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Hearing Voices – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian Morton

Hearing Voices

February 18, 2010 | by Brian Morton

The swither is Robin Robertson’s version of negative capability. It suggests a harder and perhaps more violent turning back and forth between certainty and inaction than the Southron habit of ‘dithering’. The cover of Robin Robertson’s third collection of poems Swithering showed a horned, metamorphic figure, a human outline crowned with a wildebeest skull. The image (which might be Kenyan art, or Zulu, but also suggests some Celtic/Pictish/Nordic icon from closer to home) immediately chimes Robertson’s long-standing fascination with Ovidian metamorphosis but also suggests that the mind and imagination are defined as forked with indecision, but also defensively armed with it.

Robertson’s poetry projects something, too, of a minotaur’s loneliness as he negotiates the labyrinth of words. Angry buglings, violent outbreaks, frustrated reversals out of dead ends made up the substance of many of the earlier collections, but with The Wrecking Light, whose voice is instantly recognizable in the way of a poet who found his voice at once and whose work is the refinement of it, one finds guiding threads everywhere, not just the renderings of Ovid (the stories of Pentheus and Dionysus and the Daughters of Minyas from books III and IV of the Metamorphoses), but in the forensically apt detail, the patient diction of a Nor’Easter who has made his way in the South, style-shifting amusedly among the crowds the way his Strindberg here fails to do in the urban hell of Berlin, and projecting a kind of loneliness that isn’t monolithic or monumental, but very much that of the horned man who has stepped aside from the tribe.

Robertson himself stepped aside, and has been offering explanations for it ever since. Originally from Scone, but raised in Aberdeen, he has for more than two decades now worked as an editor at Jonathan Cape with (by his count) more than 50 writers under his charge, the majority of them novelists. It seems an unlikely setting for a man of his sensibilities – withheld, rather than remote or withdrawn – but it’s clear that stewardship of language is a role he takes seriously indeed. While a substantial portion of his life has a metropolitan setting, it’s obvious that Robertson is differently engaged when he can reclaim some residue of an elemental isolation, whether on a Swedish island, almost unconsciously translating (as The Deleted World) the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, or in retreat in Italy, working on the poems in the present volume. His care with language is instinct with a care with language. He is no friend to therapeutic ‘self-expression’ in verse or modernistic experiment with deleted vowels or acrostics. Robertson’s poetry is, in Wallace Stevens’ sense, the “cry of its occasion”, deeply felt but with a stern music interposed between poet and reader. It is also, reassuringly, generously acknowledged. Robertson managed to beat (though only by ten minutes, he insists) his countryman and fellow-translator Don Paterson to a clean sweep of all the major poetry prizes. He won the Forward and Scottish First Book of the Year for A Painted Field.

Qua publisher, one imagines he takes the prize-giving and prize-getting busy very seriously indeed, but there’s a clue to his real feeling in a lovely collection he edited called Mortification, not a poetry book but an anthology of writers’ unfortunate and funny experiences ‘on the road’. It makes salutary reading, and one suspects Robertson himself may leaf through it from time to time the way an enlisting soldier might riffle through an edition of Goya’s ‘Misfortunes of War’ etchings, with a comfortable shudder.

It is no coincidence that The Wrecking Light– or more precisely its first section ‘Silvered Water’ – begins with a short poem ‘Album’ in which the speaker, the ‘I’, is “almost never there”, perceived as an absence from the party scenes and special occasions the album documents. It takes a moment, or a long, even-legged stanza to realise that no one else is there either, and the concluding section seems to reverse the emphasis by placing “the wedding guests, / the dinner guests, / the birthday- / party guests” one level of reality below hastily constructed snowmen with faces picked out in chips of coal. ‘Silvered Water’ refers to the tradition of placing a coin in a bowl before embarking on a journey or making a wish.

The collection begins in self-denial but with an air of hope that is neither specious nor sentimental. Robertson often alludes to crude anthropic forms – that rock art book cover, the calcified “stone-baby” of an ectopic pregnancy and the hare-lipped girls wax dolls and poppets, both in ‘By Clachan Bridge’; also, more remotely, in the “thumbed / maquette of a cat” in ‘Cat, Failing’ – and presents himself, or the persona of ‘Album’, as an almost shapeless blur in the frame. “Look closely / at these snapshots / all this Kodacolor going to blue” is an invitation with all the Movement’s deceptive intimacy and directness, but there is nothing and everything to see, for ‘I’ am everywhere in these unseeable pictures, “this smoke / in the emulsion, the flaw”. Even broken across a line-end the phrase is supposed to make us think of the “ghost in the machine”, and that is the very next word: “A ghost is there: a ghost gets up to go”.

This makes much of just one poem in a rich sequence, but it establishes a mood of not-quite-thereness that feeds Robertson’s procedures and imagery throughout a very various but remarkably consistent sequence. Reference to the Movement poets isn’t simply reaction to a reference to ‘Kodacolor’, but rather to the careful plainness of his vernacular, which comes not out of popcult and Admass, as was the case in the 50s, but from an epical quality of speech and narrative that surrounded him while growing up in the storied bowl between the romantic Highland west and the North Sea. His way of telling a story is more alert to the cadence of the narrative than it is to the content of the narrative. His environments are not imagistic, but defined by sound, like the sounding ice on the frozen lake in ‘Signs on a White Field’ where “a dobro’s glassy note” is what comes back when the speaker skites a stone over the solid surface.

“Robertson’s world is a mixed realm of magic

and reality, past and present, enchantment

and dis-enchantment.”

Sound and sense come together vigorously in ‘By Clachan Bridge’, where the harelipped girl anatomises beasts and falls pregnant to the blacksmith’s son in a story that has a prosey cadence Ted Hughes couldn’t have managed (though he’d have recognised a version of the story from the villages round Mytholmroyd) and a free, folkish music as well. Hughes dwelt on dismemberment as a reminder of urgent cycles of need. Robertson always makes it seem, not prettified, but logical and oddly attractive – and if that seems perverse, then anyone who walks the hills or moors will know that dead animals yield up not disgust but a curious beauty they never had in verminous life. So, the scarred girl cuts up fish to see how they work, “unpuzzled rabbits / to a rickle of bones; / dipped into a dormouse / for the pip of its heart”. Some part of one of these reappears as “plectrum of bone” worn near the throat, the object of a shy gesture with a hand wristed with suicidal scars.

Here, as elsewhere, Robertson’s world is a mixed realm of magic and reality, past and present, enchantments and dis-enchantments. It’s rarely clear what the time-frame is – see the North American imagery of ‘The Plague Year’ for a good illustration of how effectively he mixes it up – and the result is a pleasing confusion between the directly experienced and the read, both for the author and for us. Even when in the past he proposed very specific chronologies, as in the imaginary diary of photography David Octavius Hill, the ‘Camera Obscura’ section of his debut collection A Painted Field, there is a slippage of temporal unity, a bit like a movie maker who passively or deliberately mixes anachronistic elements into his scene-setting.

Of course, nowhere is this more obvious than in the renderings of classical poetry. Robertson’s blunt, unswithering version of the ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ in A Painted Field still has a power to shock, its mixture of classical genre-painting and gangster cruelty remains unsettling as the satyr is skinned and revealed in all his greasy animality (or humanity, if you consider the shaggy hide was a disguise) by men who in Robertson’s bravura version have all the lyricism of pork butchers.  There’s nothing quite as confrontational as that in his versioning of Pentheus and Dionysus, though the new Theban king is another ecstatic dismemberment, and some respects Marsyas, the player of the aulos, is a more appropriate subject for Robertson, who plays a double flute himself in all these poems.

The most obvious difference between A Painted Field and The Wrecking Light, apart from a matter of some dozen years though I suspect these poems gestate and declare themselves out of discernible sequence over time, is a simplification of the language. In addition to Yeats and the Movement, Robertson must also be aware of MacDiarmid as an example, and one to watch. He has stripped much of the polysyllabic and technical stuff away and when MacDiarmid appears, it is as the object of a neck-rub – “I felt, through the tweed, / so much tension / in that determined / neck, those little / bony shoulders” – that relaxes the great man so much he falls over.

Robertson has wisely rejected any sense of poetry as a form that might convey a message, but he does lapse back into something like the MacDiarmid manner in ‘Leaving St Kilda’, where the slow accumulation of Gaelic place names is almost parodic and, disconcertingly, as detached as a celebrity TV tour round the Scottish islands. There are superb shorter poems in the second half of The Wrecking Light. ‘Ictus’ again points to something violent – a seizure – beyond the music of the metre it proposes. ‘Tinsel’ recovers its original meeting of loss and dearth, but still confidently anagrammatizes ‘listen’. These are the work of highly musical poet at the height of his powers and they sustain a strong continuity that has run through Robertson’s work from the beginning, not just A Painted Field and Swithering but ‘Slow Air’ as well.

Most poets, even some of the greatest, are best read volume by volume, and ‘selecteds’ and ‘collecteds’ are only a buyer’s convenience. I suspect the opposite may be true of Robertson. So consistent is the double reed’s double song that he can only be appreciated in bulk. There’s nothing insubstantial about The Wrecking Light but it delivers its meaning in the presence of the earlier books and will sing out even more strongly when, eventually, they are all gathered in.

The Wrecking Light

Robin Robertson

PICADOR, £8.99

pp112, ISBN 9780330515481


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Hearing Voices

by Brian Morton

Donne Deal

by Cairns Craig

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