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
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower