- Avigail Schimmel
Stephen Romer was born in Hertfordshire in 1957, and is a lecturer at the University of Tours in France.
He has also been Visiting Professor in French at Colgate University, New York. His own poetry collections include Idols (1986); Plato's Ladder (1992); and Tribute (1998). He has translated many French poets, including Philippe Jaccottet, Jean Tardieu, and Jacques Dupin. He has also translated sections from the Notebooks of Paul Valéry (2002). His latest collection of poetry is Yellow Studio (2008), shortlisted for the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize.
Stephen Romer is also the editor of 20th-Century French Poems (2002).
The opening sequence of his new collection Yellow Studio (2008) is quintessential Stephen Romer, recollecting poignant episodes from a love affair in France between a middle-aged man and a young American woman.
Even in the enticing opening poem ‘there were tears, along with tequilas’ and more to come: ‘tears, the true ones, of joy, / (bottle them, bottle them, for later)’ (‘Recognition’). And in another restaurant scene, we overhear her increasing impatience with his literary love talk, to which she replies with her own erotic poetic gesture, lowering her jeans to show a ‘snatch of Stevens – was it / The Idea of Order? – indelibly tattooed / on her back, just along the pantyline’ (‘At the Procope’). The ‘indestrucible sweetness’ of the feelings she provokes, however, lead but to ‘the dreary ache of the unrequited’, and he sadly kisses her framed photograph goodbye while wrapping it away (‘Senex’). But – and this is perhaps why romance is always an elegantly doomed progress in Romer’s work – a following poem is called ‘Recidivist’: a noun with a French origin, meaning someone who repeatedly commits crime and is not deterred by punishment. Indeed the ironically titled ‘St Stephen’ positively relishes a friend’s postcard showing the saint being pierced by arrows and discloses - the coup de grace - a former lover’s upcoming wedding.
Romer has previously stated his view of poetry as an instrument to shed light on feelings, ‘whereby painful contradiction and chaotic emotion can be ordered and made sense of’, and that it can also ‘create the poetic excitement in the reader’ (Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Winter 1992). He went on to quote Proust’s view of the significance of unhappy love. Romer is pre-eminently a poet whose subject is the remembrance of past love, savouring its precious details in an exquisitely Proustian way. This is just one of Romer’s French affinities, alongside Baudelaire, de Nerval, Corbiere; even perhaps Mallarme and Apollinaire. Of course, Romer himself is not really a poete maudit; rather, his incorporation of their spirit is a kind of Francophile ‘mask’ to wear over his own essential Englishness. He has lived in France and taught at universities there for over 25 years. He is both an authority on French literature and a well-connected English literary figure. As editor of 20th-Century French Poems (2002) he commissioned new translations from contemporaries including Mark Ford, Paul Muldoon, and Alan Jenkins, as well as American poets such as John Ashbery.
The first poem in his first book Idols (1986) is aptly titled ‘The French Translation’, with later ones invoking ‘Rilke in Paris’ and ‘After Corbiere’. The poet is soon observing life ‘From the Corner Seat’ and sensing an absent lover through her favourite drink and cigarettes, maintaining ‘She’s as good as here. / There’s life in a table and an empty chair’. In ‘Resolve’ the café poet is again wrestling ‘With the problem of the jeune fille’, wanting to ‘conclude // this matter, pay my bill and enter life’ but is seemingly unable to do so. Rather than take comfort in drink, he plaintively asks instead: ‘Books. Can they help? Is it consoling to know / his love had a pattern mine may follow’? (‘Of Comfort in Books’).
Plato’s Ladder (1992) was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and is certainly a more various and wide-ranging book. There is now an increased preoccupation with time passing that finds him pausing to admire ‘the caressing shower of Gatsby’s shirts // or the transience of Katarina Witt on the ice’ (‘The Inimitable’). But Europe – its history, culture and landscapes - provides its grand theme. Romer himself had by then moved to his long–term residence in the Loire Valley. In ‘Bellagio’, the speaker is in a hotel with a view of Lake Como, ‘ready to do something foolish / like fall in love with a painting / and revive an indestructible desire’. The third section is more serious, reflecting a year’s teaching he undertook in Poland during the pivotal year of 1989-90. In ‘All Souls’ he reconstructs the tragic history of the wartime Jewish ghetto there. Now tenements and a motorway submerge what is, ‘a vague arterial / driven through the remnants of the ghetto’ (‘Lodz’). He observes the ironies of western culture on a newly ‘liberated’ country. Of course, there is always the ‘Sweet Confusion’ of a short-lived love affair: ‘you met me with an exalted smile / at the carrot juice bar. / one month later you were married’.
By Tribute (1998), the ‘captives of Romance’ have become ‘the Terrible Crystallization’. And the café poet of earlier books is now ‘lunching with a shell-shocked friend, / explaining how extended separation / becomes metaphysical, / a comfort of sorts’. Introducing Yellow Studio for the Poetry Book Society, Romer notes that, as ever, ‘the matter of France … surfaces a lot, and its creative malentendu with my English roots’. This poet is now a citizen of the world – one section offers rueful views of teaching students in America. Romer explains that the title poem originated from a view of the French painter Vuillard’s studio, ‘glimpsed’ in a Chicago museum: ‘I stare with nostalgia, with homesickness’. But Romer’s characteristic remembrance of things past is distinctively different this time, notably in the closing section of poems in memoriam to his father. These are remarkably straightforward poems – the references mainly to a shared love of music rather than poetry - revisiting their past relationship as well as his father’s final illness. They move sweetly between the past and present, triggered by things such as hearing a favourite piano concerto on the radio. This brings back his own schoolboy self, ‘the savage, dry euphoria as the piano surges in’ (‘Brahms’).
Some of the most moving poems arise out of reading the ‘Strictly Private Diary’ his father kept as a young man in wartime and after. He reconstructs, for example, a cinema visit to see a French film and the sensuality of a woman sitting next to him: ‘nothing vulgar or immoral, / but my mind disturbed’ (‘Les Portes de la Nuit’). The curious innocence of a past era is so well-conveyed. These poems form a heartfelt coda to Romer’s most satisfying volume to date, and, as Hugo Williams has observed, have ‘torn away a veil, releasing a new energy and vision’. Notwithstanding his sophisticated Francophile masks and semi-detached Englishness - and his philosophical eye on the emotions - Stephen Romer may well be the finest love poet of his generation.
Dr Jules Smith, 2008
There are many plausible definitions of poetry, though none of them all-inclusive or definitive. I am attracted by Coleridge’s 'more than usual emotion combined with more than usual order', by Montale’s 'poetry is a religious penetration of the world', and by Joseph Brodsky’s 'the spirit, seeking flesh, finds words'. All these stress the urgency, and the high stakes, involved in the composition of a poem, and the sense of concentration. My own poems are usually short, sharp 'peaks of concentration', and they attempt to record the rare and mysterious coincidence of inner and outer worlds, the world of ideas and the world of physical perception (if you like, the invisible inferred from the visible). A poem may be triggered by a love affair, or a configuration of light. The poems I admire (and try to write) are those in which intellect and emotion are in a war-embrace, and the intensity generated finds its pattern (and the mental state its preservation) in the right words.