Last year, at the end of a public discussion of the TS Eliot Prize shortlist, just before the evening reading, there was a vote. Around a hundred articulate poetry readers chose their favourite. The winner was Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light. I’ve reviewed it in order to try to understand why I don’t like it, despite my admiration for Robertson’s skill.
This book is like a charm necklace, each hermetically sealed poem-charm containing something strange, metamorphosed. To wear these charms would not be safe: it could lead to anguish of the soul, and possibly to a very nasty end.
Anguish in The Wrecking Light is surely heartfelt, as in the final poem:
But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed. None of you are. Look at the snow,
I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold,
would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.
In a 2010 interview on openlettersmonthly.com, Robin Robertson said, “It is very tiresome when readers identify me as the speaker in the poem, and extrapolate an autobiography”. But it’s hard not to feel that he is revealing something of himself each time, like the narrator of ‘Album’, the opening poem:
I am almost never there, in these
When you finally see me,
you’ll see me everywhere.
This applies whatever persona he takes on, even a geisha’s client, or, in ‘The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala’, Adam of Bremen in 1075 witnessing a tree “decked simply with the dead”, animals and
that aren’t animals but hang there just the same,
black-faced, bletted, barely
recognisable as men.
I look down at the spongy grass
and my boots are soaking red.
As often, the horror is conveyed through simple language, with one unusual word, and extremely specific details.
The cumulative effect of Robertson’s imagining of metamorphosis, death and mutilation can make one feel exposed, almost flayed – a bit like walking round a room of Lucian Freud nudes. This feeling is heightened because his poems are so tightly controlled, as if to contain the emotion. It’s no surprise that in a 2008 Guardian interview he talked of poetry as “this machine that could produce such beautiful sounds”.
The intense tone of The Wrecking Light doesn’t vary much. Nor does the form: Robertson writes mostly iambic lines, of varying length, with great skill. He seems to have achieved line-break perfection. Here, a lake is under ice:
A low grumble, a lingering vibrato, creaks
that seem to echo back and forth for hours;
the lake is talking to itself. A loud
twang in the ice. Twitterings
in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive.
His nature descriptions tend to be highly wrought, but ‘Leaving St Kilda’, a journey round the islands and their place-names, is all the more evocative for being looser, long-lined:
on to... Sgeir Dhomnuill,
place of shags, who are drying their wings like a line
of blackened tree-stumps”.
The sense, however inaccurate, of self-exposure is also there in poems of mood such as ‘My Girls’, about waiting for children to fall asleep,
till they smooth into dreams and I can
slip these fingers free
and drift downstairs;
my face a blank,
hands full of deceit.
Later, his Forward Prize-winning poem ‘At Roane Head’ has a nightmarish description of half-selkie boys which includes this: “Beautiful faces, I’m told,/ though blank as air.”
Robertson has cited David Jones as his greatest influence, with Yeats, Eliot, Lowell, Berryman, Bunting and Hill – an all-male canon. The control, and the tension, seem to have tightened further since his last collection, Swithering (which had more humour). It’s a characteristic he shares with Don Paterson, fellow Scottish poet and poetry editor, editor indeed of this book. Robertson has described The Wrecking Light as “the last in a costive quartet”.
The book has been much praised. But the control can become too overt, too predictable. I’d await Robin Robertson’s future collections with more excitement if I knew he could relax his grip, and move away from what he knows.