Robin Thomas : A Fury of Yellow

NOTE FROM SUE BOYLE : Robin very kindly showcased ‘A Fury of Yellow’ at the meetup in Bath on Saturday 8th April.  Susan Jane Sims contributed the review she posted  on the Poetry Space site on Tuesday, 7 February 2017. Ama Bolton has also reviewed Robin’s pamphlet and her piece, titled ‘Vignettes of War’, appears below. . 

File 07-02-2017, 14 06 13Poetry Space editor, Susan Jane Sims reviews A Fury of Yellow by Robin Thomas (Eyewear Aviator Series 2016)

Every reader comes to any material with their own emotional legacy and so it was with me. I began reading this brightly coloured pamphlet collection sitting in a chair by the bedside of my dying son. I even read him a couple and they made him smile. This pamphlet handles well, with the waxy cover distinctive for this series by Eyewear, pleasing to the touch. The first thing I noticed on opening is the quotation by American poet Frank O’Hara who was well known for poetic meditations on his everyday life  in New York, and for his love of art. Also for name dropping so I was  already imagining a particular style and subject matter within.

Now for the poems and what stood out for me: It is the relationships explored and what is unsaid, it is Robin’s empathy for people, particularly those in the watching and waiting position. How could I not be drawn to Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (p.31) based on the 1520 painting by Wolf Huber. Robin describes grief as ‘suffusing [Mary’s] body/collapsing her face softening her bones.’ Pretty much a perfect description of the physical effects of grief. And the ending: ‘Only his hands are seen, blessing His Mother/as all men bless their mothers/as all men take leave of their mothers’ is coolly poignant. Traditionally it has always been men in the centre of the action, the women, waiting, watching, weeping. Yet Robin is not condoning this, merely observing. In Expedition (p.19) the extended fantasy style metaphor allows us to imagine without a true account, the incredibly hard life of one woman, presumably the poet’s own mother. The settings of day and night, split between stanzas add a dark, wry touch to the poem particularly the ending where the woman ‘reaches the summit with a great sigh/stares into the unfathomable dark.’ My favourite on the theme of women has to be Petticoat for Marie Jalowicz Simon(p,12), a Jewish survivor of WW2 who managed to evade capture by the Nazi regime. An incredible story, already told in memoir and beautifully evoked here in Robin’s economical language.

The other poems I want to mention in this brief look at a lovely collection, are the trio of pieces that make up Theme and Variations: An experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump – Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. (pp 23 – 25) This is intriguing. I have not heard or read of this experiment and will research it more. The poems appear to take three angles, that of the bird in The White Cockatoo, the equipment in The Pump and a natural object in the distance, The Moon. I love the way, each consecutive piece appears to give us less yet in fact gives us more so that we are drawn from the cold experimental set up of a scientist, through to human cost. I can see Frank O’Hara in this set, possibly Wallace Stevens too; both American poets and both favourites of mine. Yet that is not to say, that Robin Thomas is not original or interesting. He is both. He has clearly used his logical, scientific way of thinking; his ability to dissect and deconstruct, to write in a way that is largely fresh and inspiring and allows us to glimpse his deep compassion for all of us flawed human beings.

Susan Jane Sims, February 7th, 2017.

Notes:

‘What will survive of us is love’. From An Arundel Tomb. Philip Larkin

Fountain poet Ama Bolton reviews A Fury of Yellow by Robin Thomas which was published by Eyewear Publishing.

Vignettes of war

This pamphlet opens with Let’s go, an informal sonnet that begins with a Sunday-afternoon cycle-trip to the seaside. The mood changes abruptly in the middle of the eighth line. An ordinary summer’s day turns overnight into a scenario that will change or end the lives of the young cyclists. There’s real power in the sparse language and the use of repetition, and even the cliché “black as … the Ace of Spades” carries overtones of death foretold.

And these, Gentlemen, is a chilling little flight of fancy. It was deservedly Highly Commended in the Bath Café Competition. The Judge’s Report on this poem appears after this review. 

Petticoat sent me on an enriching Google search for its subject, the spirited and quick-thinking young Marie Jalowicz, who modestly ascribed her survival in wartime Berlin to luck. Here we see her, armed with nothing more than intelligence and determination, outwitting her oppressors. The language is straightforward, unadorned, pared-down but with effective use of repetition. Thomas tells the story with compassion but without a trace of sentimentality.

The Grey Ghost and the New York Tugboat Strike cries out for some background information. A reference in the first stanza to “the local’s president” would have made sense on a first reading if I’d known that the local referred to was a local longshore-men’s union. The Grey Ghost was the nickname of the Cunard liner Queen Mary. The heart of the poem is its middle stanza, which could stand alone:

Thousands of tons of her,
grey-painted, bomber-evaded,
u-boat outrun, skyscraper
sheltered. White-gloved,
as if holding porcelain,
Captain James Gordon Partridge Bisset
edges her tugless to her berth.

I’m not sure if the third stanza, on the passengers and Sub-Lieutenant Trevelyan Thomas, adds anything to the impact.

De Aanslag (The Assault) recounts a single assault, one of many from the book of the same name by Harry Mulisch: an incident recorded with grace and economy in just nine lines. One does not need to be fluent in Dutch or German to understand this vignette with its implied lesson that in time of war we can never be sure who is friend and who is enemy.

There are two rather sloppy prose-poems. Both might have been written more tightly if they had been recast as poems. I suspect, given that Thomas has a Poetry MA, prose-poetry was on the agenda and is therefore in the pamphlet. Unopposed is a snapshot – perhaps inspired by a newspaper photo – of a scene in some theatre of modern war. The contrast is stark between the “smoking, chatting, jaunty” soldiers relaxing openly on their tanks and the civilians who are not mentioned at all, but their homes are being looted and burned. The first and last sentences are identical, perhaps an indication that “life goes on”. If this piece has something new to say, I’ve missed it.

Expedition is an extended metaphor that really works. The writing is polished to a glacial shine, rich in visual detail, and here again there is emotional detachment alongside compassionate attention.  It begins:

Several times a day my mother
sets out for the South Pole:
struggles layer by layer into outdoor gear …

This is a hell as laborious and futile as that of Sisyphus. The mother appears again in Froxfield Stop-off, along with Edward Thomas, who “came here the year/ my mother was born, to write about time, / not knowing how little remained.”  It seems her time is limited too – “Bit by bit/ I am signing her away.” These are two of the most effective and affecting poems in this volume.

The pamphlet’s title comes from The Tarascon Stagecoach, one of several ekphrastic pieces. The yellow in question is a passionate impasto of yellow ochre. The pamphlet’s cover assaults the eyes with a violent combination of lime-green and apricot. This is unfortunate but the poet is not responsible for the design, which includes an unexplained black-and-white photo facing the title page and an annoying logo which appears on every odd-numbered page  except page nine. Please don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s a rewarding read.

Ama Bolton February 2017