Robin Robertson’s fourth book of poems is a tense and slight bundle that lingers – almost teeters – between themes of absence and loss and an assertive authorial presence. The speaker haunting the first poem of The Wrecking Light isn’t there – or “almost” isn’t (‘Album’). In the book’s last piece, he pleads to be held, then let go. The poet begins the collection with absence and ends it on release, or at least, makes claims to such states. But Robertson’s voice is most viscerally present in all The Wrecking Light’s pieces. The varied characters of his poems cannot escape behind the scenes he details.
The collection is divided into three “states” of water – silvered, broken, unspoken – which refer to Scottish folklore and symbolise altered, or altering, physical states. Lore, lyricism and a lurid imagery blend disconcertingly well in Robertson’s longer pieces. At times, the voices of the speakers in his poems are more disturbing than the repeated images of violence they witness. Adopting voices of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he recounts the bloody and elated revels of the Bacchae in pared-down verse – how one is dismembered for his disbelief, his own mother taking part, and how others, for theirs, are disfigured, entrapped in animal form (‘Pentheus and Dionysus’, ‘The Daughters of Minyas’). The starkness of destruction underscores many of his historical subjects. In ‘The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala’, his witness arrives to detail massacre’s aftermath; in ‘Kalighat’, the momentary confusion of death is a shared experience between reader and sacrifice, as the animal views its own severed body.
An unwillingness to depart or escape is one of Robertson’s fixations. The recalcitrance of a lingerer – or malingerer – reverberates in the personal voices of his shorter, contemplative pieces. Like a man ageing without grace, confronting shame and regret, the voice in ‘Fall from Grace’ and ‘Going to Ground’ is emotionally detached. He tries to dismiss a level of feeling. “That’s all” Robertson blankly states in ‘Venery’, his expression of inability more unsettling than his depressed metaphor for sex. And yet the implicit confrontations of guilt and loss that span the collection are rarely overwrought. (‘Leaving St Kilda’ is the only poem that demands the reader’s stamina, with its florid, lengthy listing of the isle’s Gaelic geography.) Are instances of dislocation disturbing because Robertson characterizes them? Does the telling of guilt make the listener, or reader party to it, in a sense? We may be tempted to search for answers in his references to other writers – Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, Tomas Tranströmer. But the connections are more rewarding in the portraits they offer – the drunken, love-confused ‘Strindberg in Berlin’ flickers, for instance, with comic tones – and their poetic architecture. The poems “after Montale” ring with wonderful internal rhymes: “night’s red / pyrotechnics” and “the call of another orbit: / follow it, go down” (‘The Unwritten Letter’, ‘Arsenio’).
In the Tranströmer-inspired ‘Calling Home’, Robertson calls up a recurrent image in The Wrecking Light, the “knife fight”: “Our phonecall spilled out into the dark / and glittered between the countryside and the town / like the mess of a knife-fight.” His dream sequences play out like a David Lynch film in poetry, with their eerie intimations of sex, violence and fraught communication. (Incidentally, Robertson footnotes Hollywood in another knife fight reference in ‘The Plague Year’.) And the Forward Prize winning ‘At Roane Head’ glimmers with a blade in the collection’s final section. The poem is based on the archetypal North Atlantic tale of doomed, betrayed seal-human love. But Robertson spins the old narrative into something more conflicted. His lyric narration reveals the speaker’s involvement, his part in the story – perhaps, his guilt. Like that “pencilled-in silence” which resolves into the “detonating crack” of the ice field in sunlight, undoing the state of frozen water in ‘Signs on a White Field’, at this poem’s end, we share the selkie’s song, his secret, and its urgency.
Despite his attempts at self-effacement, the speaker’s voice is assertive and strong in Robertson’s visceral poetry. He may be responsible and sometimes, culpable, within the frail portraits of the world he presents to us. But in his candid, hard, self-diminishing pathos, he is almost always forgivable. With him, we watch Minyas’ daughters turn to bats, or the fridge ice melting in a sparse London setting (‘Middle Watch, Hammersmith’). And when he tells us it is he who has caused the slow drip, and a probably very painful “tooth-loosening”, we still can’t resist the beguilement of this diminishing state, for it is his diminished state.
Lyrical yet abrupt, measured yet indulgent, the poet’s voice fills his own poetic absences. In ‘Tinsel’, he tells us that “the sound of nothing: this voice and its wasting” is loss. The wasting of Robertson’s voice makes beautiful poetry because of – rather than in spite of – his speakers’ moral or social ambivalence.