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Guest Review: Naomi On Robertson

Katrina Naomi reviews
The Wrecking Light
by Robin Robertson

This is Robin Robertson’s fourth full collection of poetry and the first after the Forward Prize-winning Swithering (2006). The Wrecking Light is brimming with Robertson’s characteristic, violent, imagery. It is provocative and exciting. Even the title spells destruction. With destruction comes loss, which is one of the biggest themes of this new book.

If this all sounds too dark and dreary, think again. The writing is utterly compelling and one of many highlights is 'At Roane Head', which won the 2010 Forward Prize for best single poem. It tells the story of a selkie, his human lover and their unfortunate offspring. Just listen to the verbs: ‘hirpling‘, ‘chittering’ or ‘relaxing’ (the latter here, meaning ‘murdering’).

Whether writing from mythology or from translations (there are several translated works in this new collection), the language is generally spare, the images extraordinary. I was particularly pleased to see 'Calling Home’ from Robertson’s translation of Tomas Transtromer’s poetry (originally published in The Deleted World) collected here, in which a simple telephone call is compared to ‘the mess of a knife-fight’. There is also a far longer translation of Pablo Neruda’s ‘Oda a un Gran Atun en el Mercado’, or ‘Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market’, which echoes Neruda’s ‘baggy’ perfection, while providing distanced rhymes, such as ‘by the earth’s green froth’ (lettuces) and ‘the sea’s truth’. Yet Robertson makes Neruda’s seas and Transtromer’s forests his own.

If I have a criticism of Robertson it concerns his more sexualised poetry, but ‘White’ is a revelation. It is here in full:

‘It wasn’t meant to be that way.
I never expected it to shoot so hard
it blinded me: I’d wanted to watch
the way it went. The pumping-out not like
coming at all, more like emptying
a bottle: blacking out
a little more with every pulse.
I just felt light and very cold at the end,
astonished at how much red there was
and my wrist so white.’

This poem’s imagery shocks in the way that Sylvia Plath shocks. I found myself returning to Plath several times with Robertson’s new collection, not least his muscular verbs and subject matter. There are frequent references to suicide, poison and blood. Perhaps this is purely a coincidence? I wonder.

Other themes of this collection will not surprise: such as the reworkings of classical mythology, including ‘Pentheus and Dionysus’ and ‘The Daughters of Minyas’, which to this reviewer lacked the excitement of say ‘The Death of Actaeon’ (Swithering); the revelling in Scottish places names, as in the remarkable ‘Leaving St Kilda’, (I’d love to hear this epic poem in the poet’s own voice, my southern accent just won’t do the job); animals (and religion) also readily feature and there is a remarkable tenderness in the poem ‘Kalighat’ (set in a Kali temple):

‘Only a blue string tethers him to the present.
The small black goat; the stone enclosure;
the forked wooden altar washed in coconut
milk, hung with orange and yellow marigolds;
with a heap of sodden sand.
With a single bleat
he folds himself into a shadow in the corner, […]’.

Other well-worn Robertson themes, such as drink, (and Strindberg) are given a virtuoso reworking in ‘Strindberg in Berlin’:

‘I squint at the flasks and alembics,
head like a wasps’ nest,
and pour myself
three fingers and a fresh start.
A glass of aqua vitae, a straightened,
stiffener, a universal tincture - same again -
the great purifier, clarifier,
a steadying hand on the dancing hand, […]’.

Robertson is capable of ‘relaxing’ any of poetry’s rules. ‘At Roane Head’ commits the ‘sin’ of having two endings. With virtually any other poet, this wouldn’t work, yet Robertson’s final stanza here is brilliant. I’m trying to work out how he’s carried it off but still can’t get past the absolute ‘wow’ of it. In contrast, I would argue that the last two lines of the otherwise breathtaking ‘Law of the Island’ could be cut.

I can’t end this review without another reference to the pervading losses that seep from The Wrecking Light. This is from one of my favourite poems ‘Tinsel’: ‘the thin noise that losing makes […] the soul’s tinsel’, and from ‘Widow’s Walk’: ‘losing what remains of my language/to a thickening rain,’ he continues, with a hint of the light:

‘Trying to escape myself,
but there’s always
wanting to sew my shadow back. […]’

Katrina Naomi is a London-based poet originally from Margate. She reviews regularly for Eyewear. She will be launching her latest collection, the pamphlet that arose from her residency at the Bronte Musuem, this Tuesday. Details are on her site.
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