Robin Robertson is from the northeast coast of Scotland. His fifth collection of poetry will be published next year. (June 2012)

Flayed Alive by the Bacchae

Ancient Greek kylix showing a Maenad and Satyr, fifth century BC

They would have torn us to pieces, those Bacchae.

Instead, they turned—bare-handed—

on our herd of grazing cattle.

A single woman pulled a mewling calf in two,

while others clawed apart a full-grown heifer.

There were spread ribs and broken hooves
flung everywhere,

and pieces of flesh hung

dripping from the trees.

Keys to the Doors

for Eilidh I loved your age of wonder: your third and fourth and fifth years spent astonished, widening your eyes at each new trick of the world—and me standing there, solemnly explaining how it was done. The moon and stars, rainbows, photographs, gravity, the birds in …

The Dead Sound

Looking back,
I knew it was over:

the way you hear
a pot break

and you can tell,
with no sign

of a crack, just by
the dead sound it makes

that it’s gone, that it’s
only a matter of time.

Solitude (I)

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

The Double World of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer, Paris, March 1995
The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry has remained constant during his fifty-five-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a “buzzard poet,” Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision.

Fire Graffiti

Throughout those dismal months my life was only sparked alight when I made love to you. As the firefly ignites and fades, ignites and fades, we follow the flashes of its flight in the dark among the olive trees. Throughout those dismal months, my …

The Double World of Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer, Paris, March 1995

The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry has remained constant during his fifty-five-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a “buzzard poet,” Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision. A view that first appeared open and featureless now holds an anxiety of detail; the voice that first sounded spare and simple now seems subtle, shrewd, and thrillingly intimate. There is a profoundly spiritual element in Tranströmer’s vision, though not a conventionally religious one. He is interested in polarities and how we respond, as humans, to finding ourselves at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment.

An Ambush

None survived. The platoon had forgotten the fable of the patient fox, waiting for the night’s sudden drop to zero. A minute is all it takes and the white lake is dotted in stars already frozen red, and the blown feathers of …

Tinsel

Tune to the frequency of the wood and you’ll hear the deer, breathing; a muscle, tensing; the sigh of a fieldmouse under an owl. Now listen to yourself—that friction—the push-and-drag, the double pulse, the drum. You can hear it, clearly. You can hear …

Through the Tweed

Giving a back-rub to Hugh MacDiarmid I felt, through the tweed, so much tension in that determined neck, those little bony shoulders that, when it was released, he simply stood up and fell over.

Hammersmith Winter



It is so cold tonight; too cold for snow,
and yet it snows. Through the drawn curtain
shines the snowlight I remember as a boy,
sitting up at the window watching it fall.
But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed. None of you are. Look at the snow,
I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold,
would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

A Simple Gift

She came to me in a dress of true-love and blue rocket, with fairy-thimbles of foxglove at the neck and wrist, in her hair she wore a garland of cherry laurel, herb bennet, dwayberries and yew-berries, twined with stems of clematis, and …

Diving

The sudden sea is bright and soundless: a changed channel of dashed colour, scrolling plankton, sea-darts, the slope and loom of ghosts, something slow and grey sashaying through a school of cobalt blue, thin chains of silver fish that link and …

My Girls

How many times have I lain alongside them willing them to sleep after the same old stories; face to face, hand in hand, till they smooth into dream and I can slip these fingers free and drift downstairs: my face a blank, …

The Custom-House

after Montale You don’t remember the custom-house or the drop to the rocks from its sheer height; it’s been waiting, lying empty since your grief thickened to a swarm that night and paused, trembling in the door.   For years, the south-westerlies have lashed …

Trumpeter Swan

He takes a run at it: heaving himself up off the lake, wing-beats echoing, the wheeze of each pull pulling him clear.   The sky is empty; every stretch of water flaunts its light.   You can learn how to fly, …

Strindberg in London

My new wife fills the bed, fills every room, tells me it will all be fine. Dragged through other people’s lives, pursued through my own. What will I remember? Only this. Trafalgar Square swallowed in smog, erasing the statues, the people, daylight itself, and then the …

At Dawn

I took a new path off the mountain to this ruined croft, and went inside to find, under the table, the earth floor seething with ants; on the mantelpiece, some wire-wool, a box of screws, a biscuit-tin of human hair and a urine sample …

Ghost of a Garden

Sometimes I discover I have gone downstairs, crossed the grass and found myself in here: the tool-shed caught in a lash of brambles, bindweed, and tall ivied trees like pipecleaners. It stares out slackly on a garden run to seed: the lost tennis court, grassed-over …

Crossing the Archipelago

Rising in November in these days of dusk I am one life older, watching now as the walls green over, the stones break into bud; if this is ebb-tide turned to flood it means that nightfall might begin again at dawn. And so it …

Myth

This morning, in bracken beyond the east field, I find the blown bulbs of sunset; on the wet lawn, after the snow, the snowman’s spine.

Waves


I have swum too far
out of my depth

and the sun has gone;

 

the hung weight of my legs

a plumb-line,

my fingers raw, my arms lead;

 

the currents pull like weed

and I am very tired

and cold, and moving out to sea.

Apart

We are drawn to edges, to our own parapets and sea-walls: finding our lives in relief, in some forked storm. Returning with our unimaginable gifts, badged with salt and blood, we have forgotten how to walk. Thinking how much more we wanted …

Feeding the Fire

Some hard, half-eaten logs lie drifting in ash: black in the flocculent smother of grey. Just a puttering flame, the occasional spat of cinder. Holding a sheet of the Times up against it, though, the lung of paper sucked in …