Book review: The Heartless Traffic

This book continues Jeremy Robson’s remarkable renaissance and shows just how prolific he has become


The Heartless Traffic: new and selected poems by Jeremy Robson (Smokestack Books, £8.99)

If you had asked me in 2013 about Jeremy Robson, I would have told you that he was a sensational performance poet back in the 1960s and 1970s but had published no verse volumes since In Focus and Poems out of Israel (both from 1970).

I may have speculated why this exciting poet had stopped writing, and perhaps concluded that he had simply run out of things to say. How wrong I would have been.

In 2014, after what Robson described as “one of the longest writer’s blocks in history”, Blues in the Park appeared. It was a revelation. As Dannie Abse noted in his book-jacket blurb, this was a return of poetry written “as much for
the study as for the stage”.

But poems did feature applause, encore, and a curtain call. After the death of a friend, life was imagined as “an empty stage”. Robson’s return to performance poetry continued with his next volume, Subject Matters (2017). Here again, oral poetry was transcribed to the page: “and in a service conducted by a rabbi/ who is female too, what’s more!/ ‘Tut tut,’ I hear them say. ‘Oy vey!’”.

The recurrent notes here were humour, charm and playfulness. The Heartless Traffic: New and Selected Poems continues Robson’s remarkable renaissance. It shows just how prolific he has become, with 44 new poems opening the volume.

This is complemented by a generous sample of his earlier works from Subject Matters, Blues in the Park, In Focus, Poems out of Israel, Poems for Jazz (1969) and Thirty Three Poems (1964), as well as uncollected juvenilia.

From the first page, the mood is one of cheer, optimism and, again, playfulness. “Chance played me the right hand that night,” the poetpersona reflects on meeting his wife at “a party I’d crashed”. Games metaphors feature in several of these poems; for example, we learn that, “beneath/that poker-faced exterior lurked a joker / in the pack” and that time is, “an unknown dealer dishing out the cards”.

Yet there is a serious undertow here, with intimations of the “endgame”. Death is a recurring theme for the octogenarian Robson. But it is not to be feared.

The poet’s perennial optimism lends him faith in what lies beyond death: old age is a time for “courage, cheer” while “waiting/patiently in the queue for our time to renew”. This might suggest a fusion of English manners with
Judaic faith.

Overall, this collection of ‘‘New and Selected Poems’’ demonstrates Robson’s faith in life and death as benevolent — even divine — dramas.

As the outstanding title poem concludes: “I joined the heartless traffic / in its endless race to God knows where. // So much drama waiting there.”

These are poems guaranteed to raise your spirits, without disturbing your soul.

Peter Lawson’s books include ‘Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain since 1945’ and a volume of his own poems, ‘Senseless Hours’.

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