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  SHADE AND DARKNESS

Dr Mephisto by Chris Emery (Arc Publications, £8.95, 88pp.)
Slow Air by Robin Robertson (Picador, £7.99, 64pp.)

Chris Emery’s first collection of poems is a loosely-organised sequence around the character of a modern Mephistopheles. There are a lot of vivid, pungent stanzas describing this persona’s exploits. Here’s a sample :

          the lie of reformed plastic
          a reckoning soil so chromium
          the finger exercises of a lithe pupil
          or a grandiose frame of storeys
          predominantly reflecting tuna curves
          running with that tangible lard…
                   (‘Bucket Elegy)

The school of grot, no less. Some find this entertaining; if you do, you’ll enjoy the whole book.

Robin Robertson explores some real areas of shade and darkness in Slow Air, his second major collection, following 1997’s excellent A Painted Field. As a first collection, this made a significant impact, not least because of the inclusion of ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’, Robertson’s re-telling of an episode from Ovid, but also due to the long culminating sequence, ‘Camera Obscura’, concerning the pioneering Scottish photographer David Octavius Hill. It also contained a number of highly effective brief lyrics and these are once again evident in this new collection.

‘Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter’ reveals the Heaney in Robertson: phrases like ‘the slow-grained slide to embed the blade’ and ‘the sung note snibs on meaning / and holds’ recall the sensuous descriptive grain of the Death of a Naturalist and North volumes. The poem travels into the hermetic, however, concluding with an occult flourish :

          …The lines engage and marry now,
          their bells are keeping time;
          the church doors close and open underground.

This recalls Peter Redgrove’s meditations, but is not derivative: the juggling of triple meanings with what is left unsaid in these concise lines recurs elsewhere in the book, as does the sense of pessimism in brief, bitten-off lines.

Robertson is very good at painting interiors in a line or two: ‘The Oven Man’ and ‘the Harbour Wife’ push lines of quiet association as far as they will go. The latter puns on the pilot’s light in stormy weather and the corresponding pilot light of the range in the kitchen, while the wife waits through the night: Robertson circles around two or three phrases and ingredients and catches the jittery mood exactly: she waits with ‘the night’s / flare of matches, the coaxed flame, / the steady-burning pilot light / of fear behind the eyes.’

Elsewhere, one or two brief prose sketches are less effective, but the three versions of Rilke are extremely powerful; the last of these, ‘Fall’, luxuriates in soft consonance and falling rhythms, concluding the book appropriately.

Weaknesses? Well, a version of a canto from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ doesn’t quite attain the power of the Ovidian tale from the previous collection and one or two of the longer, looser poems lose intensity. At present, however, Robertson has pulled off that ‘difficult second volume’ trick and continues to develop: anyone interested in the contemporary lyric will savour this volume.

          © M C Caseley