Associational Poem for Peter Robinson at Sixty
The great cellist, Pablo Casals, was asked on
His ninetieth birthday why he continued to
Practice for five hours every day. He said:
“I’m making progress.” I just saw a picture
Of you on Facebook – playing guitar in a
Rock group! I trust you’re making progress.
When I was thirty-five or so and you
A decade younger, we both lived on what you
Called Inertial Road in Cambridge. Our first
Conversations were in your attic flat.
Herschel Rd. still looks much the same, but
You and I do not. I’m headed fast for
The geezer class, but hope I’m making progress
Even now at writing poems. When you
Put down your guitar, that’s what you do too.
At least when you’re not painting works in oils
Like “The Clothes Chair” or the unfinished
View of Yagiyama, Sendai, on the cover of
The Look of Goodbye. You flipped me a look of
Goodbye when you departed South Bend, Indiana
After having read from your translations of
Vittorio Sereni at my university. With Italian,
You’ve always made great progress, though
I wonder if your Japanese isn’t getting rusty
(Jozu, desune, the locals say politely to the Brits
And Yanks willing, at least, to give it a try)
Now that you’re living back in Britain, having
Overcome inertia well beyond its Cambridge road
By making progress in Sendai and Italy.
Coming to South Bend, you were drafting something
Later called “Enigma Variations,” the title meant
To reference not just Elgar but De Chirico, whose
Doppelgänger stood up at your reading in Chicago
And volunteered a question. What did he ask?
Your poem doesn’t say. Maybe something enigmatic
Like, “Did you find the poets in Japan a bit Italian,
Or would you say more British or American?”
Clutching your bilingual U of C edition of Sereni,
You caught The South Shore train, writing on the way
Perhaps the only poem in English about stations
On that route from Randolph Street to Gary Metro,
Hudson Lake, and points beyond. The run-down
Neighborhoods along the way must have looked familiar
To a Brit from Liverpool who lived not far from
Where Paul McCartney met John Lennon.
Just the way, as I think you’ll remember, that the gray
Abandoned workings—that’s what Auden would have
Called them – of the local Studebaker plant looked familiar
To our friend Roy Fisher, fresh from Birmingham. . .
. . . Had you stayed in town
For more than just a day, we might have made you
Honorary laureate of the Midwestern rustbelt, but
You had to leave for Parma and Giuseppe Verdi airport.
At Michiana Regional the airlines didn’t substitute for
Elevator music arias from Traviata or Otello (even
With TB and murder on the rise, Vittorio Sereni Englished
In your bag). Waiting for your flight you wrote the
Section of “Enigma Variations” on departure. Have you
ever noticed that Enigma almost anagrams Imagine?
What’s left over is an extra I. I’ve always liked the
Fine eye in your poems, and for that matter also
The reticent (and English) “I”. I hope your subtle ear
Isn’t damaged by this recent flirting with the
Rock and roll, but no one knows these days when
A Facebook photo is a meme, and that’s my only
Evidence of this indulgence, granted to us all, in one
Form or another, once we’re over sixty. (Anyway, all
Poetry began as song.) Like Casals at ninety,
I hope we both keep making progress – when in Reading
Or Parma, Sendai or South Bend. But even if
We do, we know life’s an enigma. Just imagine!
[John Matthias is
Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
and Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. He has published some thirty
books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman is
bring out his complete poems in three volumes.]
Copyright © 2012 by
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