Book reivew / Painting pictures on land and sea

Salt Water by Andrew Motion, Faber, pounds 7.99, A Painted Field by Robin Robertson, Picador, pounds 6.99

Although both authors were born in the early-to-mid 1950s, these two poetry collections spring from widely different positions on the career- graph. Robin Robertson's book is his first, and if it seems a belated debut for a literary professional, perhaps Robertson's own experience as a publisher has taught him the virtue of caution. Not surprisingly, the poems are carefully crafted, but the manner is tense and alert, his technique never slick.

Andrew Motion, on the other hand, seems at his most relaxed in this, his eighth collection. The poet seems enough at ease with himself and the limits of his genre to enjoy the sense of mastery. His earliest influences were the so-called war poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas. And sometimes it has seemed that Motion's own quest has been to shape himself into their late-20th century equivalent - an English war-poet without a war, but with access to plentiful imagery of death and disaster, as well as a richer vein of painful personal memories.

Motion's desire to push poetry beyond the lyric boundaries he inhabited comfortably in his first book, The Pleasure Steamers, led him to the extended narrative sequence, a genre he has virtually made his own. But sometimes the writing itself could become something of a battlefield. The sequence "Joe Soap", for instance, which dominated his last collection, combined elements of the murder-mystery and war-story with excursions into a kind of magic realism.

Motion has worked hard to make prose and poetry pull together, perhaps wishing to synthesise his varied talents - as poet, novelist and biographer. The experiments have never been less than interesting, but there's a lot to recommend in Salt Water's rediscovery of more concentrated narrative and lyric forms. In spite of the odd Larkinesque splash of acid petulance, the overriding impression is of poems able to be "surprised by joy" (sometimes in animal form) and to celebrate imaginative fecundity: "Retriever-dog winds/in a clear track/raced forwards and backward laying a new idea at his feet/again and again." ("Goethe in the Park").

Even with his "negative capability" refreshed, Motion has not abandoned all major construction work. Thematically linked by water, his three sequences are like a sea on which the individual poems bob as confidently as well- made boats. "Fresh Water" and "Salt Water" are composed entirely in verse, which may be why they are more fluent, brisk and compact than usual. "Sailing to Italy" is largely in prose (though the occasional poem sends up a fragile shoot) and, again, there's the pleasant sense of a medium allowed to do what it does best.

Motion sailed as a passenger on the same route that took the dying Keats to Rome. Perhaps there's something faintly stunt-ish about the whole idea: a biographer shouldn't need to live part of his subject's life. Mystical hints that the author is seeking to "meet" Keats are a shade tiresome. But overall, this is travelogue with the vividness of the best kind of letter-writing (such as Keats's own). It immerses us in physical reality, showing us the ropes and oilskins and winches, the gales and engine-failure, as well as psychological effects - particularly the tantalising failure (typical of those whose art is to stay the moment) to inhabit the happiness of the present.

Robin Robertson gives an occasional nod towards Heaney ("Enter the torc of trench and rampart") and to Tom Paulin ("Sunlight glints/like mica schist in granite"). But the writer to whom he seems closest, sharing something of the tough-lyric mode and lively visual imagination, is Norman MacCaig. Even when working in a largish structure - such as his Ovid imitation "The Flaying of Marsyas" - he achieves narrative progress mostly by cutting from image to image. The effect is of a disquietingly obsessive, jackal- like circling of the flayed torso - a cinematic detachment as various metaphors are tried like different camera angles.

Robertson uses a collage technique in his sequence "Camera Obscura", which tells the tragic story of the Edinburgh photographer and failed painter, David Octavius Hill. It inter-cuts imagined diary and letter extracts with snatches of folk-song, haiku-like apercus, love-poems (haunting, if a little unfocused) and sharp-eyed documentary that finds humour as well as dolour in Edinburgh now: "The Japanese tourist places his camera on a post,/backs away, and stands,/smiling vigorously. The small machine flashes; clicks./I hear the shutter's/granular slither/as a spade in wet soil,/while he would hear: sha'shin."

As these lines suggest, Robertson has an ear as good as his eye. There is rich consonantal and alliterative music to be heard throughout A Painted Field. While not uninterested in matters of national identity, as the sequence reveals, Robertson registers his own identity most tellingly through his poems' aural patterning.

His poems are not cries from margins - if we mean regional margins - and only occasionally satirical (see "Sunny Memories"). But the fact that Robertson is not writing in the "deafening silence" which obtained for MacCaig's generation (the phrase was used by Ian Crichton Smith, as recently as 1988) has no doubt helped secure the work's unusual poise, the courage of its personal obsessions.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam