The Great Friend by Peter Robinson

“One of the obvious pleasures of reading translations is the discovery of unfamiliar poets. Another is an encounter with modes and manners of poetry dfferent from your own and most of your contemporaries. For example, many of the poets in Peter Robinson’s The Great Friend are simply quieter and more inclined to the contemplative moment than contemporary British and Irish writers tend to be, although there are exceptions. So much poetry these days seems calculated to be understood on a single hearing when performed at a poetry reading. Accessibility can have its benefits, of course, but its cult of performance often tends to neglect more marginal states of mind, those whispered Subjects drawn from states of semi-consciousness.Peter Robinson’s translations have been appearing in magazines and with small presses for two decades. Although mainly of Italian poets, the collection includes Pierre Reverdy, Nonko Ibaragi and lngebord Bachmann. So the range is eclectic without being scattered confusingly across too many languages and cultures. For me at least, much of this work is new. I imagine it will be for many other readers.

Reverdy’s ability to perceive several things happening at once as well as being inter¬connected is delightfully conveyed in Robinson’s translation ‘The Walls of Towns’, which closes with

And on the edge of the sky

On the side of the hill

The forest which stirs

And much further down the town

All the names of streets

The immoveable stone
Like Reverdy, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Umberto Saba have been translated extensively into English. Ungaretti’s ‘Levant’ hears history and the consequences of politics happen but from ‘the shadow of my sleep’. It is not a characteristically Anglo-Saxon (or Celtic) state of mind. An Englishman’s sleep is generally not to be disturbed, and might even be a better definition of his ‘castle’. That’s why such poems are interesting. They can wake you up to a different kind of writing and saying, less hectoring, less public, more confidential and perhaps more natural in its first-person singular. Saba’s ‘Old City’ is another good example. He rediscovers ‘the infinite in humility’,

Here among people who come and go
from bar to house or bordello.

Observing the crowded, seamy, sometimes squalid life of a busy port, he can say:

Here in the presence of the meek
I feel my thought grow
more pure the more abject the street.

The Great Friend takes its title from one of six poems by Vittorio Sereni. Like many poems here, the difference it suggests between much European poetry and our own is a willingness to mix the explicit with the mysterious in both narrative and imagery.”

Douglas Dunn, Poetry Book Society Bulletin