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My Inner Anthology: A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

Written by Rachael Norris, 12th August 2020

In this feature we're thinking about which bits of literature – whether that be in the form of poems, novels, essays, or plays – would we like to carry around inside ourselves for future reference. There is so much out there that at times it can be difficult to see the woods through the trees. Our time is precious, the space of our inner world valuable. We don’t want to fill it up with clutter, but with only the best hand-picked bespoke treasures that we can find. This week The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin, recommends A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson.

This month we’re enjoying ‘A Time for Holidays’ in our Daily Readings programme. While we might not be able to jet off anywhere exotic this summer, literature gives us the perfect outlet to travel to places we’ve not been to before – or might not be able to anyway in the usual circumstances, whether it be for a lack of funds or any other reason. I wanted to recommend some poetry about going places and being a traveller: if you’re going on a stay-cation or not much further than your back garden or local park, then hopefully they’ll offer you a bit of a trip away. 

The first is one called ‘A Portable Paradise’ by Roger Robinson, and I chose this poem in particular as I find that it really speaks to the current situation we’re finding ourselves in. We all need a place to escape that’s just for ourselves, certainly during the past few months, but also generally when the stresses and strains of life are getting to us. Our own ‘portable paradise’ is something that will be different for each of us as individuals – perhaps it can even be found in reading a piece of great literature – but isn’t it wonderful to think that whatever’s going on around us, we can take a few minutes to tap into it and find some peace? The collection of the same name, to which the poem belongs, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2019, and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in May 2020 for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that evokes the “spirit of a place”.

And if life puts you under pressure,  
trace its ridges in your pocket,  
smell its pine scent on your handkerchief,  
hum its anthem under your breath. 
(from ‘A Portable Paradise’, Roger Robinson)

Speaking from my own perspective I really enjoy being a tourist and doing the rather typical sightseeing activities when I visit a place I’ve never been before, such as going on walking tours and visiting the famous landmarks. But have you ever thought about being a tourist in your own life? ‘I want to be a tourist’ by Kapka Kassabova explores this very thought, which might be one we haven’t really thought about before. I do think that it’s an intriguing one; that idea of stepping out of yourself and seeing your life from a kind of bird’s-eye perspective, or perhaps to understand yourself in a deeper way by spending time alone and being introspectiveA really interesting, illuminating poem, which can be found in Geography for the Lost (Bloodaxe Books, 2007).  

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.
Give me overpriced coffee in the square,
let me visit briefly the mausoleum of the past
and photograph its mummy,
(from ‘I want to be a tourist’, Kapka Kassabova 


The last poem I’m adding to my inner anthology for this month is called ‘Presence’ by Mathura, translated from the Estonian along with Ilmar Lehtpere and Sadie Murphy. I really like the atmosphere this poem creates; the feeling of being somewhere but veering from your original course, travelling somewhere you hadn’t planned on going, and treating perfectly ordinary sights with the same significance as you would the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids. In particular, I find the following lines really powerful – why do we feel the need to ‘tally up’ the things we experience? What does that impulse give to us? 

All things pass – this day, this light, 
this season – and no-one will ever tally up 
the passing hours, their pleasures and pains, 
to find some hewn truth in them. 
No-one even needs it.
(from ‘Presence, Mathura with translation from the Estonian by Mathura, Ilmar Lehtpere and Sadie Murphy) 

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