanzas of his poems are lit as by a springtime sun. Deep philosophy lurks between the lines, and withering irony; but its presence comes in glints ingrained in the particular. A poetry of leaf-light and limpidity. A journal intime and a recurring meditation on love and loss. It courts the Absolute, yet gently, quietly. It cherishes its moment.
“You are my Prosperpine of summer,” Romer says in 'Mythologies', from Plato's Ladder; “knee-deep in the scabious and mallow//red-eyed from looking in the light,/as if there were grief or fever/in your exacting tribute/to momentary outcrops of yellow...” Art as risk, and the tautology latent in 'exacting tribute' – a 'tribute' is precisely an exaction – intimates a fraught balance between art and the world, a tight reciprocity that requires great resources to maintain.
Art cleansing the smudged pane of reality, revealing, stroke by stroke, the outlines of a vaster reality beyond. Each of Romer's poems is distinguished by the fineness of its making: lyric utterance incised on the page, cut by a laser.
A poem from the previous collection, Tribute, nicely epitomises the typical psychic attitude Romer adopts in his love poetry –
Miracle, we say, and destiny,
and joy and hope and repose,
when the one, necessary person
lends us fully to ourselves;
and when they've gone, the lengthening light
shows a vista of loss,
proving not that we were wrong -
only the recognition has ruined us.
A fair degree of obscurity, in this. The lines seem so fragile, yet surcharged with such a weight of significance – perhaps they ought to be read quickly, and the book set aside; left to do their work in our heads. Whatever the case, the verbal pointillism of much of his verse – abetted by images of light, as above, as if in this medium Romer finds the least coarsened of symbols – gives to it a corona of meaning. Romer's trademark duplets dimly shadow forth the relationship between the lovers: in the gaps between lines, in the vacancies and absences, the spiritual truth lives. “Emptiness glistens through contingency:/sunyatta is the word – it is strange comfort –/how the cherishing self might leak away/into the flinty soil...”
Yellow Studio develops Romer's interest in the Platonic idea of a hierarchy of realities, the topmost of which we're aware of yet barely capable of reaching: “..the idea of ascent,” as he puts it in an earlier poem, 'Plato's Ladder: A Dialogue', “a principle/of detachment from the local pain of love...” Yet time has darkened his perspectives a little, and Romer here is more prone to ironic self-mockery, and the poems gain a shade of wryness, of weathering. The first set of pieces are about the end of a love affair - “So this is how it ends:/at a corner table/in a stale cafe/on the boulevard of abulia..” - and the erotic ecstasies of the earlier work have given way to a bruised bewilderment - “the dreary ache/of the unrequited..” This poem is a palinode to 'Santa Maria della Vittoria', from Tribute:
Once it was the angel above Teresa
stabbing her into ecstasy
now it is the look of loving regret
as of someone who has tried hard
but must at last bring down the sword
as Caravaggio's David
brought down the sword
wistfully lopping the head
of his shaggy incorrigible
The memorial suite 'An Enthusiast' was written on the death of Romer's father - '..a soul uncynical/in the extreme..” - and is composed in part from extracts from his diaries – a touching selection of 'found poems'. In 'Today I must teach Voltaire' Romer records, on September 12th 2001, the mood of baffled shock and anguish, among the young, his students, after the Twin Towers attack:
Today I must teach Voltaire
to sorrowing sophomores,
I must teach the Enlightenment
in a toxic darkness
where yesterday the Infâme
flew sweet and level by Ellis Island
(Voltaire's motto, of course, was 'ecrasez l'infâme'.) Elsewhere in Yellow Studio, Romer confesses his fascination with the fragility of literary reputation, its arbitrariness, and the ease with which it can be obliterated. Albert Mérat, he notes, was a member of the Vilains Bonshommes, a literary circle of angry young men to which Verlaine and Rimbaud belonged. Fantain-Latour painted a group portrait of these poetical franc-tireurs, 'Un Coin de Table'; but Mérat feared that his reputation would be tarnished by association, requesting that he be 'airbrushed' out, as it were:
Wit, wag, Zutiste à ses heures,
ladies man, gossip, poet, poseur.
Yet of Albert Mérat
who took fright
nothing is left
but a pot of flowers.
Nothing is left, not even a Wikipedia entry... Stephen Romer is a shamefully underrated poet. Contemporary of the likes of Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, his work is no less involving, no less vibrant. He has consistently pursued and developed his themes, doubling back after a period of years, reworking them, giving them an ironic spin. No other love poetry that I can think of – perhaps you have to go to the Metaphysicals for it – offers so intense a fusion of the erotic and the spiritual. There's a very French precision in his line, a definiteness that still admits of ambiguity and multivalence. Poetry at its nakedly brilliant finest.