Mark Ford on 'The Woman in the Photograph'

... and this brings me back to the America versus Britain theme, which might be best illustrated by reference to Peter Robinson’s poem, from his latest collection Entertaining Fates, which exhibits a Larkinian sense of the immutability of things, yet in modified form, so the past is not wholly cut off from the present, but can be reached back into through a process of hesitant speculation, an attenuated version of Larkinian fantasy, just as Nicholas Christopher's transformation is a pale version of Ashbery’s transformation of the girls in the photo into real life:

THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH

From our upstairs window, as I speak,
you might hear a car pull up
and stop beside the rectory
— a large brick frontage opposite?
where walls of the different generations meet.
From their car a couple step
to be received by the rector at his door.

He’ll be preparing those people for their marriage.
His garden’s beeches, worried this November
by even-handed winds that stir them,
cast off leaves
which scrape across our roof at midnight
and are whirled away.

She’d wake each morning to that brick wall opposite
and not leave the house —
but upstairs, maybe, where dormer windows
facing on the street had been removed,
or through changing daylight would she sit
unseen when neighbours visited
briefly to run messages?

Could it have been her — young woman
in this rolled-up photograph,
one summer more than fifty years back,
indecisive, diffidently
looking at the camera
with a labrador beside her
and that glossy privet?

Were stories told about her all the truth?
She'd fallen for a child before they married?
From across the way, a rector
of that time had visited
and dwelt upon their sinfulness
— so then it was a punishment from God
when her baby died?

After how many years of corridors and wards,
of institutions she’d endured,
we two bought this place
in which its former occupier
and, before him, his wife had died.
Found like that by a next door neighbour —
she’d fallen in the fire.

As in the ‘large brick frontage opposite’, so in the poem ‘walls of the different generations meet’. Like Christopher’s, the poem is very much grounded in an actual contingent present — a particular couple are being prepared for their marriage — their arrival observed by the poet who lives in the house opposite. The poet is rooted in historical time and a particular relationship — the ‘we’ is not at all like the generalized ‘we’ of Larkin’s poem (‘surely we cry’), but the poet himself and his wife, who, like Christopher, have a particular physical presence in the moment, and are observed in action — ‘From our upstairs window, as I speak ...’ The photo is used, as in Christopher’s ‘Lineage’, as a way of understanding, plotting history, and the poet and his wife's relationship to it in terms of the history of their house:

After how many years of corridors and wards,
of institutions, she’d endured,
we two bought this place
in which its former occupier
and, before him, his wife had died ...

But — and here I think is a crucial difference — the poet establishes no personal relationship with the woman in the photo. The girl in Christopher’s photograph is described as resembling his future wife, but in Peter Robinson's poem there is something purely arbitrary, merely contingent, about the woman — indeed he doesn’t even know for sure if the woman in the photo he obviously found by chance in the house really is the one about whom these stories were told. He can speculate about her, but never really connect with her, make her part of his history except in the most tentative of ways. But nor can he make her part of his own private fantasy world in the Larkinian mode — one suspects the wife would put a stop to that, and anyway, she does have her own history which he cannot override or ignore. Larkin transports his real girl into the heaven of his imagination where she lies ‘unvariably lovely’, but Robinson’s poem concludes with an acknowledgement of her existence independent of his imagination of her through the one unquestionable rather gruesome fact he knows about her (if indeed it is her) — that she died and fell into the fire where she was found the next day. The poem cannot transform this stubborn detail, which exists almost like a wall between the poet and the girl in the photograph, and is a typical example of the empirical grounding one often finds in British poetry — like Larkin’s description of the art of photography ‘faithful and disappointing’, though that disappointment may have its own peculiarly addictive attraction. Robinson’s poem achieves no final uplift as, to an extent, the other three poems do, but instead embodies a kind of scrupulous curiosity. The speculations about the girl lead nowhere — one hardly expects them to — but, as one would expect in a poet obsessed with the poetry of Thomas Hardy, are fascinating simply for their own sake. The girl’s history exists in a kind of juxtaposed parallel to that of the poet and his wife, allied to them only by the purely arbitrary fact of their both having lived in the same house. He cannot make her reflect his own perceptions, as Christopher can the figures in the photograph in ‘Lineage’, nor see her as at once generic and ‘astonishingly young and fresh’ as Ashbery does his girls in ‘Mixed Feelings’, but nor can he isolate her in his own private fantasy in the Larkin style. He entertains her fate for a while, to adapt the book’s title, but must then allow her to solidify into her actual history.

I have no plan at all to adjudicate between these poems — I like them all — and my intention has been more to open them out than to close them down with a fixed assessment. Yet perhaps this poem comes closest to fulfilling Robert Lowell's moral injunction to the poet to record ‘what happened’ in ‘Epilogue’, the last poem in his last book, Day by Day, which raises many of the issues I’ve touched on here, and despite its title, doesn't solve them at all. Lowell wrote this after a prolonged spell in England when married to Caroline Blackwood, and it to some extent straddles the two poetics — the American desire to escape the merely ‘paralyzed by fact’, the British ideal of ‘The grace of accuracy’. Lowell’s recourse to Vermeer is a bit of a blind, I think — his magical interiors couldn’t be much further from the poor passing facts of photographs — but I hope you’ll see the relevance of this poem to my concerns today, and agree that all these poems in their different ways succeed in finding a ‘living name’ for the figures they contemplate.

from a lecture delivered in 1992