Just Living by William Robertson
Reviewed by Sharon Berg
From first glance, William Robertson is not afraid of taking risks, whether they are emotional or lyrical. Each poem in Just Living records a moment in the journey toward a man’s transformation. As snapshots instead of portraits, the overall effect is to involve the reader in assembling the series which, together, paint a picture. In its entirety the book exposes the raw angst of a man who strays from his marriage. Yet in gathering the story, poem by poem, one discovers wonderful twists of language that turn clichéd phrases into fresh insights about how this particular fellow processed both his fall from grace and his rise to greater personal insight. In fact, Robertson turns the tale of common betrayal into an exposé of the intrigue and mystique employed by an ordinary man as he justifies his turn away from his prior commitments. However, this is also how the book fails. It is a question of who the audience is posited to be. Whatever his intentions, what results – though interesting in its own right – is a portrait of a man who tries to explain himself to himself.
In this fourth collection of his poetry, Robertson manages to turn the title “just living” into an ironic phrase; for the sojourn relayed between these covers is that of a man who questions and challenges everyday assumptions about what it means to be conscious within one’s life. The subtitles for three sections also suggest premeditation when, as the book opens upon his dilemma, we discover a man in the midst of sabotaging his marriage (“Sabotage”), or weathering the storm that ensues from his betrayal (“Stormy Weather”) or, finally, his struggle to establish his new abode (“My Home with You”).
Robertson usually carries the reader along on his journey, like a flea on a dog’s back, as witness to every twist and turn. In effect, we encounter revelations as he did in “Patience”.
my father beside me
trying his best to explain
how to love a woman, perhaps
let another go,
the seventy-year-old minister
even angry, before his son
at the end of all he knows.
Yet, on the few occasions when he attempts to portray the thoughts or feelings of his lover from her point of view the experience feels unsuccessfully voyeuristic. Articulating the dynamics of his own growing awareness is fluid, while articulating the relationship built between himself and his lover is both difficult and clumsy, as in telling “Why We Fought”.
We fought because you said you liked
Diana. That she was more
than just a newspaper star. I didn’t say
anything. Later I said something stupid.
Or perhaps unkind. Then
In this instance, there is no clear personal insight to offer either a sense of conclusion to the poem or a resolution of the issue that arose between the lovers. As a result, though it is an interesting read, on the whole this book reveals a man’s inward journey rather than the road toward improved relations.
In fact, despite delivering a strong sense of self-discovery, the reader soon realises this is a man who remains overwhelmed by the flotsam that follows him downstream after he leaves the safety of his marriage. It is as if he witnesses but fails to see the impact of his own actions upon those who are closest to him. Yet, in a poem that reveals his daughter’s misery, it appears he is unable to comprehend her angst apart from his own. In “Message” he reports his reaction to news of the girl:
Just sit at the table and ponder
the latest words with my wife
how she retrieved our daughter’s
belongings from the Y
full of bloody rags and notes
about slashing, the girl run to Vancouver…
But the setting for his pondering is the bare basement apartment he acquired after leaving the marriage, and this tragic news is juxtaposed with a postcard image taped to his wall above carved initials, both of which are remnants of the previous tenants.
… pueblo church
in New Mexico with two
He lives there as if he is a guest in someone else’s space, as if he is not responsible for his situation. He suggests there are:
… no words
I can send about the room I’m in,
cuttings in the walls, a couple
of crosses on a postcard meaning
someone made a mistake, someone
supposedly died for my sake
The thin white lines on her wrists
are part of a mystery to me…
Instead of working to resolve issues, he allows tragedy to pile upon tragedy in the life of the man that he once was, in the life of the family that he once belonged to. He concludes his comments on Sabotage with a poem that echoes with Charlie Parker’s jazz and says:
There was nothing about the night that I’d call extraordinary. Just
me sabotaging my marriage. I don’t know what it was. I wasn’t all
that unhappy. I just needed something else, and she did too.
The naming of the deed, becomes ironic because no action is taken to remedy the situations that fall away from the deed.
So the saving grace in this portrait of his long fall might be to offer a heartfelt explanation of why a man would leave a stable home. Yet, he answers with “Embrace”:
Because your golden bracelet smoothed up and down your slender
wrist, forearm to hand that I would hold and kiss
Because your green dress measured softly those places I would
take my tongue, my fingers, the long lean inside of my leg
Because your flat brown shoes looked so easy to undo…
He continues with “Your Hands”, touching on the cliché that men leave their marriages not for who the new woman is but rather for how they make the man feel about himself:
Your hands make me beautiful
stroking my belly, the hairs
on my chest, used to be I could
hardly get undressed in light…
Indeed, he is still perturbed that other people impinge upon his newfound sense of rightness with their anger or disappointment. Even his son’s sense of humour in “Funny Guy” is deemed inconsiderate:
My son wants to be a funny guy
has been making up jokes for years …
After a father-son fishing trip punctuated by hot sun, mis-casts, tangled lures and other disappointments they:
Get home and he hides my drink
hides my knife when I go to clean
his fish, looking me in the face each time
Is this funny, Dad? Are you
At this point, Robertson seems mired in self pity steeped in anger, concluding:
… I left your mother and you’re
a real kidder now, making a joke
of everything I do.
As a woman, and as a mother, I have to ask the author to step out of himself to acknowledge relationships are not a one-sided response to how the other makes you feel.
In “So Healthy”, he struggles to resist the sexualized objectification of his new woman at a point when she is violently ill:
your stomach’s a riot and I am offering
slices of orange melon, a bright
yellow banana, the pop in your mouth
of sweet grapes and the raspberry
tips of your breasts sway before me
as you lean at me begging
with an outstretched cup
for a bit more tea…
He manages to redeem himself, resisting taking her, because:
… all that makes the decent man
in me pours your tea…
yet he continues:
… promising myself,
with your healthy compliance,
the eager taste of those
tart red fruits the moment your
bees start bussing again.
On the whole, this book is succinct in its portrait of the journey that this man takes in leaving his marriage. Robertson articulates his tale with a powerful twist of imagery and language that makes for many memorable moments, worthy of a treasured photo album. But the resolution of his journey is less obvious and for that reason the book struggles to rise above its omissions of insight when dealing with the life and people he has left behind. As a portrait, it appears the protagonist is still struggling to understand himself apart from rather than within his relationships. It is something like the story of a sailor who is drawn to the water rather than the shores on either side of the channel he travels across. One is still left wondering, if not for love of the journey, what place does he identify as home? What people have truly captured his heart beyond his imagination? The answer is not here.
Sharon Berg has authored several poetry books, audio collections, and academic works.