Grounded


Hill of Doors
, Robin Robertson (83pp, 14.99, Picador)


Robin Robertson's latest collection is a truly admirable addition to his oeuvre. Robertson writes beautiful lyric poems, sometimes with the suggestion of traditional form behind them but, more often than not, in a pulsing, stanzaic verse. A book populated by ghosts of the past, both personal and literary, with translations and versions of Nonnus' Dionysus acting as corner posts for the book's structure, alongside re-tellings of stories from Ovid. There are also poems about the poet's own childhood and upbringing, as well as about his own children.

Heavily grounded in the landscapes and seascapes of Scotland, this is a book that evokes places, both real and imagined, through consummate phrase making: Robertson's lines come with such lyric assuredness, it's like listening to a great composer of chamber music: dark and light, soft and crescending, angry, happy and sad: the full range.

'Childhood' evokes the rock-pools of Scotland's north-east coast, whilst '1964' conjures the barbers' shops and clients, the butchers, the fishmongers and the corner shops of the same place, with evocative, sensory ease. 'Playgrounds' brings to life the childhood aggression of a tough upbringing in a tough environment, and local place names add colour and veracity to the telling of all these poems. 'A Quick Death' spins fantastical metaphors for a lobster from these selfsame coasts, which is 'At rest, a blue-black gauntlet; / at war, a clacking samurai in lacquered plates, a fighter / swaying with his huge gloves'. Such fighting spirit is conjured for the local fishermen in 'The Fishermen's Farewell': 'The drink storms through these men, uncompasses / them, till they're all at sea again. // Their houses, heeled over in the san: / each ruin now a cairn for kites.'

There's a long sequence of haiku ('Wire') in the middle of the book which shifts the landscape to the Mexican/US border, to explore the politics of the borderland. Beginning with 'In this bled landscape / wind moves through the desert bones, / fluting their white notes', the sequence moves on to explore (amongst other things) the coyote
drug runners who operated across the border, bringing a gritty, contemporary texture amidst the versions from Ovid and Nonnus.

There are some re-visitings of Robertson's favourite tropes: poems about falconers, and Strindberg, and poems about the body. I was particularly struck by the fantastic poem about a chest operation 'The Halving' with its companion poem several pages later, 'A&E', which has the narrator's sutured chest opening up, days after the operation; the stitches coming apart in a beautifully dark image:

   my chest undone like some rare waistcoat,
   with that lace-up front - a black échelle
-
   it's red, wet-look leatherette,
   those fancy, flapping lapels.

Uncanny and disquieting, such images and musicality are a Robertson trademark, as are the flip side of tender poems such as 'Keys to the Doors', which speaks of lived experience with a directness and unsentimentality that tell of a life lived and a poetry written as if it mattered
:

   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 explain how it was done. the moon and stars,
   rainbows, photographs, gravity, the birds in the air,
   the difference between blood and water.
   In true life? you would say, looking up
   and I would nod, like some broken-hearted sage,
   knowing there would be no answers soon
   to all the big questions that were left, to cruelty and fear,
   to age and grief and death, and no words either.

Another superb book of poems from the master of lyric and emotional chiaroscuro, Robin Robertson.

      Andy Brown 2013