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.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Hill of Doors" by Robin Robertson (Picador, 2013)

There are several "after Ovid poems. Not my type of thing. And several other other poems hit my blindspots: "Flags and salutes" is very minor. Ditto "A & E", "The dead sound", "Port na h-Abhainne". "Tillydrone Motte" reads like an easy-going autobiographical, nostalgic article. He also looks back at life/childhood in "A childhood", "Fugitive in London" (telegraphed punchline) and "The key" (an ending I've seen before).

"Under Beinn Ruadhainn" reminds me of "The Lammas Hireling", but more prosey. "The Dream House" is all plot, some predictable. It should have been flash fiction. The last line is good. In "A Quick Death" we're given a figurative description of a lobster with a compression that belongs in a poetry book ("a clacking samurai in lacquered plates"), then we're told that the lobster's in a restaurant fish-tank, a worthwhile twist. But the punch-line's a let-down - "it's the same for us in the end -/ a short journey: eyes first/ into the fire".

There are recognisably poetic fragments, but too little momentum, too much that's competently routine -

  • "cats crying that dreadful way they have,/ like the sound of babies singing/ lullabies to other babies" (p.7)
  • In "The Fishermen's Farewell" "Their long stares mark them apart ... And down by the quay/ past empty pots, unmended nets and boats:// this tiny bar, where men sleep upright/ in their own element, as seals."
  • "Frontera, she said,/ pointing in all directions./ There was nothing there." (p.29)

Other reviews

  • Adam Newey (a book that concentrates on the conjunctions between the brutish, the human and the divine. ... The world of Robertson's poems tends to be one governed by unfathomable and harsh impulses and imperatives, whether they're dealing with mythic characters or those from our own reality. ... Thematically, Hill of Doors is of a piece with Robertson's superb 2010 collection The Wrecking Light, which was shortlisted for the big three prizes (Forward, Costa and TS Eliot). There are similar dreamscapes, abandoned houses, echoes of an extinguished human presence reclaimed by nature, and a similarly flinty beauty to the imagery. It's perhaps a little more uneven than the earlier book, with a couple of poems striking what seems to me an uncertain note)
  • Kate Kellaway ("The Dream House' is one of the most pleasing poems. It is almost perfect, except that the frisson of the last line does not quite come off: it tells us too much and not enough.)
  • Omar Sabbagh (Robertson’s work in this collection is both formally taut, with a wonderful sense of line and line-break, as well as filled with what for want of a better word one might dub great yarns. ... The last poem, ‘The Key’ is indeed reminiscent in its curt conceit of Kafka’s ‘Parable of the Law’ in The Trial, or of the similar mythos in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, both being dystopian versions of, say, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The ‘door’ in a place ‘I’d never been’ is opened at the last by ‘the key / I’d carried with me / all these years.’ Perhaps the hill is climbed ‘after’ all, with the poet’s last cadence: love out of death, rather than love as (a form of) living death.)
  • Andy Brown (a truly admirable addition to his oeuvre. Robertson writes beautiful lyric poems, sometimes with the suggestion of traditional form behind them but, more often than not, in a pulsing, stanzaic verse. ... Robertson's lines come with such lyric assuredness, it's like listening to a great composer of chamber music: dark and light, soft and crescending, angry, happy and sad: the full range. ... Another superb book of poems from the master of lyric and emotional chiaroscuro )
  • Lucy Burns (How is there space enough in the collection for a poem like “The Key” )

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