Beauty, Violence, and the Gods

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Niall MacDiarmid
Robin Robertson, 1996

Robin Robertson, born in 1955, a Scottish poet and editor living in London, has produced four volumes of poetry, three of which, remarkably, have won a Forward Prize: A Painted Field (1997, Best First Collection), Slow Air (2002), Swithering (2006, Best Collection), and now, in 2010, The Wrecking Light (containing the poem “At Roane Head,” judged Best Poem of 2008). Robertson grew up in Aberdeen, where his father, a Church of Scotland minister, was chaplain of the university. After reading English at Aberdeen, Robertson found his way into publishing, where he rose to eminence as an editor. Not until he was over forty did he publish his first book, but since then prize after prize has come his way.

Predictably, echoes of Seamus Heaney are present in A Painted Field and Slow Air. There are Heaneyesque topics (the Northern Irish “Troubles,” a Sheela-na-Gig) and items from Heaney’s pages (a kite, an otter, a thug’s coarseness, and the Heaney title “Exposure”). However, even in his early work Robertson had begun to use a detached third-person mode instead of the lyric first person so natural to Heaney. Less easily shaken off are the echoes of Ted Hughes, patron of the brutality of nature in Robertson’s poems (“A Decomposition,” “Dead Sheep in Co. Derry”). Over time, however, the quality of brutality becomes connected with human suffering more than with natural massacre or decay. Robertson is a poet eloquent in his lists of derelict things and abandoned locations, but is still learning, even in Swithering (the word means “violent uncertainty”), to evoke human presence. Returning in a dream to the garden at his childhood house, he finds

the tool shed,
caught in a lash of brambles,
…the lost tennis court, grown-over benches,
a sunken barbecue snagged with blown roses.

But then the elegy sinks into the bathos of the overexplicit:

In the corner of the shed my father is weeping
and I cannot help him because he is dead.

The Wrecking Light has gone beyond such a closing—perhaps because Robertson has absorbed a more oblique sense of an ending from Eugenio Montale, whom he had been translating with intensity (see, in Swithering, “The Eel,” “Siesta,” and “The Custom-House”).

In the three volumes preceding The Wrecking Light, we have viewed a marriage happily undertaken, the birth of two daughters, and a painful divorce felt as if it were a death. In fact, the speaker of “Waking Late” is a corpse, presenting a grimly baroque vision of his dissolution in a poem that does not fully reveal its context until its last line:

I am used to the smell by now,
the stillness, these shifts
in waist measurement,
the bad skin. But my hair
is lustrous, the cheekbones
well-defined, and my nails,
it seems, still growing.

Death has by no means disappeared in the new volume: Robertson opens with a poem in which a ghost haunts old photographs; in another, he recalls a man who died of …

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