Book review / Wet and windy: outlook great

A PAINTED FIELD by Robin Robertson Picador pounds 12

BOOKS

Wet and windy: outlook great

BY DAVID HERD

A PAINTED FIELD by Robin Robertson Picador pounds 12

THE impulse driving Robin Robertson's poetry is simple:

Come and see this, I called,

this red bird at the feeder,

this striate sky, these things I've done"

("First Winter")

Insistent in a childlike way, the poet wants to show us this and this and this: all the things that have fallen within his field of vision. His urge is to make us look-see. It is an appropriate urge for a poet, and leads Robertson to some of the most careful representations one will find in contemporary poetry. Primary impulses, however, must sometimes be repressed, and the strength of A Painted Field is its acute awareness that the urge to look-see can all too easily become a desire to grasp hold.

The result of this awareness is a highly-charged investigation into the meaning of the poetic gaze, and a poetic debut notable for its assurance.

Born and brought up on the north-east coast of Scotland, Robertson is fascinated by the weather. His poems are invariably wet and windy affairs, with the poet always taking the time to detail the precise degree of wetness and windiness involved. Out on a boat he observes: "The sifting rain, italic rain, the smirr / that drifted down for days; the sleet. / Your hair full of hail, as if sewn there. ("Aberdeen"). It is the italicised drift and the Scottish "smirr" which achieve the required precision.

One finds a similar desire for precision in Robertson's poetry of memory. "Visiting my Grandfather", for instance, recalls: "the slow valves of his radio / warming like coals / into English voices".

Subtly phrased, these lines do several things at once: the warming coals recall Shelley's metaphor for the workings of the imagination, an allusion which combines with the BBC accents to indicate the influence of "English voices" on Scottish culture. Most of all, however, what these lines about his grandfather's radio show is Robertson's desperate desire not to allow memories to fade, not to lose them. It is a desire which finds its fullest expression in several poems about death, poems which manage to show how: "Death is first absence, then a presence / of the dead amongst the living: / the kick of grief like a turning fin, that whelms / but cannot break the surface. ("A Show of Signs")

The poems about death are among the finest things in this book, and elegy, one suspects, is central to Robertson's poetic thinking. Elegy is a natural development of the poetic urge to look-see, grasping, as it does, after people and memories that have slipped or are slipping from view. Elsewhere, however, as A Painted Field shows, the grasp that follows the look is entirely inappropriate. We see it in a series of erotic poems which culminate in "Navigating North", a poem which describes how: "Three hours ago he'd been / fucking the chambermaid: making her show the white of her teeth." And in "Advent in Co Fermanagh", in which, as "the soldiers" are "each cradling a weapon like a newborn child", the impulse to hold has become colonial.

It is in "Camera Obscura", however, the long poem which concludes the book, that Robertson traces the transition from looking to violating most carefully. "Built on the personal and artistic life" of the innovative 19th-century Scottish photographer David Octavius Hill, the poem starts with Hill's belief that the camera "renders Nature in all its truthfulness", and ends with the "snapping" of sight-seers and consequent twisting of Scottish culture into the parody demanded by tourism. Gathering its power from its willingness to question its own primary impulses, "Camera Obscura" derives a political from an aesthetic position. It thus marks the arrival not of a new voice, but rather of that much more valuable thing, a new stylist.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests