Swithering, by Robin Robertson

A meticulous collection of poems that examine painful themes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

To "swither" is a Scottish word which means "to be doubtful, to waver, to be in two minds; and to appear in shifting forms". In Robin Robertson's third collection of poetry, such shifts are focused through the mythic and the everyday, and often carve a space between the living and the dead. A poem in memory of the poet Michael Donaghy, for example, figures him as a selkie, a shape-changer in Celtic legend who is a seal in water and a human on land.

Two long poems are concerned with retelling the myth of Actaeon. His story highlights the importance of metamorphosis in the revelation of complex truths, and points to the role of error and chance in our downfall. The hunter who accidentally comes upon Artemis naked as she bathes, Actaeon is turned into a stag, and devoured by his own hounds.

While Renaissance views saw the hounds as a metaphor for Actaeon's devouring desires, for Robertson he also works, at least on one level, as a contemporary symbol of masculinity.

In the very painful sequence "Actaeon: The Early Years", Actaeon sits as a child, screamed at by his mother: "the glue-bottle had a raw mouth / slit in its red rubber; he stabbed the world with it, / wanting to glue the world to bits". Here the young boy "learnt that desire for intimacy/ was a transgression", and when he leaves home, he leaves "no stain of himself on the paintwork's/ magnolia, the carpet's analgesic-blue".

This sense of the devoured or disintegrated body finds echoes in "Swimming in the Woods", in which a speaker watches a woman swimming; when she moves away only the "dark butterfly" her wet torso has left remains behind.

Robertson's emotional terrain is difficulty and guilt; often he writes as if his poems have arisen from a pact with the devil. The poems are clear-lined, sometimes hard-edged, and meticulously worked. Many pose questions about relations between male and female, but the gender politics are hard to fully to pin down.

Stylistically, too, Robertson is hard to place. Poems can recall Neruda or the Scottish poet John Burnside in their lyricism, but there is no comfort in that lyricism. Perhaps what is most to be admired about Swithering is the multifaceted coherence of its explorations. These are conjured in the imagist simplicity of a poem such as "Myth", which ends "On the wet lawn, / after the snow, / the snowman's spine".