Robin Robertson’s fourth collection is an intense, moving, bleakly lyrical, and at times shocking book. These poems are written with the authority of classical myth, yet sound utterly contemporary. The poet’s gaze—whether on the natural world or the details of his own life— is unflinching and clear, its utter seriousness leavened by a wry, dry, and disarming humor.
Alongside fine translations from Neruda and Montale and dynamic retellings of stories from Ovid, the poems here pitch the power and wonder of nature against the frailty and failure of the human. This is a book of considerable grandeur and sweep that confirms Robertson as one of the most arresting and powerful poets at work today.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I am almost never there, in these
old photographs: a hand
or shoulder, out of focus; a figure
in the background,
stepping from the frame.
I see myself, sometimes, in the restless
blur of a child, that flinch
in the eye, or the way
sun leaks its gold into the print;
or there, in that long white gash
across the face of the glass
on the wall behind. That
smear of light
the sign of me, leaving.
at these snapshots, all this
Kodacolor going to blue, and you’ll
start to notice. When you finally see me,
you’ll see me everywhere: floating
over crocuses, sandcastles,
fallen leaves, on those
melting snowmen, their faces
drawn in coal – among all
the wedding guests,
the dinner guests, the birthdayparty
guests – this smoke
in the emulsion, the flaw.
A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.
SIGNS ON A WHITE FIELD
The sun’s hinge on the burnt horizon
has woken the sealed lake,
leaving a sleeve of sound. No wind,
just curved plates of air
re-shaping under the trap-ice,
straining to give; the groans and rumbles
like someone shifting heavy tables far below.
I snick a stone over the long sprung deck
to get the dobro’s glassy note, the crying
slide of a bottleneck, its
tremulous ululation to the other shore.
The rocks are ice-veined; the trees
swagged with snow.
Here and there, a sudden frost
has caught some turbulence in the water
and made it solid: frozen in its distress
to a scar, or a skin-graft.
Everywhere, frost-heave has jacked up boulders
clear of the surface, and the ice-shove
has piled great slabs on the lake-edge
like luggage tumbled from a carousel.
A racket of jackdaws, the serrated call
of a falcon as I walk out onto the lake.
A living lens of ice; you can hear it bending,
breathing, re-adjusting its weight and light
as the hidden tons of water
swell and stretch underneath,
thickening with cold.
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.
A pencilled-in silence,
hollow and provisional.
And then it comes.
The detonating crack, like a dropped plank,
as if the whole lake has snapped in two
and the world will follow.
But all that happens
is a huge release of sound: a boom
that rolls under the ice for miles,
some fluked leviathan let loose
from centuries of sleep, trying to push through,
shaking the air like sheet metal,
like a muffled giant drum.
I hear the lake all night as a distant war.
In the morning’s brightness
I brush the snow off with a glove,
smooth down a porthole in the crust
and find, somehow, the living green beneath.
The green leaf looks back, and sees
a man walking out in this shuddering light
to the sound of air under the ice,
out onto the lake, among sun-cups,
snow penitents: a drowned man, waked
in this weathering ground.
BY CLACHAN BRIDGE
for Alasdair Roberts
I remember the girl
with the hare-lip
down by Clachan Bridge,
cutting up fish
to see how they worked;
by morning’s end her nails
were black red, her hands
all sequined silver.
She unpuzzled rabbits
to a rickle of bones;
dipped into a dormouse
for the pip of its heart.
She’d open everything,
They say they found
wax dolls in her wall,
poppets full of human hair,
but I’d say they’re wrong.
What’s true is
that the blacksmith’s son,
came down here once
and fathomed her.
Claimed she licked him
clean as a whistle.
I remember the tiny stars
of her hands around her belly
as it grew and grew, and how
after a year, nothing came.
How she said it was still there,
inside her, a stone-baby.
And how I saw her wrists
bangled with scars
and those hands flittering
at her throat,
to the plectrum of bone
she’d hung there.
As to what happened
to the blacksmith’s boy,
no one knows
and I’ll keep my tongue.
Last thing I heard, the starlings
to mimic her crying,
and she’d found how to fly.
Sifting sand in the Starsign Hotel
on 96th and Madison,
trying not to hear the sirens: the heart’s
fist, desire’s empty hand.
The room awash with its terrible light;
a sky unable to rain. Cradling a glass
of nothing much at all, it’s all
come down to this: the electric fan’s
stop-start – the stalled, half-circle twist
of draught over the bed; the sea-spill
of sheets, the head in storm. Look
at what’s beached here on the night-stand:
a flipped photograph and a silk scarf, a set
of keys. These tulips, loosening in a vase.
Table of Contents
Signs on a White Field 4
By Clachan Bridge 6
The Plague Year 9
The Tweed 14
About Time 15
Fall from Grace 16
Going to Ground 17
Cat, Failing 18
A Gift 19
Strindberg in Berlin 20
My Girls 23
Leaving St Kilda 25
Law of the Island 33
Pentheus and Dionysus 37
The Daughters of Minyas 46
An Ambush 52
Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market 53
Grave Goods 56
Albatross in Co. Antrim 57
The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala 58
The Hammam 61
The Act of Distress 62
The Wood of Lost Things 67
Middle Watch, Hammersmith 70
Calling Home 72
The Unwritten Letter 74
Beginning to Green 75
During Dinner 76
Dress Rehearsals 80
Easter, Liguria 81
Widow’s Walk 82
At Roane Head 87
Hammersmith Winter 90
Notes & Acknowledgements 93