ROBIN ROBERTSON, Swithering
[96pp, £8.99, Picador, February 2006]
 

I greatly admired Robin Robertson's first two books, A Painted Field and Slow Air. He seemed to have his lyric voice mastered, moving from personal to universal with control and poise. The heavy weights of his traditional portfolio of lyric subjects - Love, Loss and Death - were balanced by his muscular lines. In both books there was evidence of a confident poetic directing the writer's own experiences of the thing-ness of the world with grace and a singular music. His use of image was exact and uplifting, as much as it was hard-hitting. He reveled in vocabulary and the music of his poems, revealing the underlying savagery both on the heath and at the hearth. The poems in those collections are hard-edged and tough, often dealing with visceral material. In Slow Air, there was a shift towards the elegiac, with poems tracing a self through the ins-and-outs of relationships and, at the same time, in relationship to nature. That kind of writing appeals to me enormously - on a personal level it's where I feel my own work comes from.

Some readers may have begun to tire of the weight of doom and destruction in some of these poems in the first two books, but Robertson took the heaviness in stride and simply enjoyed the musical and lyric intensity of his own lines. A Painted Field
was also rounded-off by the wonderful long work 'Camera Obscura', which gave a fictionalized account of the life of the Victorian photographer David Octavius Hill through letters, diary entries, verses and prose extracts, all intermixed with poems that explored the views from the city viewfinder (the camera obscura) on top of Edinburgh's castle hill. Enormously inventive and dramatic, that work embodied a scope and vision (no puns intended) sometimes missing in the more anecdotal varieties of mainstream lyric writing.

Some of that scope and variety is preserved, nay continued, in Swithering, Roberston's third collection. Due for publication in February 2006, I'm glad to have had a preview of what to expect next year. Swithering contains a mixture of all that was good from his first two books, but suffers from several less successful moments; less variety; and less risk taking. The title, Swithering, we are told, means 'to be doubtful, to waver, to be in tow minds; and to appear in shifting forms', this latter interpretation perhaps accounting for the poems dealing with selkies, mermen, and Proteus. The doubtfulness, accounts for the recurring theme of the poet questioning the paths he has chosen in his life, the opportunities taken and those missed; the doors opened, and those purposefully closed. It makes for a brooding, self-reflective mood. Sometimes it accounts for brilliance as in 'The Park Drunk' and the lovely prophetic dream-poem 'At Dawn'. In these poems, and others, Roberton's observation is spot on. He understands and records how, for example, snow 'furs' everything 'to silence, uniformity'; whereas 'frost amplifies, makes singular:/ giving every single form a sound.' In 'Between the Harvest and the Hunter's Moon', the sea is 'scalloped in marble endpapers of green and blue and grey', not only encapsulating the moment in a vivid image, but textualising (in the image of the book) the natural world in a way that embodies the author's readings of nature. In 'What the Horses See at Night', he mixes a close observation of natural diurnal rhythms - the movements of animals, the sea, rain, the moon - with a domestic tenderness towards his own loved ones 'breathing slowly in heir beds'. This concern with the natural world is further embodied in excellent pieces such as 'Primavera' in which the (potentially didactic) subject of global warming is dealt with in a fresh and personalised way. In 'The Eel', one of a number of poems written 'after Montale', the eel is

     firebrand, whiplash, shot
     bolt of the earth's desire,
     aimed, by these dried-up gullies and river-beds,
     at the dark paradise of her spawning;
     she is the green spirit looking for life
     in the tight jaw of drought and desolation'

that 'shot bolt' image recurring in the poem 'Entry' as the 'slung bolt' of a buzzard's body. In 'The Eel' the 'green spirit' clearly stated; the tradition of the modernist lyric clearly embodied in the tone and music of these lines. If 'desire' figures subtly here, it is more explicit in other poems, such as 'Swimming in the Woods', a neat antique sonnet that is brave enough to still put itself forward
in toto as a metaphor.

'Ghost of a Garden' is one of a number of poems that deals with family and loss, locating the subject in the 'lost father's' garden shed. Heavily symbolic, the confidence of Robertson's lines more often than not carries the somewhat heavily laden tones of these bald metaphors. Where it falls down, however - quite laughably in one instance, in 'Asparagus' - is where the desire metaphor becomes a pastiche of itself. In 'Asparagus', we read lines and a metaphor that are nothing more than the poetic equivalent of a Cadbury's Flake advert: yes, they look like penises; yes, both butter and semen are 'salty' and 'viscous'; yes, both eating asparagus and making love proceed 'In a slather and slide, butter / floods at the bulb-head'. I've read tens of poems like this in journals and magazines over the years and they never get any better. As an editor himself, Robertson really should know better; this poem is juvenile and poorly expressed. What is more, it is really nothing more than a reinterpretation of an earlier poem of his own about an Artichoke (yes, fruit and veg and sex.. we knowÉ we know!). Sad where a writer has to resort to rehashing their old work.

But I wouldn't want it to take the shine of the whole book - it should simply have been cut - for the whole affair is, 90% of he time, certainly a model example of the contemporary lyric. If there are moments of expository weakness in 'Still Life With Cardoon and Carrots'; and tired-old-male-narrators lusting after young girls they can never have again in 'New York Spring', then there are also those excellent poems already cited, alongside the spare examinations of relationships in the powerful 'Heel of Bread'; and great historical and imaginative scope in 'Sea-Fret', a poem commissioned for a Tyneside installation, examining the dual life of a monastery in the region as a military garrison.

'Siesta', another of the poems '
after Montale', explores a lyric metaphysic in Robertson's characteristically measured and beautifully weighted lines:

     And then you walk, sun-blinded,
     into the slow and bitter understanding
     that all this life and all its heart-sick wonder
     is just the following of a wall
     ridged with bright shards of broken glass.

and, in 'Leavings', the beautiful image of a father tracing his daughter's footprints across he snow; the snow then melting, leaving only

     the stamped ellipses of impacted snow;
     everything gone, leaving just this, this ghost tread,
     those wafer-thin footsteps of glass'.

This is one of the poet's trademarks: the ability to conjure love and loss in all its pathos in a carefully considered fresh image, conveyed in beautifully measured, weighted and phrased lines and forms.

       © Andy Brown 2005