Following in the footsteps of many of his fellow countrymen, Robin Robertson appeared on the Poetry Society Next Generation list in 2004. Since then, he has published five collections, from which this volume is drawn. Love and loss, the relationship between bestial appetites and human emotions, the human-mythological interface and a sense of “otherness” are recurrent themes.
Robertson returns constantly to the beaches of the north-east, where this son of the manse spent his childhood. Indeed, that sense of northern austerity and geographical precision reflect his background in equal measure. Those are not his only shores however. His poem for John Burnside, “Leaving St Kilda” (The Wrecking Light, 2010) is a carefully mapped journey via rocky and watery landmarks – the Point of Water, the Cleft of the Sea-Shepherd, the Hoof, the Cleft of the Hoof, the Stac a’Langa, amongst many others:
all eyes hold the gaze of the rocks
as the boat turns east – as if
to look away would break the spell.
His close observation of the habits of birds runs like a bright thread through the poem – fulmars nest in sorrel and chickweed, flocks of gannets dive for mackerel and herring. Changes of rhythm and strong alliteration capture the drama and brilliance of the birds’ descent:
white wing tipped black
into their own white water.
Mythologies act as a kind of lodestone for Robertson at every stage; he draws freely on tales from Ovid and Homer, as well as from Celtic and Norse legend. The cruel and bloodthirsty image of the satyr in “The Flaying of Marsyas” (A Painted Field, 1997), based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, has modern political overtones; here, “shirt-lifting” is the mujahedeen practice of stripping the skin from the backs of prisoners in 1980’s Afghanistan. Confronted with images so unsettling in their anatomical detail, the reader feels something of the physical pain inflicted by the “bundle of steel flensing knives”,
Blade along the bone, find the tendon
Nick it and peel it, nice and slow.
At this point, Robertson borrows an image from whaling to bring a northern perspective to a classical story.
Swithering (2006) addresses the tensions of indecision and the possibilities of change. In “Selkie” the sense of otherness, human and the animal-mythological, is at its richest, and at the same time at its most light-hearted (a rare quality in Robertson’s work). The seal from Gaelic and Norse mythology sheds his skin to live as a human on land, but reclothes himself in his pelt to return to the ocean.
“I’m not stopping”,
he said, shrugging off his skin
like a wet-suit, then stretching it
on the bodhran’s frame,
And he played all night.
Robertson’s characters are often isolated in his landscapes and relationships – torn between staying and leaving, between the desire for escape and the longing for companionship. For a poet who has stated that his poems are rarely personal, he frequently wears his grief like a talisman. Slow Air (2002), a collection dedicated to his father, reveals feelings of loss and regret:
… my father is weeping
And I cannot help him because he is dead. (“Ghost of a garden”)
And in “Partytime” (Hill of Doors, 2013), childhood fears emerge in his uneasy dream:
I don’t know where I am.
… The frightened boy
climbed out of me and ran.
In this often uncomfortable collection, Robertson rarely employs traditional forms and rhymes as he strives to make sense of the human condition. Lost keys (“Finding the Keys”, Hill of Doors, 2013) and newly-discovered keys (“The Key”, Hill of Doors) provide a clue, whilst “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter” (Slow Air), with its precision-tooled alliterations, likens the craft of poetry-making to that of locksmithing.
Here is a volume to be read and savoured.