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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.