Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 10 August 2012

"The Wrecking Light" by Robin Robertson (Picador, 2010)

Over 90 pages, some of them as full as prose pages. And there are 4 pages of notes. The first poem, "Album", begins

I am almost never there, in these
old photographs: a hand
or shoulder, out of focus; a figure
in the background,
stepping from the frame.
I see myself, sometimes, in the restless
blur of a child

which reminded me a little of "In childhood memories I am never still. Being bathed, running towards the camera with fists clenched, or crashing my tricycle into kitchen chairs, I'm always slightly blurred", the start of one of my old stories. In the second stanza it says "When you finally see me,/ you'll see me everywhere" ending with a description of the narrator - "this smoke/ in the emulsion, the flaw./ A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go". Meanwhile, the poem mentions "smear of light ... sandcastles ... fallen leaves ... melting snowmen". Not quite a standard nostalgia/old-photos poem, but close.

The title of the next poem, "Signs on a white field", hints of semiotics, openfield poetry, or poetry-about-poetry. It begins with "The sun's hinge on the burnt horizon/ has woken the sealed lake,/ leaving a sleeve of sound". Many more analogies ensue. They're still going at the foot of the first page - "A living lens of ice; you can hear it bending./ breathing, re-adjusting its weight and light/ as the hidden tons of water/ swell and stretch underneath,/ thickening with cold./ A low grumble, a lingering vibrato, creaks/ that seem to echo back and forth for hours.". Eventually "And then it comes./ The detonating crack, like a dropped plank,/ as if the whole lake has snapped in two/ and the world will follow.". Next morning the narrator clears a patch of ice away - "The green leaf looks back, and sees/ a man walking out in this shuddering light/ to the sound of air under the ice,/ out onto the lake, among sun-cups, snow penitents: a drowned man, waked/ in this weathering ground". I don't really get that ending.

The third poem "By Clachan Bridge" is nearly a Flash Fiction fable. A hair-lipped girl dissects animals by a bridge "to see how they worked". Then "the blacksmith's son,/ the simpleton,/ came down here once/ and fathomed her." Her belly grew for at least a year. She said she had a stone-baby inside (the notes explain what that is). The poem ends with "Last thing I heard, the starlings/ had started/ to mimic her crying,/ and she'd found how to fly".

Already, only 3 poems in, I'm tempted to generalize - the poetry's easy-paced, prepared to have more than one attempt to say something. The concrete detail is ornamented by simile. The endings are the only obscure part.

Vidyan Ravinthiran writes about a kind of poetic voice used by some US poets that is "determined to let us see, as poems usually don’t, the prosy groundwork which leads up to the moment of lyrical transcendence. Unlike traditional lyricism, which takes the earnest intensity of every word as a given and asks of the reader a complicity with its procedures which occasionally appears unearned, this style approaches uplift, recognition and beauty gradually, through a responsible distilling of prose sense". As Ravinthiran suggests, perhaps this is Robertson's method, adding "There aren’t that many poets recently published by the big mainstream presses who take risks like this with the poetic line – risks which some, of course, are going to find fatuous and uninteresting".

Part of me thinks this style is unambitious, albeit pleasant. I can imagine non-mainstream poets disliking his work; he doesn't challenge language. Another part of me feels suspicious and manipulated. If you want to make a text seem deeper than it is without appearing pretentious and elitist, you can try adding line-breaks, eliminating commentary/argument, and adding equivocal/obscure endings. The white-space is over-worked, as is "the poetry effect". Some pieces are almost found poems - "Law of the Island" and "Kalighat" might have been paragraphs from Orwell essays of understated outrage. "An ambush" reports without commenting, but at least it's an interesting report. What, however, is one to make of "Wonderland", "The Tweed", "Going to ground", "A gift" or "Leaving"? I'd rather the poet took risks with the content rather than line-breaks. Take, for example, the start of "Ode to a large tuna in the market" - "Here, amongst the market vegetables, this torpedo from the ocean depths, a missile that swam, now lying in front of me dead". Is "ocean" needed? Does "a missile that swam" render the previous clause superfluous? And does it take 10 line-breaks to say this? It's "after Neruda" so perhaps we can blame the original. I like "At Roane Head", but it works for me despite the line-breaks.

There are several "after ..." poems (Ovid, Neruda, Montale) which add less variety than one might expect, and some "for ..." poems (John Burnside, Thomas Transtromer, etc). "Fall from Grace" is a loose villanelle. "Middle Watch, Hammersmith" is short - it could easily end a story or be a jotting in a scrap-book. Several other poems have that feels too - no less likeable for that.

He can observe and describe, stringing similes/analogies together. He knows what to leave out (and not just for aesthetic reasons), though if something's worth saying, it's worth repeating with variation. He's uneconomical with line-breaks. I suspect that though mean line-lengths vary from poem to poem, mean sentence lengths are fairly uniform. Tone and diction vary little. He doesn't speak in voices. He's rather attracted to describing situations where an individual is affected (not overawed) by Nature, or when someone feels that something's not quite right but can't put their finger on it. He can do Fable à la Duhig's "The Lammas Hireling". Several of his poems end where where I'd be starting to get into my prose stride.

Other reviews

  • Adam Newey (Guardian) (the speaker of these poems often teeters on the edge of self-undoing, looking forward and back and uncertain whether he is the watcher or the watched. ... There's a strong sense here that ­displacement and deracination are our inevitable lot, but there's also hope to be found in distance, in the free exercise of the self-critical mind ... The Wrecking Light is a work of extraordinary visionary power, its music bleak and beautiful, spare and unsparing)
  • Lorraine Martinuik (Open Letter Monthly) (The construction of the second strophe creates that focus. The lines lengthen progressively, from the three-syllable declaration "They stood, then" to the pivotal "to read that flex of silver." This, the longest line in the strophe, reveals what the reader needs to know to complete the picture. From there the lines shorten progressively, to the concluding "and plummet-dive," as the narrator reinforces the reader’s realization ... The movement of line-lengths and stresses creates a narrative arc that rises and falls with the phrasing. ... Sense of place underpins many of the poems)
  • Vidyan Ravinthiran (Poetry Matters)
  • Isobel James (Edinburgh Book Review) (An unwillingness to depart or escape is one of Robertson’s fixations. Lyrical yet abrupt, measured yet indulgent, the poet’s voice fills his own poetic absences.)
  • Fiona Moore (I’ve reviewed it in order to try to understand why I don’t like it, despite my admiration for Robertson’s skill ... The intense tone of The Wrecking Light doesn’t vary much. Nor does the form: Robertson writes mostly iambic lines, of varying length, with great skill. He seems to have achieved line-break perfection.)
  • Helen Vendler (New York Review of Books)
  • Kate Dempsey
  • Erin Feldman (Rattle)
  • Julia

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