September 2006

Jason Rotstein


Swithering by Robin Robertson

After more than twenty years working in the publishing houses of Penguin, Secker & Warburg and Jonathan Cape, Robin Robertson has more than experience to his credit. He may be as good as we have of a literary ambassador, today. But still his volcanic rise to prominence as a poet seems sudden. With the arrival of Robertson’s third collection in less than ten years, Robertson is not waiting for his time to come. His time is now and he is not hesitant to seize on the opportunity. Swithering comes at the apex of Robertson’s career, as Robertson settles into his role as one of most respected poets in the world with his recent appointment to serve as judge of the Griffin Poetry Prize -- the richest poetry prize in the world.

It is likely that the “swithering” of the new collection’s title, which signifies “indecision or doubt,” is not a profound statement on the psychological state of things or a comment on the state of the “evolutionary landscape” of Robertson’s frequent attention in verse; rather, the “swithering,” I think, is Robertson’s own -- as in Robertson’s indecision or doubt in writing. Rapid ascents to prominence have been known to induce spiritual doubt or reevaluation. Robertson must doubt his new faithful audience. The question is: Does he try to appeal to them or shy away?

There seems increasing pressure to globalize or “Americanize” verse as it coincides with Robertson's appearance in magazines like the New Yorker and New York Review Books. American poetry, generally speaking, is most characterized by voice techniques and wild outburst emotions. One could just envision Robertson with a prescription somewhere on his wall or written at the top of a notebook: more outbursts of emotion! More outbursts of emotion!

Robertson’s struggle is a personal one -- between his new status as global-poet-phenom, living in London, who regularly publishes his poems in the best publications in the world, and the “Scottish son” from the northeast coast. I say this because of the longstanding Scottish tradition of history preserved and understood in poetry. Scottish history is inextricably tied to its poetry, recited repetitively for mnemonic purposes, orally, according to tradition in the form of love songs, laments and war songs. Scottish poetry is a self-contained poetry most identifiable for its intimacy with nature and especially the sea and the folkloric and repetitive mnemonic chants. 

Robertson has dealt with the pull of two worlds before in his poetry. In the long poem “Camera Obscura,” which concluded his first prize-winning collection A Painted Field, he elegantly counterpoised a diary of a Victorian photography -- slicing the lens, so to speak, two ways -- with poems of modern day Edinburgh. He effectively transcended time and place and cut the path between the present day and 19th Century Scotland. This is the kind of poet Robin Robertson is: ambitious, dexterous, and artful. But in Swithering the division seems most prominent in Robertson himself, as he appears divided or at least ambivalent about his place between and in American poetry or “global” poetry and a history of Scottish verse.

When Robertson is working in the Scottish mode, he is at his best. It has become somewhat of an axiom that when a poet does away with the constraints of punctuation -- one can think of A.R. Ammons limiting himself to the use the colon -- the poet is signaling to the reader that he is allowing unmediated access to a specific space of unconsciousness. “Answers” is a perfect example of Robertson “the Scottish unconscious poet” in Swithering. The last two stanzas of the poem conclude:

when herring swim the mountain lake
when their feathers sink like stars
when blackbirds fish the salt-sea wave
and the rabbit picks at the buzzard’s heard

when seals come walking up from the bay
and nightfall begins with the morning dew
when the daffodils open on Christmas day and you see
a crow as white as a dove
I will return to you, my love, I will return to you

The voice is authentic and true and the images fly, swim, climb and attach through mind and memory. Robertson’s abilities as a poet are unmistakable: his acute eye to detail, his experienced awareness, his wonderful curiosity of all things poetry, his appreciation of image and landscape etc. But for all of Robertson’s visible talents, he can also appear unswerving, prosaic, unmusical, reticent and restrained. In “Trysts,” another repetitive affair, the speakers seems a little lackadaisical and tired. The poem begins:

meet me
where the sun goes down
meet me
in the cave, under the battleground
meet me
on the broken branch
meet me
in the shade, below the avalanche

The tone seems a little bit off: one octave below parody and humor and one below an entreating call to a lover. In “Selkie,” which he dedicates to the “memory of Michael Donaghy,” too much is restrained or not said, and he does not prevail in digging to the depth of the emotion or grasping its whole weight:

And he played till dawn:
all the jigs and reels
he knew, before 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.’

This is just Robertson’s way, whether you accept it or not. These are tough criticisms for a poet as knowledgeable and forbearing as Robertson. But at times, Robertson does seem to be going through the motions. His poem “Entropy” -- a territory well-trodden in American literature and all but beaten to death by Thomas Pynchon -- and the many dedications, sometimes to famous writer friends -- John Banville, Don Paterson, etc. -- seem frivolous along with the translations or re-interpretations of Ovid, Neruda, Montale and Strindberg. While Robertson has done this before, they pad the collection and seem merely rite of chore.

As a poet Robertson is still young, but many of his poems still feel dated or common enough in subject matter where they strive to be more radical: “Lizard,” “Primavera,” “Asparagus,” etc. All of these “definition poems” fail from a disturbing lack of drama. Is this the point, when he dwells so persistently on the evolution of nature? For one of the few poets writing today who has the ability to “lead poetry back to the promise land” it seems certain that Robertson will navigate a greater course: challenge and free himself and find ways to fire his poetry once again.

Swithering by Robin Robertson
Harvest Books
ISBN: 015603199X
112 Pages