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Robin Robertson, Swithering, Picador

Swithering: to hesitate, to be in two minds; but also to appear indeterminate, ghostlike, like the haze around the pump-gun as a petrol tank is filled. Well, the title of Robin Robertson’s third full-length collection may suggest hesitation but the reader will find that the book’s content is actually more about certainty, albeit the negative certainty of loss, death and even doom.

One poem early on in the book, “Trysts”, ends with “meet me / as my lover, as my only friend / meet me / on the river bed”. That river bed sounds ominous: there may be a moment’s hope that it is a dry river bed, but the greater suspicion is that this is no desert wadi. Is it an invitation to drown as part of a suicide pact? The resonant ballad-like echoes leading up to this last invitation suggest in any case the certainty of a romantic leap into danger. It’s an exhilarating poem with its paradoxical guarantee of risk: there is nothing as vacillating here as a “swither” and it is none the worse for it.

There are disappointments. The vocabulary in the book is essentially mined from some of the continuing prestige seams of contemporary poetry: folklore, religion, and the classics. Like so much contemporary poetry it looks back in time without necessarily an acute historical sense. Rather Robertson has an eye for significant-seeming lyrical vocabulary and the remnants of worldviews that still stick to these words – with great skill he keeps them more or less alive. The folkloric elements include a selky (used movingly for an elegy of fellow poet Michael Donaghy) and a ghost, in an elegy for Robertson’s father. Christian terminology is deployed to emphasise the sacred rituals of the everyday, even when the everyday amounts to quotidian procedures in unusual conditions. Artillerymen in a coastal battery protecting the Tyne (“Sea-Fret”) are remembered by unused explosives “un-armed as yet, unblessed”. Finally, Robertson engages substantially with the classical world, most notably in a translation of Ovid’s “The Death of Actaeon”, a work also memorably translated by Ted Hughes.

Arguably more inventive, and perhaps more truly contemporary, are the poems when Robertson appears to be writing through simple observation. In “Firesetting” the poet writes of “Watching Italian TV all night / with the sound down”, a humble start to this short poem until you realise what is happening sonically. Those little t-sounds in the first line are frantic – t, t, t, t - ; the second line mutes them with its softer “th”’s and its bass “–oun” and “-own”. Appropriate of course – as we know, the volume has been turned down on the TV itself – but with that added extra element of us now actually sensing this in the language itself. The next line adds the conceit that what the speaker is watching is an “aquarium”, and as the poem unfolds the reader realises that the poet is watching is the bombing of a city, probably Baghdad (those earlier t-sounds are quickly re-read as gunfire). The effect is a potent compound of anger, guilt, and pity, without recourse to the ready-made words of religion and other worn-down language providers, and delivered with some very subtle effects (such as the bitter play on “morning” and “mourning” as the poem comes to a close). This gentle layering of queasiness takes the material and the language of our day and finds it not just self-sufficient but immensely powerful: it is here, and in several other poems like it in this collection, that Robertson is at his best.

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