Book review: Hill Of Doors by Robin Robertson

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THERE is an unflinching clarity in Robin Robertson’s poetry which can seem as much a curse as a gift: for each precise and acute observation (a lobster is a “clacking samurai in lacquered plates”, the tour-de-force 1964 boasts “each ice-puddle’s broken plate / cracked to a star”, “frost thistles the railings” and “the fire’s many beaks”) there is an accompanying sharp self-awareness, which can become close to self-recrimination.

Hill Of Doors

Robin Robertson

Picador, £14.99

Partytime opens “You were quite the vision last night / I remember, before my vision went”; likewise Broken starts “He’s back in the ghost house / where he, himself, is the ghost”. It’s as if this gimlet-eye cannot help but swivel inwards, or, to mix bodily metaphors, the psychological tongue constantly seeks out the sore tooth.

The combination of imagistic exactitude coupled to a profoundly sensitive, always complex mindfulness of the mind’s own workings – its evasions, shifting memories, unwanted epiphanies – is seen at its highest in two poems about illness and surgery, The Halving, subtitled “Royal Brompton Hospital, 1986”, and A & E.

The first poem uses internal rhymes and alliteration to embody the operation’s closing and opening: “seated with sutures”, “the heart re-started. The blood allowed back”, “left with a split / chest that ground and grated on itself” (the pause between split and chest is perfect) leading to the staggering final realisation: “I have been away, I said to the ceiling, / and now I am not myself.”

A & E deals with the aftermath in gothic detail: as the nurse waves him away, “I parted the tweed to show her / what I had going on underneath. / Unfashionable, but striking nonetheless: / my chest undone like some rare waistcoat, / with that lace-up front – a black échelle – / its red, wet look leatherette, / those fancy, flapping lapels”.

The collection is structured around four versions from Ovid, describing the dwellings of the personifications of Famine, Envy, Sleep and Rumour, and four from Nonnus. I can’t think of many contemporary poets who would willingly take on Nonnus, the 4th century AD author of the longest poem in classical Greek, but these excerpts from his poem on the life of Dionysus, the God of Wine, are superb. They encapsulate many of Robertson’s concerns: myth, violence, grief and the intersection of the natural and the cultural.

Linguistically, the poems graft exceptionally particular Anglo-Saxon words (“the jink / of a coursing hare”, “quickly nocked it to the bowstring”) to the classical setting; they also – and the whole book does this – use a very subtle form of ­repetition.

The Hellenistic world might seem very distant from the Scottish North-east of many of the other poems, but the final Nonnus adaptation seems to unite the exoticism with a very Calvinist mentality: The God Who Disappears ends “He spends his life dying. The god who comes, / the god who disappears. Dismembered, / he is resurrected. He is beside us; beside himself. / Ghost of abandon, and abandoning, / he shatters us to make us whole”.

I doubt Robertson – or anyone sane – will translate the entire 20,000 odd lines of the Dionysiaca, but it would be intriguing to see what he made of Nonnus’s conversion poem, a poetic rendering of the Gospel of John called the Metabole.

The collection as a whole moves from a series of alienations (1964 ends with the poet looking for the stork “that she might take me back”) to a tentative acceptance – The Key reads, “The door / of the walled garden, the place / I’d never been / was opened / with a ­simple turn / of the key / I’d carried with me / all these years”.

Despite there being no answers “in true life” as his daughter says in Keys To The Doors to the big questions of “cruelty and fear / to age and grief and death”, there might a way of living with that.