Mancunia is both a real and an unreal city. In part, it is rooted in Manchester, but it is an imagined city too, a fallen utopia viewed from formal tracks, as from the train in the background of De Chirico’s paintings. In these poems we encounter a Victorian diorama, a bar where a merchant mariner has a story he must tell, a chimeric creature – Miss Molasses – emerging from the old docks. There are poems in honour of Mancunia’s bureaucrats: the Master of the Lighting of Small Objects, the Superintendent of Public Spectacles, the Co-ordinator of Misreadings. Metaphysical and lyrical, the poems in Michael Symmons Roberts’ seventh collection are concerned with why and how we ascribe value, where it resides and how it survives. Mancunia is – like More’s Utopia – both a no-place and an attempt at the good-place. It is occupied, liberated, abandoned and rebuilt. Capacious, disturbing and shape-shifting, these are poems for our changing times.
Pamphlet of three nativity poems, published Christmas 2002 by Phoenix Poetry Pamphlets, Nimes, France.
When Corpus won the Whitbread Poetry Award, the judges described it as ‘an outstanding, perfectly weighted collection that inspires meditation on the nature of the soul…reading it feels like making an exciting discovery and coming back to an acknowledged classic all at once.’ Michael Symmons Roberts’ first book, Soft Keys, was the original and most exciting discovery of all.
The poems in Soft Keys engage in a search for meaning and order in the everyday and in the extraordinary – a locust officer tracking swarms in an African desert, a hobbyist building a replica of the world out of matchsticks, a chance encounter with the French mystic Simone Weil playing video games in a Torquay arcade… Richly inventive, and written in a wide diversity of poetic forms, Soft Keys looks for those places and moments where the curtain between earth and heaven is thinnest; it was a powerful, arresting debut and the beginning of a remarkable career.
As Les Murray said at the time: ‘Like Nijinsky, he can leap into the air and stay there. You can reach up and feel the thump of the stage finely persisting in an ankle bone. Roberts is a poet for the new, chastened, unenforcing age of faith that has just dawned.’
After his first collection – SOFT KEYS – Michael Symmons Roberts was hailed by Les Murray as ‘a poet for the new, chastened, unenforcing age of faith that has just dawned’. The metaphysical concerns of that first book are central to this new collection, written in a language at once philosophical, sensuous and lyrical. From a doctor who washes lungs to the structure of genes, from mythical hounds born to fire to a cat’s-eye souvenir from a smashed-up road, the scope of this collection is impressive. Whatever the subject, these poems are concerned with elemental themes, with the mapping of experience, and the search for sparks of life at its heart. At the heart of RAISING SPARKS are two sequences – ‘Smithereens’ and ‘Quickenings’ – which form part of a continuing collaboration with the composer James MacMillan; the former set as a song cycle and the latter as amajor choral piece. These sequences – alongside intamate lyrics and dramatic meditations on creation, redemption and the end of time – show a poet of enormous range and depth.
In his first two collections – Soft Keys and Raising Sparks – Michael Symmons Roberts established himself as a lyric and dramatic poet with metaphysical concerns. In this new collection, those concerns are as strong as ever, but rooted in a specific place and time.
These poems describe the personal and public rise and fall of Greenham Common. The public story, as one of the most contentious missile bases of the cold war, ended with fences removed, buildings demolished, the base returned to common land. The private history emerges from the poet’s own experience, as an adolescent living a mile away from Greenham Common at the height of its powers. That third community of locals – not the USAF or the peace camps – is finally given a voice in Burning Babylon.
This is war poetry, but from an undeclared war in which battle lines were unclear, secrecy was an obsession, and threat was the chief weapon. At the heart of it all was that real and mythic gated city – the base – which was both a key part of the poet’s childhood landscape, and the prime nuclear target in Britain. This image of a huge, occult and lethal power latent behind wire in the middle of England has haunted the minds of a generation – just as the poems in this book will resonate long after it is laid aside.
Corpus – Michael Symmons Roberts’ Whitbread-Prize winning fourth collection – centres around the body. Mystical, philosophical and erotic, the bodies in these poems move between different worlds – life and after-life, death and resurrection – encountering pathologists’ blades, geneticists’ maps and the wounds of love and war.
Equally at ease with scripture (Jacob wrestling the Angel in ‘Choreography’) and science (‘Mapping the Genome’), these poems are a thrilling blend of modern and ancient wisdom, a profound and lyrical exploration of the mysteries of the body:’ So the martyrs took the lamb./ It tasted rich, steeped in essence/ Of anchovy. They picked it clean/ And found within, a goose, its pink/ Beak in the lamb’s mouth like a tongue.’ Ranging effortlessly between the physical extremes of death – from putrefaction to purification – and life – drought and flood, hunger and satiation – the poems in Corpus speak most movingly of ‘living the half-life between two elements’, of what it is to be unique and luminously alive.
The poems in Michael Symmons Roberts’s fifth collection move in a world riven by violence and betrayal, between nations and individuals. As ever, this is a metaphysical poetry rooted in physical detail – but the bodies here are displaced, disguised, in need of rescue. A man in a fox suit prowls the woods afraid of meeting true foxes, while a vixen dressed as a man moves among the powerful at society soirées. God no longer ‘walks in his garden in the cool of the day’, but drives through a damaged city in the small hours. At the same time a couple celebrate armistice with an act of love in an anonymous hotel room.
As the judges of the Whitbread Prize noted, Roberts’ poetry ‘inspires profound meditation on the nature of the soul, the body, the stars and the heart – and sparks revelation.’ Roberts is a poet of unusual range and dexterity, fascinated by faith and science, by the physical and the transcendental, and with this new book he confirms his position as a truly original, and thrillingly gifted, lyric poet.
Michael Symmons Roberts’ sixth – and most ambitious collection to date – takes its name from the ancient trade in powders, chemicals, salts and dyes, paints and cures. These poems offer a similarly potent and sensory multiplicity, unified through the formal constraint of 150 poems of 15 lines.
Like the medieval psalters echoed in its title, this collection contains both the sacred and profane. Here are hymns of praise and lamentation, songs of wonder and despair, journeying effortlessly through physical and metaphysical landscapes, from financial markets and urban sprawl to deserts and dark nights of the soul.
From an encomium to a karaoke booth to a conjuration of an inverse Antarctica, this collection is a compelling, powerful search for meaning, truth and falsehood. But, as ever in Roberts’ work – notably the Whitbread Award-winning Corpus – this search is rooted in the tangible world, leavened by wit, contradiction, tenderness and sensuality.
This is Roberts’ most expansive writing yet: mystical, philosophical, earthy and elegiac. Drysaltersings of the world’s unceasing ability to surprise, and the shock and dislocation of catching your own life unawares.
This selection of the best poems from six remarkable collections reveals that all the strength and sensuality and strangeness is in there from the start. This is a metaphysical poetry for our age: rooted, steeped in the physical, but stretching for lyric completion, philosophical clarity, emotional truth. These poems achieve their seriousness not through hectoring argument but through their lightness of touch, their wit, their tenderness, their music. Roberts has always been a poet who, in the words of Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘inspires profound meditation on the nature of the soul, the body, the stars and the heart, and sparks revelation’. He is also formally and thematically diverse, restlessly exploring a wide range of subjects from Cold-War fear to love lyrics, genetics to elegies, always returning to the crucial, elemental themes – the mapping of experience and the search for meaning.
After Drysalter, his double-prize-winning tour de force, we now have this opportunity to observe the whole arc to date: the consistency of grace and power, curiosity and risk, passion and intelligence that – together – make Michael Symmons Roberts such a thrilling and essential poet.