‘Michael Symmons Roberts’s Selected Poems brings together six collections of his frequently-prize-winning poetry. His oeuvre, at this stage, is remarkable; it is worth repeating that he is unlike any poet currently writing; he is, in his own realm, the nonpareil of British poetry… inimitable, the exemplar that other poets hanker after but can’t parody or echo, not only because he is an unusually gifted technician but because he busts wide open the many no-go areas of human experience, notably the world of the spirit, even the nature of soul, that loaded word most poets stare at, occasionally prod and weigh, but in the end, have no understanding to what meaningful purpose it should be put.’ PBS BULLETIN ON SELECTED POEMS
from The Observer
MANCUNIA by Michael Symmons Roberts review – intricately varied
In a collection that constantly defies expectation, the British poet offers a strikingly imaginative portrait of the Manchester in which he lives.
There are many ways of occupying a city and Michael Symmons Roberts, in his superb, substantial and intricately varied seventh volume, reminds us it is a complicated business: we live in cities imaginatively as well as actually. Sometimes, we are painfully adjacent, shallow-rooted, trying to take hold.
This book offers only a notional portrait of the Manchester in which Symmons Roberts lives. It has become Mancunia, the city as it exists in his mind. This is his first collection since the masterly Drysalter, which won the Forward prize and Costa poetry award, and was, you might have reasonably supposed, an impossible act to follow.
Yet with each reading of this volume, one sees more – as one’s eyes adjust to the dark. For in many of these poems light is wanting (in both senses of the phrase). Mancunian Miserere is a good example of a poem about going against the city’s grain and his own. He wishes to atone for a “constancy of inattention”, while the poem offers evidence of the contrary on a tormented walk down Cross Street (the city a version of his own body). I love the peculiar detail about the “undersides of leaves” prefiguring a storm, and the implication that if he knew to notice this, it would somehow help him. Symmons Roberts’s writing runs as unhindered as the rain he describes. Yet he registers the way in which he feels blocked: “prise my teeth apart O God that I might learn to praise”.
Praise is so easy it can become difficult. Affirmation is never straightforward. Love Song on a Loop explores the idea that the expression of love is a devalued currency: “And so this song undoes itself,/unwinding into gibberish./Nonetheless, it started/true enough, I feel it, so help me.”
The stumbling block is that emphasising the positive can seem inauthentic or impersonal. Master of Lighting Small Details (honouring a Mancunian bureaucrat) is a poem that could be taken as a riposte to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken – the road not taken resembling the love unspoken.
We begin in a dark bar, with a raised glass to “the way things are/and might have been, if I had just…” And then an image strikes:
Yet all those miles away some clutch
of thistles catches midday sun with such
rare glory that a traveller through
that field may stop to take it in as though
the glimpse of it was meant for him, and walk my path as it were his own.
It is a charmed moment, but hastily shelved – the light put out.
One of the wonderful things about Symmons Roberts is his way of pushing poems – and himself with them – in a direction you were not expecting. He constantly reconstitutes the world.
In the marvellous Tightrope Song, Symmons Roberts tells of a dazzling gymnast from the rope’s point of view. Similarly, a poem about a wall encourages us to consider the entire wall and not merely our half of it. In a brilliant, unnerving poem entitled The Future of Books, Symmons Roberts envisions literature reprocessed: “Our slice has its own distinctive shade and scent/ – paper-musk, the dark behind bookshelves – /but it so mystifies our future selves/they fry it like black pudding, a salt and bitter/jus of atlas, sonnet, gossip, scripture.”
Symmons Roberts scoops up that remaindered dark in handfuls.
And possibly the best poem in the collection is In Paradisum, about Manchester’s refugee children. Here, Symmons Roberts reminds us of how easy it is to see human extremity without seeing it – a moving feat in what is a first-rate collection.
Poetry / The Observer / reviews /
“Equally powerful in narrative and in musical terms, this work seems to have hit the ground running.”
“A terrifically intense, focused and inspired musical work.”
“Subtly haunting and quietly powerful, it is a parable of God’s will in the world. This is an opera which leaves a lasting effect, and I want to hear it again soon.”
“One Evening does lend a jolt of immediacy to Winterreise by using English translations of Muller’s German words by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts…. Here is his rendering of the first verse of Der Greise Kopf (The Hoary Head), in which the traveler describes how the frost turned his hair white:
My hair became a shock of salt,
The frost had left me older.
At last I looked the way I felt,
Kind death was at my shoulder.
You could sense a jolt of recognition throughout the theater as this New York audience heard the familiar Schubert songs sung in English.’ Mr Symmons Roberts’ translations deserve to be heard outside this production.”
“Padmore sings the songs in an admirable translation by Michael Symmons Roberts. Why don’t more singers do this? We hung on every word, not needing to scan programmes or surtitles.”
“James MacMillan’s ‘Chosen’, adding to his increasingly compelling body of choral compositions, makes striking use of unison and harmony contrasts, and has a searingly placed climax.”
“Roberts’ punchy text is engaging, allusive and teasingly ambiguous, while MacMillan’s music adds a tortuous dimension, wracked with turbulent open emotions, and periods of gorgeous serenity.”
“Michael Symmons Roberts’ thoughtfully imagined poetic libretto spells out the private thoughts of a parthenogenetic mother and her worried guardian angel (Lisa Milne and Christopher Purves, intense and lyrical throughout), enclosed within spoken commentaries by the daughter who knows herself to be her mother’s almost-sister and perfect double (Anastasia Hill) troubled down to rare expressive depths”