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The Wrecking Light (edition 2011)
by Robin Robertson
The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson
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Poetry is extremely personal and requires very selective reading. It also means you must be willing to discard many poems to find the few that you really like. In that sense reading poetry is like visiting a picture gallery. Look at many at a glance, focus on few and prize the exceptional. ( )
This is a fascinating collection of poems and translations. From start to finish it held my attention. In fact, I could not put it down until I reached the Notes at the end. And then I wished it were twice as long. The collection begins with Album, a poem about looking through albums of family photos, and about how the narrator sees himself as a ghost within them. A very strange idea, that, a living ghost. Or are the other figures in the album dead? And so placing him apart from them, as we normally view ghosts – representations of the dead to the living. Only this reverses that perception.
Signs on a white field is about how the sun’s heat begins to melt ice on the surface of a lake. The poem starts by describing the surface of the lake as containing some unevennesses, about how
….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
As the sun works its warming work the poet hears the lake ‘talking to itself.’
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 in a boom
that rolls under the ice for miles.
By Clachan Bridge is a weird poem about a girl who has a cleft lip or palate. She used to cut fish up by the bridge to see how they worked inside.
by morning’s end, her nails
were black red, her hands
all sequined silver.
She dissected all sorts of animals. You wonder whether she is addicted to the cutting up or exploring the variations in anatomy. Later, she claimed that she had sex with the blacksmith’s son. Her belly grew for a year, and she said she had a stone baby.
And how I said her wrists
bangled with scars
and those hands flittering
at her throat,
to the plectrum of bone
she’d hung there.
The Plague Year starts with what I can only describe as the annual cycle of the birth and rebirth of plants, trees, etc.
I am dying
so slowly you’d hardly notice. What is there left
to trust but this green world and its god,
always returning to life?
And then the poem moves onto explore the nature of inner city pollution.
My past stretches from here to there, and back,
leaving me somewhere in the middle
of Shepherd’s Bush Green with the winos of ’78.
A great year; I remember it well. Hints of petrol,
urine, plane trees; a finish so long you could
sleep out under it. Same face, different names.
Everything is different. Everything is the same.
About time explores the idea of feeling oneself aging while watching life events occur (parents’ death; break up of marriage; children suddenly adults). The result is
The skin loosening
from my legs and arms
and this heart going
like there’s no tomorrow.
Fall from Grace, on the other hand, is about shame. He describes his life replacing
Love and trust with nothing, no
light shining back at me, just shame
My life a mix of dull disgraces
and watery acclaim, my daughters know
I cannot look into their clean faces;
what shines back at me is shame.
In another poem, the smell of cologne is used to mask the smell of a dead mouse and reminds the person in Going to Ground of thee one used to mask the smell of a friend in hospital with AIDS whose toes and fingers had started to rot and go brown.
In A Gift a woman comes to the poet ‘in a dress of true love …. made of flowers’; Her hair was similarly garlanded.
And she was holding out
A philtre of water lovage,
red chamomile and ladies’ seal
in a cup, for me to drink.
Imagine being in a hotel or B & B. A naked woman leaves your room. In Venery he sees
The whole scut
of her bottom
down the half-flight
to the bathroom.
If you want to find out about horrible ways to die, Law of the Island offers one. A man is lashed to a timber and thrown into the sea so that he will float head up.
Over his mouth and eyes
they tied two live mackerel
with twine, and pushed him
out from the rocks.
For a gannet
to read that flex of silver
from a hundred feet up,
close its wings
And then comes Kalighat which describes the sacrificial beheading of a goat.
comes out of his neck
in little gulps.
Robertson returns to the idea that everything, even love, is born and dies in a beautiful poem called Lesson. Ambush is about the immense patience of a fox waiting for the moment when a lake’s surface will freeze over and trap duck’s feet in the ice so they can’t escape.
Death strikes again in Grave Goods. The poem starts with ambitions.
He wanted to outlive the grim husbandry
of battle order, outrun
the breath of the damned
to reach a place
of peace and honour,
fresh running water,
a morning of porcelain and lavender
combed by light, folded and smoothed over.
He came instead to a closed silence.
Robertson goes on to describe a grave containing the artefacts of hunting and fishing, a red ochre covered woman seated with a child on her lap, a man wearing a crown of antlers and, between the two, ‘a young child laid down/ into the wing of a swan.’
In 1075AD Adam of Bremen witnessed The great mid-winter sacrifice, Uppsala. He saw a tall tree ‘thick with gifts’. It was ‘decked simply with the dead’. There were nine animals
that aren’t animals but hang there just the same,
black-faced, bletted, barely
recognizable as men.
And blood soaked the ground under the tree.
During dinner is about how Hawthorn should never be brought into the house because it brings death and bad luck with it.
It was Christ’s crown and the faeries’ bed,
I said to my hostess …..
But ‘Ladies Meat’ is another name
because it smells of sex and it smells of death.
For years I was only able to smell one and
now I can only smell the other!
and so she left the table.
Widow’s Walk is about isolation and loneliness.
Trying to escape myself,
but there’s always
wanting to sew my shadow back.
I felt like going in,
there and then,
like a widow
toppling forward at the grave,
going in after myself.
In Hammersmith Winter he remembers as a boy watching snow fall outside.
But you’re not there, 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.
This is a collection of poems that needs, calls out for, reading and reading again. It’s no good borrowing it. Buy your own.
Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light is dark and full of death, sex, the sea, and violent folktales. It’s not a cheery, sunny day kind of book; yet, Robertson’s language and phrasing make these poems beautiful in their melancholy and myth. Loss, displacement, and the often tragic results of man’s interaction with nature run throughout these poems.
The beginning of “Abandon” gives us a beautiful natural scene:
That moment, when the sun ignites the valley and picks out
every bud that’s greened that afternoon; when birds
spill from the trees like shaken sheets; that sudden loosening
The poem goes on to describe his lover drowning. It appears that the speaker could have saved her, but didn’t. He returns to the scene in nature at the end, but it has changed.
…that shelving love
as the sun was lost to us and the sky bruised, and the
stones grew cold as the shells on the beach at Naxos.
“At Roane Head” won the Forward prize for Best Single Poem in 2009. The poem, a Scottish folktale about a selkie, encapsulates many of the themes and the style of the book.
At Roane Head
for John Burnside
You’d know her house by the drawn blinds –
by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall,
the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry.
You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it
from the sea and from the brief light of the sun,
and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door
where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap.
A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow
squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea’s complaining pull
and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood.
She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough,
and each one wrong. All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.
Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling
down to the shore, chittering like rats,
and said they were fine swimmers,
but I would have guessed at that.
Her husband left her: said
they couldn’t be his, they were more
fish than human;
he said they were beglamoured,
and searched their skin for the showing marks.
For years she tended each difficult flame:
their tight, flickering bodies.
Each night she closed
the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire.
Until he came again,
that last time,
thick with drink, saying
he’d had enough of this,
all this witchery,
and made them stand
in a row by their beds,
twitching. Their hands
rolled in their heads.
He went along the line
one after another
with a small knife.
They say she goes out every night to lay
blankets on the graves to keep them warm.
It would put the heart across you, all that grief.
There was an otter worrying in the leaves, a heron
loping slow over the water when I came
at scraich of day, back to her door.
She’d hung four stones in a necklace, wore
four rings on the hand that led me past the room
with four small candles burning
which she called ‘the room of rain’.
Milky smoke poured up from the grate
like a waterfall in reverse
and she said my name,
and it was the only thing
and the last thing that she said.
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
Overall, it is powerful collection. Robertson is precise and masterful. It is certainly one of the most visionary and unique book of poems I have read in quite some time.
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Wikipedia in English (2)
Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Scottish poet's fourth collection shimmers with "an oneiric charge and intensity" (Guardian, UK). The Wrecking Light 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 human beings. 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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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)821.914Literature English & Old English literatures English poetry 1900- 1900-1999 1945-1999
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