Adam Piette on 'An Air'

Words are sound waves travelling through air, exhaled as articulate breath. Poets are drawn to the airiness of the voice because of the odd status of the printed lyric, at once spoken and inert ink. Good lyrics will remind the reader to voice the words, to return them to the air, for without that airiness the poem as breath might die. Rhymes are one of the ways poets ask readers to voice poems into the air, for they insist that the words are sounds. Rhymes have this double function of marking the poem out as an artificial form of words, at the same time as insisting that the lyric be spoken by a breathing voice. This double consideration is alive in most poems, but nowhere more so than in Peter Robinson’s delicate lyric ‘An Air’ (published in The Reader no. 8, March 2001), the title punning on poem as printed song and voice-as-air:


Listen: in this winter light,
its air washed clean and glistening,
steam rises from the shiny street
and released by nostrils, mouths,
is nothing if not
evaporating spirits, airborne.

Ghosts of a past inspiration
or so much hot air,
said words becoming momentary
substance understood between us,
motives for your despair,
are the very thing I didn't want to hear.

Pausing at a pavement edge
with its frost-crisped leaves
and others fossilized in asphalt,
suddenly I felt that
whatever else it may be knowledge
is a process of the air -
sense taken from an atmosphere
and then given back.

                                 A day
offering possible threads to unravel
reveals just how it would be
at last to have reached beyond an end -
as if, after all, things would come to the same
and your life were that vague dream
from which you had awakened.

Robinson is the finest poet alive when it comes to the probing of shifts in atmosphere, momentary changes in the weather of the mind, each poem an astonishingly finely-tuned gauge for recording the pressures and processes that generate lived occasions. ‘An Air’ articulates a most private experience, the pondering of the afterlife of an acquaintance who has committed suicide, as an ambivalent gift to our fellow-feeling. Or rather fellow-voicing, a rhyming of the ghostly breaths of both poet and reader in a common air, an interchange at once moving and unsettling in the light of the terrible circumstance. The air that returns from the land of the dead might make us suicidal, as Housman knew (‘Into my heart an air that kills’, A Shropshire Lad XL).

Every poem invents its own set of conventions, defining its own devices under its own particular lights. Every lyric will give its own meanings to its own rhyming chimes. Robinson’s lyric commands us to listen with its first word. That listening is associated with sensitivity to rhyme, as the ‘listen’—’glistening’ echo suggests. The reader is being asked to voice the words into the air, and so to contemplate the voice’s transient evaporation in the air of the world. Breath can be seen on wintry days — similarly, rhymes make the sounds of voices visible on the page. This foregrounds the airy impermanence of lives: words spoken through the air must fade away as all sounds fade. The transience of voices is the very thing we don’t want to hear: the first full end-rhyme in the poem, of ‘air’ with ‘despair’, is difficult to take. For rhymes remind us that all human contact dies upon the air, evaporating in death's wintry world. Yet the momentary substance of the voice is sustained by the printed poem. The voices of the dead can be preserved by voicing their words with real breath: the sounds of ‘air’ and ‘despair’ are insisted on in ‘hear’, repetition of ‘air’, ‘atmosphere’, like a musical motif (‘motives’ in the second stanza is also the plural of ‘motif’). The way the words of others are heard in any present-tense encounter (as sound waves across the air) is made to rhyme with the ways we can re-articulate the voices of the dead.

Rhyme brings isolated words into accidental contact, marrying their sounds to create a substance understood between their differences. Just as Herbert saw prayer as ‘something understood’ taken from the atmosphere of God’s breath, so Robinson’s imagination raises the ghosts of past inspiration by understanding the common air that mediates between all minds. It is the rhyme sounds that turn that common air into air held in common, between lines, between solitary words at line-endings (like the rhyme of ‘edge’ with ‘knowledge’). In Robinson’s last stanza, ‘from which you had awakened’ gives us back the lost sounds of ‘reached beyond an end’, reawakened beyond the line-ending. Just so, his acquaintance’s life finds difficult afterlife in the voiced atmosphere of this poem, reaching beyond death’s terminus to a ghostliness within the reader’s own voicing.

Manuscript versions of ‘An Air’ are available on Peter Robinson’s website. The work of revision is displayed in the manuscripts, and so forms part of the public experience of the poem. The last verse is adapted from a poem called ‘Obituary Notice’, made up of four rhymed quatrains. The adaptations make a new poem of interspersed, discovered rhymes, which become denser as the the poem approaches a close (discovered rhymes are meant to seem accidental, occurring without set pattern). Robinson transfers the words of the last verse of ‘Obituary Notice’, which was about the dead feeling of the individual self, into a poem about the suicide of another person, thus enacting, in revision, a shift from the self’s predicaments in the direction of relationship. This shift, from self to relationship, is mimed by the shift from set rhyme scheme to the discovered rhymes of ‘An Air’. As if to say: the self ‘rhymes’ with itself in a fixed pattern whereas the rhyme between our self and a dead other has to be discovered, understood from the air. Something like encounter happens when such discoveries occur, even after the bleak event of the death of voice in air.

A poem can lock lived occasions into the frozen form of a block of print, like ‘frost-crisped leaves / ... fossilized in asphalt’. The rhyming imagination, though, insists that lived occasions can be re-voiced, by rhyming them into the very air we breathe, making present words coincide with the sounds of the dead, transforming endings into awakenings, salvaging voices as evaporating spirits, airborne across the times and spaces of different lives. This may have chilling consequences, for we may be breathing an air that kills as well as revivifies: but Peter Robinson’s rhymes remind us that the air of poetry is, crucially, a matter of life and death.

Published in The Reader no. 9, September 2001