To open Robin Robertson’s fifth collection of poems is to pass over the threshold of ordinary life and find yourself, like some fairytale character, caught in an otherworld that, while enchanting and beautiful, can also be malign. It is surely no coincidence that the image of keys runs through Hill of Doors, as if there is a series of locks the poet must open, an armory of bolts to be thrown until a particularly sticky door will creak open, beyond which the here and now, and a host of metaphysical realms, will finally be revealed. The only hill in this collection is Tillydrone Motte, one of Robertson’s boyhood haunts in the north-east of Scotland: ‘Fifteen years in every kind of light and weather:/my castle-keep, watchtower,/anchorite’s cell, my solitary/proving ground, a vast sounding-board/here amongst the gorse and seabirds.’
It was perhaps here, though, that he first found doors into his imagination, ‘this hill where I went to be born’. Brought up as a son of the manse in Aberdeen, his background was a mixed blessing, as fellow poet Alastair Reid will affirm. Reid remained close to his father but roundly rejected the church, which plays almost no part in his writing. Robertson, though equally in thrall to his father and his memory, which he returns to frequently with tender grief, has a more complicated relationship with the creed that underpinned his early years, his imagination seismically influenced by the stories and superstitions, the liturgy and rhythms, the beliefs and violent mystery of Christian thought.
This collection, like the four that precede it – A Painted Field, Slow Air, Swithering and The Wrecking Light – is riveted by the dark, bloody, unforgiving voice of a punitive Protestant faith. Yet out of this emotional forge Robertson hammers and twists biting, steel-bright poems that glow on the page as if still hot from the furnace, and offer if not hope, then a sense of hard-won convictions.
In Crimond, written in memory of Jessie Seymour Irvine, the Victorian organist from the eponymous north-east village who created the most popular setting for the 23rd Psalm, he takes an elegaic, worldly-weary tone, a mood that settles upon several of the works in this book:
How far we all are from where we thought we’d be:
those parishioners all vanished long ago; my father – ash
above the crematorium; me, swimming
through the valley of the shadow of death, and you –
not even a photograph of you – the girl who will never
touch again the foot of the cross at Crimond.
But for every glimmer of Christian credo, reworked to suit his sometimes pitiless poetic eye, there is a counterbalancing from even more ancient myths, as the gods of the Greek pantheon cavort through the pages, spirited, sensual, ever-greedy for life. As on many occasions before, in Hill of Doors Robertson gives us his version of these characters, refashioned from the words of fourth-century poet Nonnus. So there is The Coming God, about the childhood of Dionysus, followed later by his adulthood, as in Dionysus in Love, when the youth he falls for comes to a bad end, but in so doing gives the gift of wine to the world, ‘a cure for regret, an end to love and grief./We hold it in our hands: a brief forgetting.’
Elsewhere Robertson reworks Ovid, or probes further into the life of the tormented Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who has become a welcome guest in recent collections, as if in this untame spirit Robertson finds a kindred soul or muse. In The Wrecking Light, Strindberg is found in Berlin; in Swithering he turns up in London and Paris, and here he is in Denmark, in Skovlyst, working on his play Miss Julie, while renting rooms from a grand lady whose house is more menagerie than mansion. ‘Wherever you look: neglect, failure,/all the shit you could wish for./A home away from home’. Condemned to celibacy by his wife for a period of six months, Strindberg falls prey to a lusty young servant, whose brother believes he has raped her. Demonstrating the sliver of ice that reputedly lies in every writer’s heart, only in his case of iceberg proportions, the playwright consoles himself as chaos breaks out around him and he and his family depart: ‘And now I have my play’.
More interesting, however, is Strindberg’s self-knowledge: ‘I steer towards catastrophe/then write about it,’ he reflects. To varying degrees, the same could be said of Robertson, whose work, from A Painted Field to Hill of Doors hints at a similar attraction to the dangerous, the risky, the downright self-destructive, although there are indications that he might be moving into less fierce waters of late. In a handful of these poems, and in many of his earlier pieces, Robertson reveals a taste for the macabre and disturbing. In his career as an editor, he is renowned for the school of Scottish writers he nurtured, among them Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Duncan McLean and AL Kennedy, some of whose gritty realism, and unflinching taste for the sinister or cruel he appears at times to share. Thus, for instance, in The Shelter, he evokes in a spare few verses a scene that a noir novelist or Scandic screenwriter would expand to a hefty chapter or climactic scene.
I could make out shapes
inside, the occasional sound:
a muffled crying
which I took for wind in the trees; a wasp
stuttering there at the windowsill. I listened. What looked like
a small red coat
was dripping from its wire hanger.
More savage in its imagery, and far more disturbing, is A&E, where he returns to the image of open-heart surgery, first broached in A Seagull Murmur in Swithering, and now a full-blown nightmare as the narrator wakes, his chest soaked in blood where the sutures from his operation have opened. Hurrying to the hospital, he is about to be relegated to the queue by a nurse when he opens his tweed jacket to show her what the problem is:
Unfashionable, but striking nonetheless: my chest undone like some rare waistcoat, with that lace-up front – a black échelle – its red, wet-look leatherette,
those fancy, flapping lapels.
The sardonic, detached voice only enhances the horror, in this, arguably Robertson’s most memorable poem, though the images it evokes are unwelcome. But Robertson is canny. Lest we are tempted to forget, he has already given the reader chapter and verse of this procedure, in The Halving (Royal Brompton Hospital, 1986), where we follow him into theatre with the surgeon and his saw. When he comes round, he drowsily contemplates his new situation, ‘Halved and unhelmed,/I have been away, I said to the ceiling,/and now I am not myself’.
Alongside such portentous poems as these is a mere handful that work less well. Wire, about smuggling Mexicans over the border into the USA, is a studied, staccato sequence portraying of a way of life that feels second-hand and filmic, and even the nod to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, in the phrase ‘good fences make good neighbours’ seems a little contrived. Less persuasive, too, is The Straw Manikin, after a painting by Goya, in which a life size doll of a man – it might be Christ, but equally it might be a nobody – is the plaything of a town’s womenfolk, and destined for death.
Unsatisfying as this poem is, it does illuminate the epigraph to the collection, from French artist Picabia: ‘let us not forget that the greatest man is never more than an animal disguised as a god’. It is in this uncomfortable apprehension, in fact, that Robertson is at his most unnerving, seeing the jackal behind the innocent face, the teeth behind the smile.
Like a Scottish day, Hill of Doors has many moods, the weather changing from poem to poem. Homages to the classics fit neatly between barbed reflections on the church’s teaching.
But thoughtful as such poems are, Rob-ertson is, to my mind, most potent when describing the countryside, or delving into himself. On both subjects he appears to hold nothing back, liberated from his editor’s enquiring mind into a freer, wilder imagination in which each word carries a weight of meaning and emotional depth, and every phrase rings with truth.
As seen in The Halving and A&E, one of his remarkable talents is for double-speak, for perfectly describing a scene or event or thought which mirrors something else, often, though not always, deeper and less transient. The best-known example is from Swithering, where Asparagus stands both as a paean to this most suggestive of foods, and its erotic twin: ‘in a slather and slide, butter floods at the bulb-head.’ In Hill of Doors, this dualling is seen, among others, in Glass of Water and Coffee Pot, a powerfully still domestic interior inspired by a tableau by Chardin:
…the same light lifting a gleam
from a blackened coffee pot that’s some
to make it through, to find harmony here on this stone shelf, happiness of the hand
to keep its heat and still pour clean and
Partnering the sensual with the tender in a series of simple, heart-felt homely portraits with which he concludes the volume, Rob-ertson seems to be finding a more mellow register.
In these poems, affiliated by love, he reaches a pitch of subtle descriptive power that is breathtaking, equalled only by his observations of the natural world: ‘I knew/ where the hawthorn tree stands, bent and fixed like blown smoke’. Indeed, several of the works, especially the shorter poems, are close to perfect. One such is The Dead Sound, where he compares the sudden awareness that a relationship is about to end with the dull noise a cracked pot makes; or The Key, the final poem in the collection where, in eight spare lines, he describes a man who has found love, and peace.
But no collection from Robertson would be complete without something to trouble the mind. Beyond those poems that quicken the heart, or lodge an image deep as a skelf in your thumb, there is also a nagging absence. According to the book’s list of contents, there is a last poem called Robertson’s Farewell. Yet where it should lie there is only an empty, unnumbered page. A jest? An error? Or a clever way of reminding the reader that pages do not fill themselves, and already, while this book is fresh and unknown to us, the author is filling the white space of a new work?
HILL OF DOORS Robin Robertson
PICADOR, PP83, £14.99, ISBN: 9781447231530