Eric Griffiths on 'Cleaning'

Or take Peter Robinson’s startled poem ‘Cleaning’

Seeing as she submerges
disturbances of the foamy water,
unnoticed here, I look at her

skin suffused with warmth, the margins
of her self and I acknowledge
urges he pressed home, my fears.

Lathering reaches of her front
to punish in herself another’s want
and be clean, she is fierce:

roughly imagined by him;
taken as though insubstantial;
dispossessed, possessed — my victim.

Unannounced, I lightly touch
her streaming upper arm to speak.
Only it startles her so much

an overfaint quiet is thickening.
My mistake, never reckoning
how still you are afraid of me

or my imagination. Being
not specially alone, alive I’m
far from the person who endured him.

My love, this is the dirty thing.

The poem imagines a couple, the writer and a woman: I guess that the woman has some time in the past been raped by another man (the ‘he’ who appears in the poem) and she now washes in a forceful self-purification and self-chastisement, ‘Lathering reaches of her front / to punish in herself another’s want / and be clean...’. Note here the way in which the poem clenches itself into quasi-couplets in the half-rhyme of ‘front’ and ‘want’, as if it appealed to the consolation of rhyme and its neatness in face of the messy horror of a rape; rhyme being for the poet for a moment what soap is for the woman. That kind of moral weight in a technical detail seems to me something that can only be realized by attentive and patient poetic solicitude for the language, and its a solicitude which speaks through the poem, in its anxious approach to the body of the language, and approach — to be explicit — which steps towards words with a pained love like that of the writer of the poem for the woman’s body seen. I said ‘the body of the language’, and this may seem a mere cavorting with words, but it is actually a serious contention that imaginative writing often shows a respect and a plasticity with regard to language itself as if language were an embodied person. And in this instance, consider the mild, avid erotic imagining which takes skin as the margin of the self:

I look at her

skin suffused with warmth, the margins

of her self ...

Geoffrey Hill wanted to put ‘marginal’ in his poem ‘Terribilis Est Locus Iste’ at the margin — ‘marginal angels lightning-sketched in red / chalk’ — and Peter Robinson obeys a related impulse when he puts ‘margins’ at the other margin of his poem and uses the white edge of the words on the page to make the line of the skin, a vulnerable surface that draws you to it by its distinctness. Words become flesh here, but only for a moment as the poem moves on, soberly noting the haplessness of this flesh and the failure of the words to guarantee its safety. The gaps between words at the line ends are the moments when the sense of uncoverable distance comes over the poet and the moments when he overcomes that sense:

My mistake, never reckoning
how still you are afraid of me

of my imagination. Being
not specially alone, alive I’m
far from the person who endured him.

‘My mistake’ captures both the minor domestic embarrassment which is the occasion of this poem and the dimensions of that embarrassment in the shared and unshared past of the couple; how deep the placing of ‘Being’ at the line end, so that it has the impact of a gerundive though the function of a participle (compare the lines from The Prelude which I quoted last week ‘I felt the sentiment of being spread / O’er all that moves ...’); how exactly the gap between ‘I’m’ and ‘far from’ gauges both the immensity of the gap between the writer and the woman and also closes it, knows that they can live through and across that gap together; and how unstagey the implication of the writer himself in the rapist’s guilt by the rhyme to the eye of ‘I’m’ and ‘him’. I hope it won’t be thought unfittingly commercial for an academic lecture to say that Peter Robinson’s recent book Overdrawn Account (which does not contain this poem) is available from most self-respecting bookseller’s in Cambridge.

from a lecture delivered in 1981