W.H. Auden claimed, and surely he is right, that the poem is the only form of art one must either take or leave. One can look at a painting and wonder what to have for dinner, one can listen to a symphony and think about sex, and still have an artistic experience, albeit distractedly; but a poem read with an absent mind remains lifeless on the page, lacking the necessary inspiration of our full attention. Poetry therefore is the most intimate of the arts, and at its strongest can produce an almost physical reaction in the reader, a shying-away, as from the too close proximity of another’s flesh. Rilke observes that “beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror we can just about bear,” and something of the same might be said of the best poetry.
To read over, for the purpose of reviewing it, the entire published output of a poet whose work one is familiar with and whose developing career one has watched closely is to be thrust up against something—literally, a body of work—the flesh-hot feel of which affords an unasked-for and perhaps unwanted knowing, almost in the biblical sense of the word. The poetry of Robin Robertson has from the start been intensely physical, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Anyone who has read that early masterpiece of his, the Ovid-inspired “The Flaying of Marsyas,” is likely to be haunted for life by its blood-boltered images:
Red Marsyas. Marsyasécorché,
splayed, shucked of his skin
in a tug and rift of tissue;
his birthday suit sloughed
the way a sodden overcoat is eased
off the shoulders and dumped.
All memories of a carnal life
lifted like a bad tattoo,
live bark from the vascular tree:
raw Marsyas unsheathed.
The poem was the centerpiece of Robertson’s first collection, the astonishingly assured A Painted Field,1 published in 1997. Indeed, the high quality of that early work is made more apparent by the two volumes that have followed it, not because they are of lesser quality than their predecessor but by virtue of that peculiar way in which a poet’s continuing work creates a solidarity, makes a community, almost, with what has gone before. In these three volumes, not short but not over-full, either, we see a poet not maturing—for A Painted Field is already mature—but flexing his poetic muscles to their full breadth.
Robertson came late to poetry, or at least to the publishing of it—there may exist fat folders of prentice work—and he was already in his forties when that first volume appeared. He was born in Perthshire, in Scotland, in 1955, and grew up in Aberdeen, a city which in his work is the occasional butt of mordant and comic mockery. He studied in Scotland and Canada, and then moved to London to work in publishing. He was at Penguin, and then at Secker & Warburg, where he encouraged…
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