Book review: Sailing The Forest: Selected Poems

Robin Robertson at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 '''Picture: Russell G Sneddon/Writer Pictures

Robin Robertson at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 '''Picture: Russell G Sneddon/Writer Pictures

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A SELECTED poems is always a problematic volume to review. Firstly, I had read all these poems before. Secondly, I had admired the way in which each collection by Robertson had its own integrity and arc.

Sailing The Forest: Selected Poems

Robin Robertson

Picador, £14.99

Thirdly, a good selected poems is not some kind of Greatest Hits, but a story in its own right: any poet worth their salt will be whittling their oeuvre, flensing their work and paring their past performances. What story does Sailing The Forest tell us?

On the first page, I was surprised. Robertson begins with New Gravity from A Painted Field. It has the intimacy and coldness one associates with his poetry, its riddling, wry eyebrow (“Under the oak, the fallen leaves / are pieces of the tree’s jigsaw”), its fierce clarity and precise ambivalence. It also, more importantly, says “I”. In his earlier volumes Robertson eschewed the first person even when dealing with the most private, personal things.

Robertson begins by being opaque and ends by being oblique. The final poem The Key is worth quoting in full as it is both a resolution to this book and a way into its intricacies and delights: “The door / to 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”. Those commas, if you see the poem laid out properly, are doing some heavy lifting, creating pauses and anticipations. The “I” is not alone, but yoked by an apostrophe to a verb: the self does rather than is.

Robertson moves with ease between the classical and the confessional. In Sailing The Forest, the reader can see the thematic rhymes between, for example, his beautiful and horrific versions of myths such as the flaying of Marsyas and the dismembering of Actaeon and the poems dealing with surgery, such as The Halving and 
A & E. Although this selection includes Robertson’s wonderful variations on Nonnus and Ovid, I was curious at the decision not to include excerpts from his translations of Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae, both of which have strong echoes of the collection’s concerns.

The sense of the mythic is also evident in poems such as At Roane Head, Law Of The Island and Under Beinn Ruadhainn where Robertson creates stories with a kind of folkloric timelessness but which are nevertheless distinctively his inventions. The taciturn nature of much of his work is seen at its best here: there is a goose-flesh quality to the description of the husband in At Roane Head, “thick with drink, saying / he’d had enough of this / all this witchery” returning to confront his wife’s eerie children and “relaxing them / one after another / with a small knife”. Somehow the clipped nature of those repeated letter “i”s before the longer vowels of “relaxing” and “one after another” deepens the horror of what is already a gothic masterpiece.

A word often associated with Robertson’s poetry is “flinty”, suggesting something sharp and uncompromising and lapidary; a kind of Doric haiku quality. Although there are obvious examples of it here, this selected poems shows that he is equally eloquent in a more expansive register.

A selected poems allows the reader to revisit old friends in new circumstances. The Park Drunk, a poem I’ve always loved, seems more violent here. Although there is still the MacNeice-like beauty – “as if / frost wants to know what / snow tries to forget” – I found a queasiness in its beauty, the way the aesthetic is never anaesthetic.

Is there a centre to this book? I’d like to think it was the poem Myth, six brief lines ending “after the snow, / the snowman’s spine”, a perfect encapsulation of Robertson’s ability to see in metaphors, and shrouded in his ability to unsettle. But the real centre is probably Holding Proteus. Proteus, the shape-shifter – here “a deer, / a dolphin, shivering aspen, tiger, eel, / lithe root of flame and broken water. / I hold you fast, until you are flesh again” – is both erotic epiphany and dangerous sooth-sayer. The poem’s narrator struggles with the metamorphic god since “the sea is deadpan. / I have worshipped the wrong gods”. Wanting change, the narrator has to challenge change, and is left with “the sea-wind tearing pages from my book”.

Now, pages have been torn to turn five collections into one book: but any reader who encounters Sailing The Forest will most likely want to read A Painted Field, Slow Air, Swithering, The Wrecking Light and Hill Of Doors in their entireties. And the story told here? The awful is real, but some things trump it.

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