Nationality: British. Born: 1955. Career: Worked as an editor for Penguin Books and Secker and Warburg, 1980s. Editor, Jonathan Cape, London. Awards: Forward Poetry prize and First Book award, Scotland, both for A Painted Field.
A Painted Field. London, Picador, 1997; New York, Harcourt Brace, 1998.*
Critical Studies: Interview with Dennis Brown, in Critical Survey, 10(1), 1998; by W.S. Milne, in Agenda (London), 36(3–4), spring 1999.* * *
Robin Robertson is one of the more remarkable publishers of recent times. He popularized that most cerebral of poets, Geoffrey Hill, by putting him into Penguin Books. He edited and to some extent masterminded the flow of volumes emanating from the pen of that generously copious poet Peter Redgrove. First at Secker and Warburg in the 1980s and then later at Cape, Robertson maintained a list of undeniable quality, including such poets as Sharon Olds, Michael Longley, Sarah Maguire, and John Burnside, one or two of whom he could make a fair claim to have discovered. He superintended the publication of the most controversial Booker prizewinner, James Kelman, who, like Burnside and Robertson himself, is a Scot.
Robertson's poems show, as do those of some of his protégés, that there really is a Scottish tradition. This prominent metropolitan publisher has never, in his heart, left Scotland. One could deduce his provenance, even if his book A Painted Field were shorn of its biographical note. The verse is exact in detail, with an almost Calvinist adherence to the truth, and the truth, also in the Calvinist tradition, brings no comfort. In "Three Ways of Looking at God"
The long trees bend to the grain of the gale,
streaming the dark valley like riverweed.
All night: thunder, torn leaves; a sheathing of wings...
The rain slows, and stops; light deepens
at the lid of the lake, the water creased
by the head of an otter, body of a bird...
And in "Pibroch" the speaker says,
And how I long now for the pibroch,
pibroch long and slow, lamenting all this:
all this longing for the right wave,
for the special wave that toils
behind the pilot but can never find a home...
In these poems night is impending, the sea is gray and uneasy, and a storm is either on its way or already upon us. The interiors are no more inviting. One is chilled by grandfather's dark parlor and frozen by his unlit kitchen; another house is abandoned, its cups thick with spoor and the mattress rolled back to the shape of the last sleeper. The people in these grim poems slash their wrists and overdose on drugs.
This is a world populated by the sick and the dying, as in "Fugue for Phantoms":
Where have they risen, the sea-dead, bobbing in effigy:
skin gone to curd, and worn now like a fragile dress,
water behind the eyes like the insides of oyster shells;
their huge heads puckered, their faces pursed like lips...
Such grimly dedicated recounting of exact detail.
When Robertson finds a hero, it is Marsyas, reputed in ancient Greek mythology to have taken up the flute and to have challenged the musicianship of Apollo himself. In response to the man's temerity the indignant god tied Marsyas to a tree and flayed him alive. The physical particularity renders this emphatically no poem for the squeamish. Another hero, the protagonist of the ambitious poem "Camera Obscura," is based on the life of the unsuccessful Victorian painter David Octavius Hill, whose pioneering work in photography was totally ignored. His view of life is suitably grim:
We have caught the memento mori,
the injuries of time, and coloured them
bruise-blue and sanguine. Lovers,
exposed by corpse-light...
The technique, indeed the verbal distinction, of Robertson's work has not been ignored. To that extent he has been more fortunate than either Marsyas or Hill. Robert Potts, a more than ordinarily discerning reviewer of contemporary verse, said of Robertson in the Guardian, "The maritime Scotland from which literary London has removed Robertson is evoked, sometimes brilliantly, in the chiselled pieces of description with which he tries to get to the heart of it, while perceptively stressing the failure of art to represent and not supplant ("By the time you've looked, you've missed it')."
What we have in Robertson's poetry is the chronicling, with a hard-won specificity, of failure. One is reminded of the eighteenth-century poet William Collins, whose eloquent odes reached a climax in his hypnotizing, wire-drawn "Ode to Evening," or, perhaps more pertinently, of Matthew Arnold, whose constitutional melancholy found voice in "Dover Beach," his lament for a failed civilization. There are the raw materials of a modern "Ode to Evening" or "Dover Beach" here, but the final masterpiece has not arrived, not even in "Camera Obscura," impressive though that poem certainly is. It is probably a matter of the poet recognizing what all these discrete perceptions add up to.
Robertson's senior contemporary, the illustrious Norman MacCaig, had a vision; so far Robertson has only a nightmare. But it is a powerful Calvinist nightmare, a Scot seeing through a glass darkly. It will serve, it will endure, until something more positively cohesive comes along.