By Robin Robertson
Mariner Books, 2010
As the opening poem “Album” suggests, Robin Robertson’s latest collection The Wrecking Light is album-like. Strong visual images throughout the book present and elaborate the story-lines. The story-lines, though, are the focus. The collection is an album of voices, as if recording a pantheon of storytellers who draw on Scottish/Celtic folklore, render tales from Ovid, translate poetry from other languages, and reflect on singular moments in personal worlds. Contemporized Greek myths provide a counterpoint to Robertson’s own myth-like fictions as he probes correspondences between story, place, culture and psyche. These poems pry into our primal qualities, finding ambivalence and isolation, casual and arbitrary violence, vengeance and cruelty. They raise questions that remain unanswered, and that possibly are unanswerable, about the darknesses of human nature.
Vengeance seems to be at the core of “Law of the Island,” in which a wrong-doer (we assume) is the victim of a retributive justice. In a place where gannets live, the victim is set adrift lashed to “old timbers / that would barely float,” with two live mackerel tied over his mouth and eyes. Gannets, famously, dive with great force to spear their prey; the ‘float’ would leave the victim submerged except for his head, so the tied fish would be on the water’s surface. The wrong-doer is about to be killed, or at least blinded, torturously; the law-enforcers are manipulating the natural, instinctive behavior of the bird to exact their justice.
They stood, then,
and watching the sky,
waiting for a gannet
to read that flex of silver
from a hundred feet up,
close its wings
Here, as in many of these poems, the narrator speaks matter-of-factly, presenting the story from a slight distance, enacting a kind of interpretive reporting. The narrative draws readers in to a suspended moment, and readers participate in creating the story by imagining beyond the ending of the poem. The narrator doesn’t describe a gannet spearing the floating victim’s eyes; instead he places the reader on the shore as a third party to the drama, watching the enforcers, who watch the sky and wait for the deed to be done. By the end of the poem, readers are focused on the inevitable response of a sea-bird to the sight of a fish, not on the question of what transgression is being punished, or any moral/ethical dilemma involving the vengeance-seekers.
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 stresses in the lines follow the same progression, building from one strong beat to three in the ‘silver’ line and the line following, and diminishing to one strong beat in the final line. The movement of line-lengths and stresses creates a narrative arc that rises and falls with the phrasing.
This rhythm, and Robertson’s direct, active diction – predominantly single-syllable words and an ordinary vocabulary – creates an authoritative voice. It’s the voice of a storyteller saying this is the way things are. The law of the island is nature’s law abstracted and adapted to serve some moral code, and the poem is built on the knowledge people have of the places they live.
Sense of place underpins many of the poems, often emerging in some detail of surroundings or a small occurrence, meticulously noticed, creating a lyrical, almost Imagist resonance. “Landfall” is one of those poems, using the image of a broken wooden crate:
of Fraserburgh, Aberdeen,
Peterhead, the wood that broke
on your beach, crates that once held herring,
freshly dead, now hold distance, nothing but the names
of the places I came from, years ago;
and you pull me from the waves,
drawing me out like a skelf,
as I would say:
The fishbox as an object is a historical artifact of the commercial herring fishery in the North Sea (they likely use plastic fishboxes today, as do herring fishers elsewhere). As an image anchored in the psyche, the broken wooden box as flotsam is freighted with a sense of removal from a place and time. The poem places us in a moment suspended between a specifically-located past and a present in which the speaker makes landfall metaphorically – is washed up on shore like the pieces of the broken box. This is not a new or radical act of metaphor, but it indicates the place-based poetics underlying these poems. The fishbox and the place-names position the speaker and the reader in a geography – the northeast coast of Scotland, where Robertson grew up. He reinforces the specificity of place with the Scottish/Celtic work “skelf,” a word that originates from the Moray Firth region, again in the northeast of Scotland.
Moments such as these, whether in small lyrical poems or embedded in longer narratives, weave a fabric of connections through the book, ties like kinship ties, of what is in the blood. The collection presents place as a complex of culture, geography and history that becomes both mythic and tangible, a mystery and an actor in the dramas of people’s lives. Scotland’s St. Kilda archipelago is one of these.
“Leaving St. Kilda” is a long lament, voiced on a voyage of departure, knowing there will be no return. Its melody is an accretion of the tones sounded in place names. The many Clefts, Points, and Stacks set up coincident repetitions and build an incantatory rhythm. It is unpretentious, natural, and the variable line lengths – as in most of the poems here – reinforce the sense that poetry and beauty are all around us, to be noticed and extracted from every day, if we are lucky. And by incanting the place names, Robertson enchants the place with its own history. He suspends time as we fall under the spell of a place in which the living creatures seem as if they might shape the land as much as the land they were born to shapes them – he describes the fulmars “shearing, / planing the rock, as if their endless / turning of it might shape the stone.”
The force of the birds is real; it’s a physical sense of power and mystery, seen through the eye of the beholder. The lament is real; it recites how place is bound to the heart, as birds are bound to those cliff-faced islands. Fulmars live there year round in colonies, much as the tight band of people did, bound by historical connection to the original discovery of a place to live a life.
Stories are embedded in the place-names – Landing Place of the Strangers, Brae of Weepings, The Well of Many Virtues, The Place of Splashing, The Cave of Ruin, and dozens more, many rooted in Gaelic, Celtic, Norse from the visitations of other sea-faring peoples. Through the slow massing of the names, Robertson shepherds us into a closed-world mythos resonant with hardship and joy, grief and the caprices of gods, ghosts and nature, forces beyond our understanding.
The St. Kilda archipelago is the farthest west of the Scottish islands, some 40 miles beyond the Outer Hebrides. In 1930 the last 36 human inhabitants were evacuated, the end of a human settlement that began in the Bronze Age.
The narrator in “Leaving St. Kilda” could be Robertson, say, returning from a birding expedition to the now UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the voice is most likely a St. Kildan, the poet’s imagined lament of that depleted tribe, taking leave of the place where their people had lived self-sufficiently for over two thousand years. The place had become too isolated to survive the temptations and problems brought by an outside culture that became increasingly present after World War I. The tension between place-based self-sufficiency and the challenges of intrusions from elsewhere, resulted in collapse. It was an enchantment of sorts (time would have passed differently there than in, say, London), the spell was broken, and people wrenched themselves away from place in a voluntary exile.
Ultimate freedom is found in such a place because the rules are not those of humans, and the world shapes itself by unfathomable forces. Responding and adapting, surviving as a community over a period of thousands of years results in a collective wisdom that embeds place-linked beliefs and traditions in daily life, a shared sphere of security in the face of the unfathomable. And we see in “Leaving St. Kilda” that, as is human nature, the St. Kildans continued to struggle to fathom or at least contain the mysteries:
…[on the] Stack of the Warrior,
highest sea-stack in these islands of Britain, where the last
great auk was killed as a witch
a hundred and seventy years ago…
Robertson’s St. Kilda becomes mythic in the true sense of myth – a story through which a culture explains to itself the ways of the world as they find it. Through the rhythms of the diction and the cycle of place-names he shows us how story can be bound to place.
The enchanted St. Kilda archipelago and the events of Law of the Island could easily be found in Classical Greek literature and myths, and Robertson makes that connection with his renderings of two stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – “Pentheus and Dionysus,” and “The Daughters of Minyas.”
Robertson creates dramatic action in “Pentheus and Dionysus.” Pentheus “hated the gods” and refused to honor Dionysus. The outcome is that enraptured followers of Dionysus dismember Pentheus in a blood-soaked scene. Dionysus manipulate his followers to carry out his vengeance, much as the vigilante group in “Law of the Island” manipulates the gannets. The Pentheus story, though, hinges on magic and transformation, rather than the natural instincts of a wild creature – in the Pentheus story, Dionysus enchants the vision of his followers so that instead of seeing Pentheus they see a wild boar.
Robertson’s telling is faithful to the plot of Ovid’s tale, but he approaches the narrative from a different point of view. Ovid tells us what the gods think or say, and what they did Robertson’s narrator focuses on the acts of the human characters. We have the interpretation of Acoetes, who tells part of the tale, about the role of Dionysus, but outside of that one character’s assurance, we don’t know the motivations. Is the god making them behave this way, or are they acting independently? The ‘easy out’ is gone. In Robertson’s version, Pentheus’ mother, after ripping his head from his body, can’t excuse herself by saying it was all Dionysus’ doing, because Robertson withholds direct statement of cause and effect. Readers are left contemplating philosophical questions of human behavior – violence, cruelty, and individual responsibility. It’s a narrative strategy that gives the tales a contemporary feel, living as we do in these times without the security of either uncomplicated or global definitions of rights and wrongs. Robertson refrains from moralizing, but here and in other of these poems, readers see violence incited, casually and often arbitrarily in what today we might discuss as atrocities.
Robertson also uses modern language and speech patterns to contemporize the Ovid tales. He develops the characters through their speeches and conversations so that we recognize them as archetypes. Pentheus blusters like a modern-day bigoted power-broker:
If the walls of Thebes were to fall
– which they will not – it would be
at the hands of soldiers and their engines of war,
not by the flowers, the embroidered robes
and scented hair of this weaponless pretty-boy.
Minyas’ daughters opinions of Dionysus portray them as petty, narrow-minded and repressed:
They’re all drunk. I wouldn’t believe a word.
If that pretty boy’s a son of Zeus, then I can fly.
Believe me, it will pass.
You won’t catch me in some procession
up a mountain with a bunch of stupid girls
because a priest says we should celebrate a god.
Him and his so-called mysteries.
In each story, the title characters each meet a horrible end as punishment for flouting the demands of the god. It could be argued that they get what they deserve, and given their personality flaws (arrogance, small-mindedness), some readers may have sympathy with Dionysus’ vengeful wrath. Leaving aside the question of spiritual affiliations or obedience, though, in both stories it’s the failure of these characters to accept those “so-called mysteries,” knowledge that exists outside the realm of rationality, that is their undoing. It’s another facet of Robertson’s reflections on the known and unknown, especially of human nature.
Robertson seems to be saying that the complexities and dilemmas presented by Ovid are not behind us, but surrounding; “Law of the Island” demonstrates this, as do other poems in the book. Civilization is as tenuous as it ever was; the mysterious forces operate as they always have, regardless of how we choose to name them. He’s exploring a dynamic that shifts between piety, morality and fear in the human psyche, a dark place from which violence and cruelty springs. The two Ovid tales equate metamorphosis with punishment, loss of self, proof that the world is random and arbitrary. The lesson is that we should fear or at least be wary of unseen forces.
However, the renderings of Ovid’s tales seem to me to fall short of engendering a sense of the deep mysteries of the world, something other of these poems do. The Ovid tales are entertainments of a sort, with flawed protagonists and capricious gods; the outcomes are not surprising – they function perfectly as cautionary tales: don’t disrespect Dionysus; listen to Tiresias. This may be partly because of a difference in narrative structure. The Ovid tales play out to the end, until Pentueus’ last appendage has been torn off, and the last daughter has metamorphosed into a bat. There’s closure. In “Law of the Island,” by contrast, the narrative closes before the physical violence begins. The conclusion is predicted rather than told, and the details are left to the reader’s imagination. Robertson leaves an opening for the reader to step into; the Ovid tales do not.
The dark dense tales settled in the Scotland landscape and psyche are the most affective of the stories here. They are deep-linked through language, images and concepts to a landscape “freighted with significance, mystery and power,” as he has described it in these pages.
“At Roane Head” fully embodies that ‘freighting’. Robertson revisits the lore of the selkie (the poem “Selkie” appeared in Swithering). In Celtic folklore, a selkie is a changeling who transforms from seal to human and back by taking off or putting on a sealskin. The lore of selkies comes mostly from the far north of Scotland, or from Ireland, where they are sometimes called roanes. Roane Head is a fictional place that stands in for any number of Scotland’s remote and myth-bound settlements.
The narrative is spare, constructed of the diction and speech patterns we might say are regional, of the imaginary Roane Head. Plot elements are presented as hearsay, the lore of that place:
She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough
and each one wrong. All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.
Her husband left her; said
they couldn’t be his, they were more
fish than human,
said they were beglamoured,
and searched their skin for the showing marks.
Until he came again,
that last time,
thick with drink, saying
he’d had enough of this
all this witchery,
and made them stand
in a row by their beds,
twitching. Their hands
rolled in their heads.
He went along the line
one after another
with a small knife.
It’s said she goes out every night to lay
blankets on the graves to keep them warm.
It would put the heart across you, all that grief.
The storyteller reveals himself in the final strophe:
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
“I put it on” tells us, finally, that the selkie himself, the magical transformed creature, is the storyteller.
The closing quartet leads us fully into the realm of magic. The selkie’s recitation of gifted objects is like a list of fetishes, like tokens for casting a spell, or breaking one, or satisfying requirements in a quest. Robertson embeds the concept of a magical utterance in the construction of the quartet. Alternating strong and weak stresses create strong rhythms, drum-like at times. The near-rhyme of frost and box, the assonant and near-assonant ‘o’ throughout, the incantatory gave me, all help create the feel of a charm.
There is vengeance here, too, as in so many of these poems: “her husband’s head in a wooden box.” Like other characters, the grieving mother has brought her own justice to bear, although we aren’t told the details. And in spite of the severed head, there is no simple closure; the poem implies another tragedy which resonates into the closing quartet but remains untold:
and she said my name
and it was the only thing
and the last thing that she said.
The voices of the woman and her husband have been silenced; the selkie’s voice continues. The woman’s parting gifts to him are the stuff of myth: skylark’s egg, locks of hair, and the head of the one who has wronged them, an offering.
The beheading is part of a multi-layered set of moral paradoxes. Because the woman wrongs the husband with her selkie lover, the children exist, and because they are born of a selkie-human union, they are “each one wrong.” Because of the marital wrongs and the issue of “beglamoured” children, the husband murders the children – also wrong. The woman closes the progression of wrongs by taking the husband’s head. But the poem doesn’t identify wrongs, or discuss morality. As in “Law of the Island,” the poem raises questions simply by recounting events from a singular perspective. Here, as the story closes, we focus on the act of leaving – putting on the sealskin – rather than on moral dilemmas.
At the same time, the poem highlights the tension between connection and alienation explored throughout the collection, in many voices: the forces at work between people, between people and their gods, between people and their places in the world. His narrative structures build tension between what’s told and what’s withheld. His stories draw to a close which is most often not the ending; events continue beyond the end of the poem, and we are left with no sense of conclusion. He leaves the readers to make connections, and through that, reinforces a sense of underlying, unarticulated connectedness, primal mysteries from which we all also may be alienated.
The volume could almost end with “At Roane Head,” with the metamorphosed creature re-integrating into his native element, in a landscape that is the well-spring of Robertson’s mythos. But the poet brings us away from there, to end with a single voice that tells of a different place, an interior landscape of disconnection and longing – “hold me, let me go.”
Lorraine Martinuik writes poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in journals including The Capilano Review, ISLAND and dandelion, and in the anthologies Kitchen Talk and Women and Words/Les femmes et les mots. She holds a BA in English, a BFA in sculpture, and is working toward an MFA. Her creative nonfiction piece “The Crows of Still Creek” appears in the Spring 2011 issue of The Normal School. She lives on Canada’s west coast.