Someone Else’s Street, Robbie Burton
HappenStance Press, 2017 £5.00
A new pamphlet and a poet you can’t remember coming across before....
The way into the pamphlet, often, is not a conscientious start with the opening page but a casual riffle through the pages, just to get a sense of what might catch your eye. So that’s how I approached this publication until – hello – here was a piece I’d met before and – while I’d forgotten both Robbie Burton’s name (sorry, but this happens if you have a long-term magazine-reading habit) and which magazine I’d met it in – I remembered the poem vividly.
‘Border’ had somehow proved unforgettable: original, quiet, short (a sonnet I now realise, though I’d missed that before because the content had absorbed the form so perfectly it melted into the whole). It’s a poem that balances two experiences, running them in parallel. There’s the couple on one side of a hedge, uneasily aware of a sinister sound from the other (‘Soon there’s nothing / but our urgent feet / and that soft insistent rustling.’) Then there’s the reality of what’s really on the opposite side, a cow tugging at long grass – ‘She hears nothing / but the sh-sh rustle of supper. / She doesn’t see fear / place stones in our hands.’
The fear alone is memorable, as is the way potential aggression is placed in the closing lines where it hangs on, still waiting relief.
So I already felt closer to all the poems in Someone Else’s Street because of this prior acquaintance, and was ready to read on, savouring how Burton mined the emotion at the edges.
For example, there’s the wordless unhappiness in ‘Uncoupled’ (‘… closed doors / in someone else’s street’) and the gritted teeth in ‘When the plumber didn’t call,’ with its repeated (four times!) ‘bastard!’ and the chill discomfort of the opening – ‘I worked a damp flannel / over those parts of my skin / a good hot bath / should have taken care of’.
I’d have enjoyed these poems anyway, of course, but it’s interesting how keenly the pre-pamphlet brief encounter had sharpened my appetite.
D A Prince
In the gaps
It was Easter weekend and Robbie Burton’s pamphlet stayed on my tongue like 70% chocolate. Strong and a bit dark, you thought about it before you took another square.
First, I noticed the negatives. In ‘Prayer’, she begins, ‘Let fish not be my name.’ Then I noticed a different kind of negative: omissions. In ‘Making Smoke’ a man teaches her how to explode a tunnel the size of a ‘doll’s grave’. ‘Other skills’, however, ‘he kept to himself’. So there’s an absence.
In ‘A Caveat to Good News’, she refers to the pause before that awkward phrase ‘one more thing’; to the sound of unwelcome rain when the builder is due (‘all being well’); and to silence after an important question (‘marry me?’). Pauses, silence, rain = communication before and after words – in the gaps.
I loved ‘Wire, the importance of’, in which ‘Nothing was seen of / glass chimneyed oil-lamps. / No methylated spirits spiked / the air. // No-one peeled an apple [ ... ].’ The whole poem is built around images of things that aren’t there.
Later on, details of a brass gong and a half-naked muscled man are part of her dreamy ‘First Date, Imperfectly Recalled’, but at the end of the poem she takes them back: ‘No / maybe that was later on.’
If her memory seems hazy, it’s also potent, and resists control. ‘Some Things Won’t Be Said Goodbye To’ is about a boat and a life she once had. When ‘people giving me lifts don’t follow my rules’, they take her past a canal, with memories she’d filed neatly away. On the next page she builds another poem out of what happens ‘When the plumber didn’t call’ (italics mine). In the gaps – when we don’t expect it – the memories invade.
Robbie Burton invites us to look at things ... not exactly sideways, not quite inside out. Maybe she invites us to come inside, then climb out of the frame. In ‘Dawn, Lizard Point’ we stand at the picture window where a man paddles a canoe, and fights with the tide until he exits, ‘and all that’s left in focus is the frame.’
Robbie Burton never does what I expect in Someone Else’s Street, nor goes where I’m anticipating. And her work seems completely different from anybody else’s.
I use the preposition advisedly—her poem ‘From’ is among my favourites, with its gloriously unexpected focus…. And the surprises in that poem go way beyond this. So much ground is covered in its fifteen short lines—from a ‘Thug’ of a magpie, ‘collecting blackbird eggs’, to ‘Mum’, who ‘collected / people, me, and her other / adoptee, the man from / Hebden Bridge who lodged / in her front room for over / forty years’.
What a wonderful character and concept! That ‘man from/ Hebden Bridge’—so oddly introduced (and he it is who, among other things, bequeathed ‘a strong dislike of wrong / prepositions. Especially / the one after different.’) Apart from being fantastically funny, this poem is moving—delivering as it does seemingly momentous information in the same breath as detached, observed detail. For me, it’s a poem packed with surprises.
As is the whole pamphlet. This poet is always taking off in unpredictable directions. ‘The Trouble with Space’ starts: ‘It looks so spattered from down here, / in need of a Parks Department gardener’. Okay, so … but just as I’m acclimatising, that poet’s off again. This time, slipping—as if through a doorway—into her beautiful, unexpected, central stanza:
Meanwhile, in somebody’s wardrobe,
tops, jeans and skirts hang in one half
and dust floats free in the other.
Such a clear, clean image. When Robbie Burton wants to, she delivers these sublimely: the ‘man, paddle, canoe’ caught in the lighthouse beam (‘Dawn, Lizard Point’); or the ‘boy’ in ‘Uncoupled’ who ‘boards the wrong bus’, ending up embodying another wholly original image—for a helpless disorientation:
nothing to do
but rapid eye blinks
as he walks past closed doors
in someone else’s street.
‘That’s the trouble with space’, writes Robbie Burton. ‘Somebody / somewhere will stare at a night sky / and think about chaos and wardrobes.’
Indeed. But I doubt they’ll come up with quite the thoughts she does.