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 and oversaw the 1990s renaissance in Scottish fiction writing, publishing such authors as James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, Irvine Welsh, and Janice Galloway. He is currently deputy publishing director at Jonathan Cape. In Britain in 1997 A Painted Field won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and two years ago he received the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Robertson’s poetry is Scottish in subtle yet identifiable ways. He harks back repeatedly to the old Border ballads collected by Francis Child—his latest collection, Swithering, has epigraphs from the well-known songs “The False Bride” and “Lord Randal” —and his vocabulary is liberally salted with Scots and Scots-Gaelic words.2 Yet Robertson is no Hugh MacDiarmid, obsessed with England and its perfidy; this man is sober, most of the time, and the look he takes at the thistle is as hard as Aberdeen granite. He sees clearly the self-hating and self-lacerating tendencies of a conquered people; the poem “Hill Fort” has as its epigraph the declaration from 1320 of Robert Bruce, king of the Scots and hero of the tragic War of Independence—“What we cannot hold we destroy”—which in its context seems as much a cry of despair as a shout of defiance. Elsewhere, in lighter mode, Robertson has some fond fun at the expense of his native culture, as in “Sunny Memories,” a section of the long sequence “Camera Obscura,” which closes A Painted Field; this is the poem’s second verse, guying the shibboleths of the tribe:
Balmoral; the Sobieski Stuart Brothers’
Vestiarium Scoticum; clan maps and tartan,
Edinburgh rock; Walter Scott and Harry Lauder;
Wha’s like us? Cheers! andslàinte mhath
to the king across the water.
The sense of having been disinherited and forced into the position of an outsider, an interloper, surfaces frequently in Robertson’s early work, yet the poet manages for the most part to transmute his predicament as a landless Scot into the score of a bitter, unrelenting music which rises far above the level of the merely personal. The butcher’s voice in “The Flaying of Marsyas” has the cockney tone of a football hooligan baiting the opposition:
Coming down here with your dirty ways…
Armpit to wrist, both sides.
Chasing our women…
Fine cuts round hoof and hand and neck.
Can’t even speak the language proper.
Now and then, however, especially in A Painted Field, the violence of the vision shows a hint of strain, not in individual lines or verses but in a suggestion behind the poetry of a pose being struck, a fist-fighter’s stance menacingly adopted. There is so much gore here that at times the reader seems to feel his hands go sticky with it. “Escapology” opens with the line “A shallow cut lets the blood bead,” while, on the opposite page, “After the Overdose” has “the bed/incongruous with blood.” This constant sanguinary welling-up in the interstices of the verse can come to seem suspect, especially over a long, close reading. The first stanza of “A Decomposition,” though it is marvelous poetry, carries a hint of the gratuitous, coming as it does after all those flayings and bloodlettings and failed suicides:
The horse decoded on the killing floor:
a riddle of hair and bone
by a bad fall,
a buzzard, some
unkindness of ravens.
Then dogs came
for the dismantling:
splayed the legs to cord and cable,
emptied the chest,
snapped the brooches of the back.
The forelock sits
intact on the skull’s white crown,
like a wig;
the head’s cockpit
fizzing with maggots.
The horse drones.
Although one would hesitate to adduce facts from the poet’s life as an aid in explicating his work, Robertson’s constant dabblings in blood and his fascination with modes and methods of evisceration are surely in part accounted for by the major heart operation he underwent in the early 1980s, when he was still a young man. Some of the poems deal directly with this event “from the heraldry of the flesh.” For instance, in the peculiarly insouciant “The Immoralist,” from the first collection, the poet is in the “sleeping ward,” his chest “strapped like a girl’s/ to stem the leaking wound.”
Scissoring the grey crêpe
released a clot dark as liver:
an African plum in its syrup
slid into my lap.
More recently, in “The Catch,” one of the shorter poems in Swithering, just published, he speaks of “The tick you hear” which is “the heart-valve’s catch.” However, the most beautiful, affecting, and wholly successful of what we might call these cardiac poems is “A Seagull Murmur,” from Swithering, with its intricate series of marine metaphors and the desperation and faint terror of its closing lines. The poem deserves quoting in full:
A SEAGULL MURMUR
is what they called it,
shaking their heads
The mewling sound of a leaking heart
of a gull trapped in his chest.
To let it out
they ran a cut down his belly
like a fish, his open ribs
the ribs of a boat;
and they closed him,
wired him shut.
Caulked and sea-worthy now
with his new valve; its metal
the dull clink
of a signal-buoy
or a beak at the bars of a cage.
“A Seagull Murmur” displays admirably Robertson’s genius for exact and gorgeous imagery, his dazzling metaphorical gift, and the knottiness of his thinking which runs through the syntax of the verse like a bead of Metaphysical quicksilver. But it is above all his firm grasp of the way in which language works that gives his poetry its authority and classical poise. Few poets at work now have his unerring control of the line; he avoids enjambment, and achieves his best effects by a kind of muscular, declarative forward stride. It may be unfashionable, indeed criminal in some quarters, to say so, but this is a thoroughly masculine poetry. His versions of Rilke, for instance, in Slow Air—“The Panther” and a marvelous “Fall”—are entirely free of the prissiness that mars so many English translations of this poet. The closing couplet of “Fall” is particularly fine:
And still we believe there is one who sifts and holds
the leaves, the lives, of all those softly falling.
A Painted Field closes with the twenty-nine-page sequence “Camera Obscura,” “built,” according to the notes, “on the personal and artistic life of David Octavius Hill—an indifferent painter but pioneering photographer in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century,” and dedicated to Robertson’s father. The sequence is a medley of verse, ballads, extracts from “the imagined diary entries and letters by Hill,” and “poems and fragments” which are “adjuncts to the main narrative: set out of time and moving between past and present.” There are wonderful things here, such as the little lyric “The Flowers of the Forest,” in which the poet, “shouldering my daughter/like a set of pipes,” attempts to sing the song of the title, a lament for the battle of Flodden:
my cracked reed
on the high note,
the way a nib runs dry
in the rut it makes,
Yet overall the sequence does not quite work, for a reason hard to identify. Perhaps it is that the episodic, not to say jumbled, form of the sequence is not really suited to Robertson’s gift, which is for the kind of fiercely concentrated, baleful directness that we find in the free-standing poems. Yet it ends with a beautiful and moving coda in prose, in which Hill, uttering his last words, remembering his dead daughter and his dead wife, strikes a bravely sad note:
If people speak of me, say that I sang a capital song. Slow airs,3 all of them. For my lost girls. The flowers of the forest…. It will not be long, love. My last song. Taken from life. A drawing of us all together. Drawing with light, the saddest art: the music of what’s gone. Into the turning green.
Slow Air, published in 2002 and also dedicated to the poet’s father—or, rather, to his memory, for Robertson senior had died unexpectedly while the poems in the book were being written—represents a sharp shift from the visceral tone of A Painted Field. The mood here is elegiac, pensive, and informed by an overall sense of tight-lipped grieving. Robertson writes wonderfully about sex, or sex-at-a-remove, as in A Painted Field’s “Artichoke” and “Oyster”—“work the knife well into the slot”—and the blush-makingly lubricious “Asparagus” in Swithering, yet in Slow Air the exuberant sexual playfulness of many of the poems included in its predecessor gives way to a rueful, eschatological brooding. “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter”—“locksmith’s daughter,” we are told in a note, is nineteenth-century slang for a key—opens in sly innuendo:
The slow-grained slide to embed the blade
of the key is a sheathing,
a gliding on graphite, pushing inside
to find the ribs of the lock.
but ends in tombal shadowiness:
The lines engage and marry now,
Their bells are keeping time;
The church doors close and open underground.
The dream-poems, another Robertson specialty, are particularly horrifying in this volume, and redolent of the charnel house. Here, for example, is the prose-poem “Anxiety #2”:
Leaving the building in a hurry, I find myself on the edge of a wide and empty urban square. Behind me, frightened people gather in the doorway. Looking into the centre of the square where the streets intersect, there is something long and white, slowly revolving. As I walk closer I see it is a 20-foot bone, one end still carrying shreds of matter, turning on its own axis—as if something huge had just passed by, and nudged it, accidentally.
A commotion further on, and I see beasts—hyenas perhaps—tearing at something enormous and unrecognisable.
Swithering4 prolongs the note of elegy, the nerve-raw memory of the poet’s father still haunting the scene—“In the corner of the shed my father is weeping/and I cannot help him because he is dead”—but there is a return, also, to the violence and bloodletting that prevailed in A Painted Field. “The Death of Actaeon,” also after Ovid, revives the torment and beastliness of “The Flaying of Marsyas” and describes them with the same coolly pristine detachment of that earlier poem. There is, too, much bitterness, but here it has shifted away from the public themes of disinheritance and national displacement and turned inward, on to the self and on to those closest, or those who were once closest, to that self. In “Entry,” for example, the buzzard descending on the rabbit in the harvest field—“her wings fall away and she drops/like a slate into snow”—might well be another version of the eagle tearing at the liver of the Promethean poet:
The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field,
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.
One notes too, with a sharp intake of breath, the extraordinarily direct and open, anti-Oedipal revenge-poem entitled, with sour wit, “Actaeon: The Early Years,” which begins with a wincingly disgusted evocation of home—“a shrine to hygiene and disappointment, a grief/he tiptoed through for years”—and ends with not a valediction but a malediction:
When he left, he left no stain of himself on the paintwork’s
magnolia, the carpets’ analgesic-blue.
No sign or spoor. Twenty years spent
edging past a migraine’s darkened room. He slipped a note
into a gap in the floorboards:
‘all the roads I walk will be away from you.’
Technically this poem is a triumph—Robertson has rarely written with such control and steely resolve as in these solid, carved, and lapidary verses—but the emotion, reined-in though it be, is too unmediated to allow the poem entirely to succeed. It is as if, for all the technical skill that he displays, the poet had not absorbed past pains and disappointments sufficiently deeply and comprehensively into his self, into his poet-self, that is, to take the liberty of building a poem from the material they constitute.
Yet what a marvel the volume is overall. In the four years since Slow Air Robertson has honed his gift for phrasing and color—terms usually applied to a musician, and used here in that sense—to an extraordinary pitch. The poems teem with images and metaphors that give the chime of a struck glass. In the very first poem, “The Park Drunk,” a superb piece of observation that is worthy of Rilke in its ecstatic exactness and particularity, the poor drunk opens his eyes reluctantly on a winter dawn:
What the snow has furred
to silence, uniformity,
frost amplifies, makes singular:
giving every form a sound,
an edge, as if
frost wants to know what
snow tries to forget.
Swithering’s dream-poems, too, have an intensified crepuscular quality that makes the hairs stand on the back of the neck, which is what A.E. Housman said should happen in an encounter with the finest poetry. In “At Dawn” the poet, having taken “a new path off the mountain/to this ruined croft,” enters and finds ants seething under a trestle table, “a biscuit-tin of human hair,” and “In each corner, something else,” including “the lopped head of a roe deer,/its throat full of wire,” until
The last thing I found
was a photograph of me,
looking slightly younger,
stretched out, on a trestle table.
There is, too, a kind of elegiac tenderness here that is new and that at the same time brings us back to the freshness of the earliest published work. The poems about and dedicated to his daughters—“I see my children growing away from me;/the hinges of the heart are broken”—dance precariously on the very edge of mawkishness yet never lapse into the trap. “Donegal,” which is “for Ellie,” finds the poet on the beach at Rossnowlagh, wading into waves after his daughter, “not quite thirteen,” and catching the discarded clothes which in her heedless delight she flings back to him:
I saw a man in the shallows
with his hands full of clothes, full of
all the years,
and his daughter going
where he knew he could not follow.
In Swithering the poet, waver though he might, has dived full-force into the most luminous deeps.
July 13, 2006
Peculiarly, the title A Painted Field is not accounted for until we come across the note to a tiny poem, “Natural History,” in Slow Air, Robertson’s second book— ↩
To the point, indeed, that the reader may wish to keep beside him a copy of The Chambers Dictionary, published in Edinburgh, which is a trove of Scottish words and usages—though Robertson does explain in backnotes the more obscure uses of the vernacular, words such as pleitered and selkie. ↩
Robertson really does like to plant the titles of his books in the pages of their companion volumes. ↩
The word, in Scots meaning wavering, or appearing in shifting forms, is employed, beautifully, in a poem in Slow Air in the image of “a swithering flame.” ↩