House of Anansi Press - June 15, 2006 - 7 Comments
Swithering by Robin Robertson
Reviewed by Ian LeTourneau
I first came across Robin Robertson’s poetry in Anansi’s New British Poetry anthology a few years back. Hungry for new and distant voices, I snapped up a copy the instant it was unpackaged from the box at the bookstore where I worked. I commend Anansi for introducing so many new voices to readers in Canada and for publishing the volume under review here, Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s third book, Swithering.
One of the poems that stood out in the anthology was Robertson’s “Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter.” The precision of the poem’s language left me truly inspired: “A chime of sound / on sound: the way the sung note snibs on meaning / and holds” (172). I love the verb “snibs.” This kind of word typifies Robertson’s aesthetic, again on display in Swithering: precise and musical.
In Scots, the verb of the title means—according to a note on the back of the book—“to be doubtful, to waver, to be of two minds; and to appear in shifting forms.” Many of the poems in Swithering certainly employ themes of flux, change, and epiphany. Even the poems he translates—and he is a fine translator of Ovid, Montale, and Neruda—explore these themes. But no matter what the individual poems are about, the technical skill, matched with note perfect diction, is what sets them apart. Take for instance these lines, from “Between the Harvest and the Hunter’s Moon”:
From here, the sea is scalloped
in marbled endpapers of green and blue and grey;
it’s hard to tell if the long black shapes
are drifting seals, or reefs,
or sailors sleeping in the shallows.
Waves trail in, darkening with height and depth,
almost black before they turn
and crush themselves white:
the rocks milking the waves to a froth of sea-foam
blown two-hundred feet up
onto this cliff-edge
to join the bog cotton.
The precise language conjures a clear image of what is being described, and simultaneously, the rhythm is note-perfect, balancing line-breaks and diction in wonderful combinations. Anyone who has stood on the shore and watched the action of the waves can attest to the perfect rhythm conjured by “darkening with height and depth, / almost black before they turn / and crush themselves white.” “Depth,” “crush,” and “froth” have that wave-crashing sound built-in. Breaking the line at “turn” also gives us the mental picture of the moment the waves fold over before they crash. It is a beautiful image of transformation firmly rooted in the world. Furthermore, these lines suggest the positive aspects of transformation: the waves turn from “almost black”—a menacing colour—to “white.”
But Robertson is not afraid to explore the dark side of transformation as well. The most memorable poem in this book is his translation of Actaeon’s story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I wouldn’t think that anyone would dare try to match Tales from Ovid, the recent translation by Ted Hughes—a poet, in my estimation, who is one of the masters—but Robertson demonstrates that he is up to the task. His version is easily equal to Hughes’. Compare the ways the two poets begin. First Hughes:
Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.
It happened on a mountain where hunters
Had slaughtered so many animals
The slopes were patched red with the butchering places.
(“Actaeon” Complete Poems 937)
Noon: midsummer; Mount Cithaeron.
The baking ground is brown with the blood of beasts, drained
since dawn by Actaeon and his men; their nets
are stiff with it. It cakes their hands, their spear-shafts.
(“The Death of Actaeon” 12)
While Hughes begins his version with a moralizing bent and a heavy allusion to Dante’s Inferno, Robertson opts for the straightforward, in media res start, which is arguably a more forceful opening. I like the way Robertson starts with a curt and direct monosyllable, and then gradually lengthens the rhythm in each successive word of the first line. Each time I think Hughes has written some unbeatably perfect description, Robertson matches him. Robertson is particularly good at the powerful language of transformation: “Actaeon felt his bones stretch and the sinews snap.” And then:
…last of all she poured a white fear into his heart
like a stream of other blood. And it was done.
Sharp hooves bit into the ground,
horns clattering the branches –
plunging out across the grove in springs and bounds
he was amazed by his own lightness.
The actual “white fear” is displayed with the white space between stanzas, between realization and action. The rhythm, again, is perfectly etched. The short declarative sentence tells us what happens next but, more importantly, the burst of these two quick syllables mimics the frightened instant Actaeon, now a deer, takes off. The next two syllables—“sharp hooves”—are stressed, indicating to my ears how Actaeon gets purchase on the ground. Then the rhythm falls into fast moving iambs—“across the grove in springs and bounds”—and we hear the satisfying music of hooves running away. Robertson is a master at creating these rhythms with the perfect words placed just so, intensifying our emotional response to what is being described.
In Swithering, Robertson has done a fine job of transcribing for us the many life-altering metamorphoses our lives take. As he puts it beautifully in “Leavings,” a poem that describes the rescue of his sleepwalking daughter in the snow at night,
The next morning is a dripping thaw, and winter
is gone from the grass – except for a line
of white marks going nowhere:
the stamped ellipses of impacted snow;
everything gone, leaving just this, this ghost-tread,
these wafer-thin footsteps of glass.
This beautiful image—and countless others through the book—really captures the potential magic of moments of epiphany and transformation. I for one am looking forward to Arc magazine’s year-long Canada-Scotland exchange now just under way where, on a month-to-month basis, a Scottish poet is introduced to Canadian readers and vice versa. Robertson will no doubt be represented. Certainly based on this collection, there should be no swithering about it.