Drysalter, a purveyor of powders, dyes, colours and cures, also puns providently on “Psalter”. There is considerable challenge in both aspects of the title. Perhaps curiously, Michael Roberts describes his poems forming as individual entities which later shape and direct collections – curiously, because he has imposed a demanding frame on those free-born souls. Drysalter is composed of 150 poems, mirroring the 150 Psalms, and each poem, irrespective of its stanzaic variation, is of exactly 15 lines. If that seems an overly artificial constraint, then consider his aim: “[to achieve] friction or resistance, to maintain the energy of the writing process.” By channeling his very varied themes and moments, Roberts harnesses and unifies immense power, which might well have dissipated in less structured settings. In “The Darkness is No Darkness” he writes,
Call it superstition, like a shark’s tooth hung
around the neck, bear claw in pocket.
I wear my cure dried hide of absence,
So darkness will take me for one of its own.
The collection’s inherent spirituality is unsurprising, coming from a poet who read Religion and Philosophy at University. If the reader perceives something of James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel in O Song, and more, he is right. This book is dedicated to the composer – Roberts’ friend and frequent creative collaborator. However, where in MacMillan we hear lifelong certainty in his Catholicism, here we catch something else:
If there is a way, it must require huge pressure,
immeasurable heat, primal forces of creation,
skull-cleaving noise, tectonic shifts.
(How to Raise the Dead)
Yes, there is the Biblical … there are hymns, praises, pleas, visions and there are angels. There is even a sequence around “The Wounds”, but the reader will wait long for pulpit dogmatism.
Roberts grew up in a determinedly atheist family, and advanced on his studies at a Christian College at Oxford firmly intent on converting all thereto his “commonsense” thinking. Life sometimes pans out in strange ways, and the poet acquired faith. For Les Murray, Roberts is “a poet for the new chastened, unforcing age of faith that has just dawned”. I am not entirely convinced. Alan Brownjohn seems closer, hearing “Religious poems […] designed for an age of doubt and D.N.A”. The poet is scathing of his former faithlessness and no less so on the subject of religious fundamentalism. So, whilst he has beached on the believer’s bank of the river, he leaves room for an ecumenicism – perhaps even the same doubt now being cherished on the other bank by Richard Holloway. This openness is significant in his poetry. His verse moves fluidly from the tangible to the spirited and back; indeed, on the cover, both Jeanette Winterson and Robert Potts use the word transcendence to describe his work. In “Fin de Siecle”, the ordinary is made extraordinary,
Which brings us to grace,
and a waiter who shines a cracked glass
then offers it up to a window
Beyond the Biblical, the reader will find Hughes (“Hymn to November”), be lead through Milton’s Eden, recognise Frost in “The Road Retaken”, and more. Roberts can mine the De Profundis and hymn a photo booth. Both fear and hope emerge, but above all, there is wonder.
This is an already lauded collection, having won the Forward Prize and also shortlisted for the Costa Award. More than that, in Drysalter, Roberts has given us a worthy successor to Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things, and the late poet’s similarly constrained, visionary 12 line Squarings .He may well have gained another prize.
I pray for days like these,
when cars are lit cortèges.
As for oceans, fog is respite
from the ache of holding surface
as a clear line named horizon. […]
Look up: stars are gone. It’s just us.