TS Eliot ’11: Unfinished Business: Robin Robertson – The Wrecking Light

Back in the mists of time I had a shufti at the TS Eliot nominees, all bar one. I return to an old theme to finally check out Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light, which I distinctly remember getting rave reviews at the time (red flags, bulls, etc). I also read it myself back in my SPL receptionist days (holla) and recall it being decent if slightly overlong. The book’s title brings to mind the Prometheus myth, the gloomy apples of the cover art the edenic fall.

Welp. Robertson’s book is a borderline-comic cocktail of adolescent posturing and Lowell’s more nihilistic, self-indulgent streaks without that poet’s authority over his mythic ingredients. RR places at the centre of the collection his versions of “Pentheus and Dionysus” and “The Daughters of Minyas”, both from Metamorphoses, “The Wood of Lost Things”, a re-working of the Wood of Suicides section of the Inferno, and a wide-spread preoccupation with violent ritual. The versions of Ovid are courteous re-wordings of the originals (P&D, TDoM), faithfully tracing their patterns with the formal meter removed and occasional variation in vocabulary. This makes it rather an interesting case-study – RR’s retreading is more an act of editing/selection than of translation. Let’s investigate. In “P&D” the unpious king Pentheus is murdered by his raving mother and sister under the spell of Dionysus after ignoring the tale of a sailor who was spared by the god. In “TDoM”, the daughters who chose to ignore the bacchanal in favour of some (presumably) necessary weaving, are turned into bats, RR relishing the punitive moment with a line of his own making, ‘No human can hear them now / where they hang’. This disparity between content and execution is characteristic of the book, and these are by no means the only times his poems are openly ambivalent towards women.

Digressio uno – as you’ve no doubt read in those reviews up there, no small weight has been placed on Robertson’s “speakers”: the cast of ‘I’s driving each poem. The opening piece, a Frost/Muldoon tribute number called “Album”, makes a lot of noise about this ineffable ‘I’: ‘I am almost never there, in these / old photographs […] That / smear of light / the sign of me, leaving.’ The second stanza is a reversal of the first, in which the ‘I’ now appears everywhere, but the conceit is stretched out to make both stanzas equal length. Which makes no bloody sense because the whole thing’s in free verse anyway.

Digression uno e mezzo: writers who specialise in free verse are often far more obsessive about the counting of lines/syllables and the typographic (rather than rhythmic) lengths of lines than their metrical cousins. You make a pattern for the effect it makes when you break it later: this is what lends poetry its unique possibilities of expression. Discuss.

Anyway, it slumps to an end with the line ‘A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go’, which is brought to you today by the letter ‘g’. It goes: ‘guh’. Besides his tin ear, this is all blatant horseshit. The ‘I’ in this poem is ludicrously affected: what’s the point in making your mysterious mystery so damned obvious? The speaker of this poem is indistinguishable from the speaker of the next, and so on for the rest of the book. What it does point to is the poet’s unerring interest in representations of himself. More later.

RR’s women are ghosts or reflections. When they appear, they do so without agency or depth, and are mostly referred to in coldly sexual terms. Let’s read “Wonderland” in full:

She said her name was Alice,
that she’d studied with the geisha
in Japan, and was trained and able
in the thousand ways of pleasuring a man.
We’d share some shots of whisky
– her favourite brand, Black Label –
then she’d knock them back, and drink me
under the table.

First, many thanks for explaining that geisha are from Japan. The only reason I can see for including that tidbit is to give the word ‘man’ (the only unrhymed end-word, if we allow ‘Alice’ and ‘geisha’ off the hook: it feels like he happened upon the rhyming mid-way through and didn’t bother fixing the start), already the end-word of an end-stopped line, even more resonance. The blowjob pun created by breaking the line after ‘drink me’ is juvenile fantasy posturing as poetry deployed by wit that would feel at home in Roger Moore’s Bond movies. DEEP SHIT, HUH. Flick forward a few pages to “The Gift”, where a flower-decked ‘she’ enjoys a delightful male gaze that stops three times in nine lines to check out her neck. The end of the poem has her ‘holding out / a philtre of water-lovage, / red chamomile and ladies’ seal / in a cup, for me to drink’. Any botanists out there? I have extensively googled and found no evidence of there existing a flower named ‘ladies’ seal’, as the poem’s list of actual flowers would lead me to believe. Considering the poems that inform and echo this one, there’s a decent chance he’s talking about a hymen. Think about that. Also, ‘in a cup, for me to drink’. If she’s holding out a philtre (love potion, obvs) in a cup what else is going to happen? ‘She held out a cup to me / which I placed upon my head, and squawked like a chicken.’

I don’t think I’m getting all up on my squeamish liberal metrosexual high-horse here (a very specific horse). I genuinely believe that objectifying any human being is a shitty thing to do, and it’s no surprise when later in the book the body count starts mounting and death is fetishised. Anyone who enjoys the tradition of horror flicks (as I do) can be in no doubt that in careless hands the lines between sexual desire and ritualised/codified violence are blurry. That RR wraps it all up in a heavily-worn intellectualism (Ovid! Montale! Neruda! Transtromer!) is insidious nonsense that shouldn’t be indulged. (Aside: an idea’s quality is not in the aesthetic appeal of its imagination, or the shapeliness of its logic; it has to find a way to meld its dream with the inconveniently mundane conditions of human experience.) Zach Snyder’s 300 is (hopefully) the ultimate in everyone-who-isn’t-me-get-fucked nihilism, and it is his philosophy that The Wrecking Light most disappointingly invokes. The poem “The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala” is an almost verbatim retelling of the scene in 300 in which Leonidas and his abs discover the residents of an entire town nailed to a (remarkably sturdy) tree. When RR ends his poem “My name is Adam of Bremen / and I saw these things / in the year of our Lord 1075” it is an infuriating cop-out. Considering the implicit approval of Bacchus’s murderous followers (we’re given no doubt that the Daughters of Minyas got what was coming to them), the fact that Adam of Bremen also leaves his judgement implicit drops us in some ropey morality – is murder okay provided it’s in the name of god?

This tone runs throughout, a detached, irresponsible indifference. Even in his thoroughly unsettling Crow Hughes had the wherewithal to make his avatar sufficiently various and, yes, funny to lighten (and highlight) the void. In the last poem of the second section (TWL is split in three sections, because poetry), “White”, RR gives a ten-line account of a suicide attempt, complete with aestheticised bleeding ‘like emptying / a bottle: blacking out a little more with every pulse […] astonished at how much red there was / and my wrist so white.’ [A quiet descended then, and at once I found myself dumbstruck, as if silenced by a great stupidity.]

Seriously? What the hell is this? We now go live to a poem already in progress, “Beginning to Green”:

I find a kind of hope here, in this
homelessness, in this place
where no one knows me –
where I’ll be gone, like some
over-wintering bird,
before they even notice.

RR, your mother is calling, she wants you to turn off that depressing music and come down for dinner. In 2008/9 I helped edit Read This Magazine, which was some of the best booky fun I’ve ever had, and we were inundated with mopey, self-regarding crap like this. Neither of these poems would have made the cut.

If there’s a light anywhere in this wreck, it’s probably in the translations of Montale, which drag RR out of his pit and into something more grown-up. “Arsenio” is as close as the book comes to compassion (look at the unbelievable “Going to Ground” in which a dead mouse is juxtaposed with a dying AIDS victim. What are we supposed to do with that?) The now-ubiquitous translation of Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” (poets! Please leave the bloody albatross alone. It’s got enough trouble with the sailors without you all having a go) brings nothing new to the table except the extra layer of vanity it imports from the rest of the book. And it’s a good thing this blog wasn’t about when the Forward Prize committee awarded the well-poised, imaginative but ultimately numb and numbing “At Roane Head” the Best Single Poem prize presumably because RR’d already won the other two Forward Prizes and it seemed a shame not to.

That is my impression of the book in a nutshell: much imaginative work in an unhelpful direction. Imaginative breadth alone is not enough, that should be a truism. Look at this review from the Guardian, though. When we look at a book of poetry as it would have us look at it, we’re letting it off the hook and possibly colluding with some absolutely poisonous ideas. I’ve left out several of my specific gripes for brevity’s sake (the ghoulish delight in the objectified corpse in “Kalighat”; thee weird habit of conflating discrete individuals in “Strindberg in Berlin”; the monument to bad decisions that is the 4 ½-page “Leaving St Kilda”; the numerous nebulous short poems), and maybe it’s a tribute to the grandiose construction at play in TWL that it’s provoked me so much, but I think it’s probably to do with the warmth of the critical response against its ignored weaknesses. TWL may hide behind its ‘speakers’ but no poet is ever that far removed from his characters – s/he is still the one responsible for their initial animation, that act of editing, if you like. Michael Donaghy, the arch-masker, gradually conjured himself out of a constellation of the personae he chose, the qualities and ideas that could only be adequately expressed in a multitude. The Wrecking Light is home to a single, charmless voice for whom it’s difficult and unrewarding to feel much sympathy.

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2 thoughts on “TS Eliot ’11: Unfinished Business: Robin Robertson – The Wrecking Light

  1. James March 30, 2011 / 7:56 am

    Thank you for your honesty. I hope that such honesty will be rewarded, though my experience would suggest otherwise. Please keep writing. James Wood

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