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 AIDS; a dying cat’s last hours and the sacrifice of a goat in Calcutta are memorialized in two more; and the list could be extended. On the other hand, for all the sadness present, there is a joyful technical fluency in a memorable villanelle treating two painful emotions, a father’s shame and his daughters’ blame:
Fall from Grace
I cannot look into the clear faces
of mirrors. The black glass of a window
shines back at me its shame
at all the times and all the places
where I pitched my life in shadow,
and couldn’t look into the clear faces
where blame now sits: replacing
love and trust with nothing, no
light shining back at me, just shame.
My head’s in flames. My mind races
and I try to shut it down. Sometimes, though,
I can’t even look into the faces
of flowers: all beauty carries traces
of what I seeded, then buried in the snow
that now shines back at me in shame.
My life a mix of dull disgraces
and watery acclaim, my daughters know
I cannot look into their clear faces;
what shines back at me is shame.
Such formal construction is a departure from Robertson’s usual inclination to a free but firm verse that will suit the bleak or bloody world of many of the poems. Just as he cannot forbear to describe the death agony of the sacrificed goat, so he cannot forbear to create a narrative “suggested by [the eleventh-century] Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum.” The narrative, spoken by Adam of Bremen, tells of his arrival at dusk in Uppsala after “The Great Midwinter Sacrifice.” There he finds a huge tree that is “decked simply with the dead”:
At the top, what look like cockerels, rams
and goats, then dogs and pigs, and hooked
to the lowest, strongest boughs—their legs
almost touching the earth—horses and bulls.
I count nine of each of them, and nine
that aren’t animals but hang there just the same,
black-faced, bletted, barely
recognisable as men.
I look down at the spongy grass
and my boots are soaking red.
Something in Robertson’s imagination demands that scenarios of murder, savagery, madness, sacrifice, and suicide recur in his pages. Insofar as such scenarios are so frequently requisite to his art, they narrow its possibilities.
It is for their combination of beauty and violence that Robertson is drawn to legends. He has taken the step—daring or affronting, depending on your taste—of unapologetically inserting the supernatural, in two forms, into his work. The first is the folk supernatural of Scotland, including seal-people (the “selkies”) and various healing (or cursing) spells (“silvered water,” “broken water”). The second form is the classical supernatural, drawn chiefly from Ovid. Since the adaptations of Ovid, both in The Wrecking Light and in earlier volumes of Robertson’s poetry, are thrillingly readable, we must believe that the magical dimension of punitive intervention by the gods also inspires his imagination.
The classical deities, safely in the past and no longer objects of belief, pose no problems to a modern reader; but are we to believe in selkies? I don’t quite know what to do with “At Roane Head,” which was rather unaccountably awarded the Forward Prize in 2008 as the best poem of the year. The selkie, or seal-man—who, we eventually discover, is narrating the poem—came secretly to the headland named in the title, and four times impregnated a married woman, producing four sons. The four sons do not look human:
All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.
The husband, disgusted by his putative progeny, leaves his wife, but some years later returns and kills the sons, who are mourned by their mother until the selkie returns. The seal-man concludes his story:
…she said my name
and it was the only thing
and the last thing that she said.
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
What does a modern poet intend when he writes a poem in the contemporary voice of a seal-man? The voice is not in itself revealing; we may even take it for that of a commiserating neighbor until the final revelation of identity in the phrase “my four sons’ hair.” And are we to nod understandingly at the wife’s decapitation of her murdering husband? This is the stuff of old ballads—not the psychological “modern” ballad invented by Wordsworth but the archaic “real thing,” a grisly narrative. The fact that a prize committee named this the best poem of the year in 2008 tells us—what? That we still have a taste for gory tales of miscegenation and murder? That we like seeing a selkie “humanized”? (He comments mournfully on the mother’s laying blankets on her sons’ graves to keep them warm: “It would put the heart across you, all that grief.”) That the supernatural in verse is a workable form? That a Scottish poet should keep Scottish folklore alive? That it is an allegory of female infidelity and cuckoldry?
I am not the first to pose such questions to Robertson’s work. The poet expresses annoyance that readers should think that a poem such as “At Roane’s Head” reveals something of his own life:
It is very tiresome when readers identify me as the speaker in the poem and extrapolate an autobiography. In [The Wrecking Light] they will be surprised to find that I am a ghost, a cross-dresser, August Strindberg, a consorter with geisha, Hugh MacDiarmid’s masseur, a soldier, a woman, a German medieval chronicler, a suicide and a selkie.
Once the selkie is grouped with historical figures such as Strindberg, or with such archetypal figures as “a suicide,” we can—perhaps—allow a limitless shape-changing to the poet. Among Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” we find, “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.” A folk belief in selkie children presumes that sea-folk covet earth-folk: “God possesses the heavens,” said a peasant to Yeats’s friend AE, “but He covets the earth.” The selkie, denizen of the sea, covets a woman of the land; and in that sense we can feel the poem as a symbol of the destructive results of transgression, sexual or otherwise, across borders. Perhaps it comes home with added force to Robertson’s Scottish readers.
Robertson’s other forms of the supernatural are the gods who, in Ovid’s accounts, punish humans who wittingly or unwittingly anger them. Ovid has been recycled in many imaginative ways (for recent instances, see the 1996 anthology by James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, and Frank Bidart’s poem “Myrrha” in Desire). Ovid’s verbal energy, expanding to the full as metamorphosis transforms a hapless subject, is admirably sustained by Robertson in his adaptation of “The Daughters of Minyas.” The daughters, refusing the call to worship Bacchus, continue their weaving, but as the bacchic procession bursts into their quarters, their looms begin to produce lavish vegetation instead of cloth. Here are the disobedient daughters being turned into—we are kept in suspense for some time—bats:
Each sister shirked the light, flinching
from the flames into the deep shadows,
and as they scuttled in corners
a new skin started growing,
stretching from their withered arms
to their shrivelled feet, though they were
too busy flittering there
But when they tried to speak their grief,
all that they heard was a tiny
Robertson is less a translator here than a reimaginer, in whom vigorous verbs (“flinching,” “scuttled,” “flittering”) and pictorial adjectives (“withered,” “shrivelled”) do duty for Ovidian poetic effect. For the missing Latin poetic sounds, he makes up seductive English ones (“flinching from…flames,” “shirked…shadows…shrivelled”).
At a recent reading at the Aberdeen Word Festival, Robertson quipped that his poems “were exclusively about drink, sex and death, hopefully in that order.” The drink is there (though not conspicuously in The Wrecking Light) and we have seen the pervasiveness of death. Sex, as has been demonstrated over and over, is not easy to bring into language; some poets never attempt it. Robertson at least offers poems that try to represent sexual intercourse (together with its attendant emotions) as part of human conduct. In A Painted Field, Robertson borrows from Heaney the symbolic form of the Sheela-na-Gig—a twelfth-century sculpture of a woman squatting and holding back her labia so as to give the observer a full view of her genitals: “He touches the welling mouth, the split stone;/she shows him the opening folds.” Or the flesh is summoned to the page, as in an unfortunate poem called “Ludic”: “She felt like liver/in the spilling dark/and I was hard as an arm,// lopped at the wrist.”
Later, in Slow Air, Robertson writes almost parodically on sex in a poem called “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter,” which displays (via lock and key) the good humor of satisfaction—“Sunk home, the true key slots to its matrix”—and finds an inspired metaphor for orgasm: “the church doors close and open underground.” And Robertson (who has a rich reading voice) brings his audience into his own amusement at the inventive elaborations of “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter”: he can be seen on video reading it at the Dodge Festival. The happiness in Slow Air then turns to dust, as we watch a couple on the verge of divorce make love in bitterness: “We lie in grim embrace: these/two halves trying to be whole, straining /for this break in the static”; and later, in a dream of a fatal woman, the poet adds, “I wake in her body/broken, like a gun.”
Robertson can be heavy-handed with symbols: the Heaneyesque “Asparagus” in Swithering makes too much of the parallel betweed penis and vegetable, sperm and butter:
Each wand has spurs
that swell in bedded layers
to the dark tip—slubbed and imbricate,
tight-set and over-lapping round the bud.
In a slather and slide, butter
floods at the bulb-head.
In the most recent volume, Robertson undertakes the experiment (in “The Act of Distress”) of writing in the voice of a woman; she is allowing sex out of kindness, to alleviate a man’s distress. This is orgasm by firework:
I hear him
sobbing as he
nears the centre, to release
the flare, send up
the high maroon, feel it
flooding the night.
As our last glimpse of a sexual coupling in The Wrecking Light, we see only the deformed children of the seal-man; we never see what it might feel like to have otherworldly sex with a sea creature. I admire Robertson’s willingness to gather up various actions, metaphors, symbols, and objects as representations for sexual experience; he refuses to cede to either embarrassment or the poverty of language. But the poems on sex are not always successful.
Robertson’s most moving poems in The Wrecking Light are those in which his protagonist is solitary and hating it. A frowning comedy is allowed to enter into “Widow’s Walk”: the speaker is in Italy, “losing what remains of my language.” He is “trying to escape myself,” but hasn’t succeeded: stuck in a hotel with geriatric tourists, he sardonically admires the illiterate warning sign on the beach:
I walk here
amongst the very old;
we watch the paint
flake from the hotel walls
and I take note, once again,
of the sign spelt out in English:
BATHING IN NOT SURE
FOR LACK OF RESCUE SERVIGE.
I felt like going in,
there and then,
like a widow
toppling forward at the grave;
going in after myself.
Such a poem persuades both through its finely maintained rhythm of ennui and through its despairing speaker’s inability, even while “losing what remains of [his] language,” to suspend his instinctive satire on the barbarity of foreign English.
The Wrecking Light closes on a childlike tone that Robertson is bold enough to employ, one that defeats sentimentality by exposing nakedly the final dissolution of masculine pride. “Hammersmith Winter,” a beautiful poem, depends on the repetition of three words—“cold,” “snow,” and “hold”—to bind its parts together. In a characteristic Robertsonian gesture of suspense, we are made to wait until the very last word of the poem to arrive at their fourth companion: “go.”
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.
In the past, the parents led the boy back to bed; later, a wife led him back to bed; intermittently, lovers led him back to bed: “But you’re not here, now…./None of you are.” “Let me go.” Besides the four “o” words already mentioned, there is another bearing the same sound—“window”—accompanied by its graphic rhyme “now.” “Now” hides inside “snow,” so they cannot be pried apart: this season of cold is eternal. What Robertson elsewhere calls the seasons’ “beautiful endless dress rehearsals” will not return. The speaker’s final “Let me go” has the dying fall of Tennyson’s Tithonus, as he pleads with his lover, the ever-young Dawn, to be released from his hideous destiny of eternal life without eternal youth:
Yet hold me not forever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?…
Release me, and restore me to the ground.
In spite of Robertson’s strategies of privacy throughout—the third person, the unnamed protagonists, the absence of context—it needs to be said that the most harrowing poem Robertson has yet written, “Actaeon: the Early Years” (from Swithering), reads as someone’s autobiography, however refashioned or adapted. In its sixteen six-line stanzas, we find a boy; a disturbed mother who is physically and verbally abusive; no sign of a father; a harsh school; the discovery of escape—in a hole, up a tree; the boy’s guilt at not being able to cure his mother; an occasional reprieve at the grandparents’ house; a shock of pleasure in the blood from a slaughterhouse; and a final estranged departure:
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.’
Robertson’s walks into and out of company, into and out of family, are the material of his four volumes: they support the lesson of “Actaeon,” summed up, perhaps too prosaically, in its seventh stanza:
He learnt that desire for intimacy
was a transgression, and that
the resulting fear of intimacy,
which was also now a fear of disclosure,
was understandable, even natural,
in this place, among these people.
The stifling taciturnity of the north still grips Robertson’s poetry; the perpetual struggle of expressiveness against austerity remains, throughout, his animating principle. He is the workman who, never satisfied with his latest effort, returns doggedly to the foundry. Asked about The Wrecking Light in a prepublication interview, Robertson replied with a humorous savagery:
It is the last in a costive quartet, so it’s the same sort of stuff as before—with some misguided stabs at humor and some lurches into sentimentality. I’m reading the proofs just now, so it’s the wrong time to ask me: there are only one or two of the poems I can still stomach.
A truthful poet with respect to his own steely aspirations, then: but we may be pardoned for thinking better of his book.