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Book review / Wet and windy: outlook great

A PAINTED FIELD by Robin Robertson Picador pounds 12

Wet and windy: outlook great


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.