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Swithering

by Robin Robertson
96 pages,
ISBN: 0887847390


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The World's Chumps
by Lyle Neff

The mythical hunter Actaeon was a chump¨or a victim, we'd call him now. Whichever noun fits, there's just one adjective for a weekend shooter like Actaeon, who was turned into a stag and got mauled by his own hounds after accidentally catching a peek at the goodies of the bathing goddess Artemis. The term for Actaeon is "hapless".
Really, what's captivating in the old myth of the Goddess and the Chump is the madcap Queen of Wild Beasts herself: such capriciousness, such random¨if imaginative¨fury. Her victim and principal character appears, in comparison, passive as a child. So to recast Actaeon's tale in modern terms, as a free-verse set-piece between a lonely boy and his vindictive mum, is an artistic risk. It's a gamble the Scots poet Robin Robertson, in his new collection Swithering, takes and wins:

. . . She must have
screamed as she covered her breast because her face
chipped open, like her favourite porcelain fawn, the
one
the cleaner broke. The hole at the muzzle like a
smile, almost . ..

. . . Twenty years spent
edging past a migraine's darkened room. He slipped
a note
into a gap in the floorboards:
"all the roads I walk will be away from you."

The drama in these lines, taken from the longest and best of Swithering's psychological poems, seems closer to confessionalism than the recognisable classicism of "The Death of Actaeon", Robinson's rendering of Ovid's original original (also published in Swithering). But the poem's twist¨the Actaeon-boy's estrangement and escape from the nutty goddess¨is satisfying in a way no therapeutic narrative of healing could be. "Actaeon: The Early Years" succeeds mostly because Robertson writes it well, but his hard-headed respect for the thematic core of the story also plays a role. In neither the adapted myth, nor the familial-trauma resetting of it, is there any chance of reconciliation. Oedipus, Robertson knows, isn't the only ancient Greek who can speak to contemporary readers about inadvertent crimes and vengeance.
For all that, Robertson is a family man, albeit a near-pensionable, late-blooming one. (Swithering is just the third collection from this poet, a publishing executive in London, since his 1997 debut.) He is also a Briton of typical reserve, and his book's other poems on generational themes mostly reflect a 21st-century parent's unswerving but fretful love for grown daughters, whom he adores and wouldn't wish to embarrass:
I see my children growing away from me;
the hinges of the heart are broken.

Is it too late to start, too late to learn
all the words for love before they wake?

This is nice enough, certainly fond and polite, but a long way from the restless strangeness of Swithering's high points. Robertson's language gets thin when he's only observational or descriptive¨he verges on chumpiness, that is, when he merely stands around and gawks at the goddess:

The slow drag across the sandpaper,
scratching smoke
from the head of the match
again and again until it flares.
Lamplight lies heavy on her breasts,
Her flanks . . .

But in poems where language, visuals and ideas tumble together, Robertson is absolutely among the best poets the UK has to offer these days. His erudition is unerringly to the point, and he seems incapable of merely showing off. Consistently in Swithering, the poet puts animals¨foxes, eels, gazelles, lizards¨into action as both functions of their natural landscape and signals of human wish and need:

The horses watch the sea climb
and climb and walk towards them on the hill,
hear the vole
crying under the alder

Robertson is less obsessed than poets of the Ted Hughes school with nature's toothy red clawfulness. But he is just as capable of putting us humans right up against our companions (and meals, and servants) from the animal kingdom, the better to measure our deeds and words against their incorruptible example. We do surprisingly well, it turns out. Swithering is a book that's humane in the old sense, acknowledging our imperfectness and how we suffer for it. (This, as opposed to the modern sense of "humane", where he who makes the largest show of kindness to cetaceans and seals is considered most morally worthy.)
One of Robertson's most poignant journeys into this region between human and animal spirits is "Selkie", in appearance a brief, eulogistic last word to a roaring man:

. . . he stood
and drained the last
from his glass, slipped back in
to the seal-skin,
into a new day, saluting us
with that famous grin:
"That's me away."

For the old Gaels, a "selkie" was a tricky spirit who walked on two legs by land, while being essentially a seal in the water. This rings a little hard on Canadian ears: are we talking, like, a weremoose? A werebeaver? But you can hear the clink of that last glass on the table in the poem, and admire the way its subject, rather than its author, gets to deliver a heartening, unsentimental goodbye. And of course the piece evokes the old hope that death is transformation, not extinguishment. It's quite moving.
Among other poems here with real emotional weight to them "The Park Drunk" and "At Dawn", two powerhouse poems, are absolute gems demanding rereading and real thought. They're front-loaded, perhaps to counterbalance the potential boredom implicit in the Scots word "swithering"¨the verb form of which means "to fret, to be ambivalent or undecided." There's no indecision or vacillating in Robertson's kickoff poem "The Park Drunk", though. The piece, a quiet couplet followed by three elegant seven-line stanzas, is a humane consideration of an outcast derelict's cold morning. But it meditates on what's even more frozen, in the Drunk's narcissistic character:

What the snow has furred
to silence, uniformity,
frost amplifies, makes singular:
giving every form a sound,
an edge, as if
frost wants to know what
snow tries to forget.

And so he drinks for winter,
for the coming year,
to open all the beautiful tiny doors
in their craquelure of frost;
and he drinks
like the snow falling, trying
to close the biggest door of all.

Note, the esoteric term "craquelure" means "network of small cracks"; also note, it's good to see a contemporary poet deploy that beautiful, tiny connective device, the semicolon, isn't it? But more substantially, Robertson's brisk and vivid lines remind us¨or anyone with jumbled memories from a night of hard drinking¨of the attractive busyness of the intoxicated mind, which tries to "open all the beautiful tiny doors" of random, disinhibited thought. The Park Drunk loves his drunkenness, and thinks his perceptions significant. But really, the guy is just sitting around, wasted. The tragic news Robertson delivers is that his Drunk, to protect himself from that truth ("to close the biggest door of all"), would rather stay in his Park forever. This is a splendid poem to happen on when you first wander into Swithering¨it's transfixing.
The other brilliant poem in this book, "At Dawn", a single stanzaic block with a nagging sense of menace packed into its lean, short lines, turns up just a couple of pages after "The Park Drunk". "At Dawn" is a coolly enjambed page of language. But it's written simply around that very simple mode of communication, the list. Imagine stumbling across a ruined farmhouse you didn't know existed, and finding these items "under the trestle table":
the earth floor seething with ants;
on the mantelpiece,
some wire-wool, a box of screws,
a biscuit-tin of human hair
and a urine sample
with my name and date of birth.
. . . a mackerel
wrapped in today's paper, one eye
looking up at me
through its greased window;
the lopped head of a roe deer,
its throat full of wire . . .
. . . a photograph of me,
looking slightly younger,
stretched out, on a trestle table.

The situation here is irresistibly reminiscent of that legendary little horror movie, The Blair Witch Project. Good as that flick was, though, it had only jolts and frights to offer, while something much grander is at work in "At Dawn". Essentially, the poem is a map of that country where fallible memory blurs into bizarre dream; and like any honest map, it takes note of those dark areas which it can't represent, because they haven't been explored, or can't be depicted. In other words, that air of grotesque revelation and repetition-with-change ("five blackthorn pins. . . five elder twigs") common to the dream experience isn't that different from the way our memories really work. Welcome to yourself, Robertson implicitly asks in this hair-raising poem; a bit unnerving, aren't you?
Most of the rest of Swithering doesn't quite measure up to these two absorbing pieces (that's no slight, they're accomplishment enough). Two later poems, "Manifest" and "Entropy", stand out somewhat, more for the vividness of their language than for their depth of idea. The former piece, a seething catalogue of age's bodily insults, seems atypical for Robertson:
. . . the bolus of the last meal,
the trace of morphine in the nails and in the grey
hairs
of the chest, blood-string in the stool, gall-stones,
an ankle-spur, the retina's code, the death-mask,
life-mask . . .

But Swithering is a good read almost all the way through¨"cleansed of excess" as Billy Collins writes in his blurb (although he might have missed this one very bad turn: "Is there anything/ more heartbreaking than hope?") In general, Robertson's cool combination of Celtic and classical elements makes for a surprisingly unified piece of art, one wise enough to put the world's chumps right at the centre of things. ˛

Lyle Neff's most recent book is Bizarre Winery Tragedy (Anvil, 2005). He lives in Vancouver.
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