Robin Robertson’s newest collection Hill of Doors was a book I wanted to review, such was the praise heaped upon it; nominations for the T.S. Eliot prize and the Costa book award only enhanced its literary reputation.
The landscape of Robertson’s poetry is fascinating. Variegated cultural strains – history, legend, myth, past and present, contribute to its undulating landforms; a poetic language austere as it is sensual, charts the terrain. Reading such a volume of poetry is an engagement between the poet and the reader, not dissimilar to that between a guide and a traveller, or a host and a guest. With his assured voice, Robertson is quick to gain the reader’s trust.
The collections commences with “Annunciation”, a poem pondering the single moment where Mary’s life hangs in the balance, when the angel, Gabriel and Mary
. . . hold each other’s gaze at the point
of balance: everything streaming
towards this moment, streaming away.
This stillness in action, describing a moment of rare concentration, which completes the past even as it foreshadows the “aftersong” is a representative of the poems in Hill of Doors. Throughout the collection, Robertson designs several such moments: breathing spaces where possibilities of reflection, recognition and epiphany are created without allowing a lull in the action. With the confidence of a master, the poet takes the reader up to the door and then leaves him to enter. An excellent example of this occurs in the very next poem, the first of Hill of Doors’ Dionysus series -“The Coming God”. The poet describes the birth and boyhood of Dionysus right up until his encounter with a bear:
One day he came upon a maddened she-bear
and reached out his right hand to her snout . . .
the bristled jaw,
and drew in a huge breath
covering the hand of Dionysus with kisses,
wet, coarse, heavy kisses.
The bear is Semele, accursed lover of Jove, and mother of Dionysus. The last line, populated with adjectives, makes us linger over the moment which appears at once frantic with mute affection and conversely with ironic stillness. Robertson’s use of the simplest tools in the shed – verbs, nouns, adjectives, is something marvellous. The weight of each word lends a rarefied intensity to the verse in ways that surely Eliot himself would greatly approve. From the same poem –
At nine he started to hunt.
He could match the jink
of a coursing hare, reach down at speed
and trip it over; chase alongside and just
lift it from the running ground
and swing it over his shoulder.
This affords ample pleasure in terms of sounds and images. On reading this and other poems, we realise that what the poet most wants to impart is not the frenzy of Dionysus but his metamorphoses. Whether it is the spiritual change from childhood to adulthood (“A Childhood”, “Keys to the Doors”), the geographical transitions across borderlands, (“Wire”, “Corryvreckan”), or the progressions of understanding (“The Dead Sound”, “The Key”), these poems study change. The ending of each poem seems only a caesura, a half breath, as the action continues. Dionysus presides in spirit and seems to grant these poems their considerable momentum.
Sounding a minor but equally significant note in Hill of Doors are Robertson’s short poems. They promise contentment as a distinct possibility within reach if not actually delivered. In his last poem, “The Key”:
. . .
with a simple turn of the key
I’d carried with me
all these years.