Swithering by Robin Robertson

House of Anansi Press, 2006

Reviewed by John Findura

“Swither” is a Scots word meaning to be in two minds, to hesitate or be doubtful. It also means to fluctuate. A more appropriate title may not exist for Robin Robertson’s third collection of poetry, though it is not Robertson who is hesitating or fluctuating. The 82 pages of poetry are so finely crafted that you will undoubtedly wonder why you are not more familiar with his work. His lines are so warm they give the impression of a good single-malt Scotch, and like a good single-malt Scotch, sipping slowly is heartily rewarded.

Besides the meaning of the word “swithering,” the second most important Scots word to know is “selkie.” In Scottish mythology (as well as in some parts of Ireland and Iceland) a selkie is a creature that can transform itself from a seal to a human. The poem titled “Selkie” is dedicated to the memory of poet Michael Donaghy, who was an integral part of the British poetry community from the late 1980s until his untimely death in 2004. In Scottish myths, stories of selkies are usually romantic tragedies, where they can only make contact with one human before they must return to the sea. Perhaps there is not a more stirring testament to a friend than the final few lines of “Selkie”:

(…) he stood
and drained the last
from his glass, slipped back in
to the seal-skin,
into a new day, saluting us
with that famous grin:
‘That’s me away.’

Robertson’s skill is precise. There is nothing wasted – at the end of each poem we are left with a sun-bleached bone, picked by Robertson’s careful voice.

The idea of transformation occurs almost as much as the image of the selkie itself throughout Swithering. In “Lizard” there is the “Volatile hybrid of dinosaur and toy,” in “Myth” we find “on the wet lawn, / after the snow, / the snowman’s spine.” Transformation is seen as a natural and needed thing, something that our own emotions oftentimes try to deny. Hesitation is a roadblock to transformation, yet it is that very sense of doubt that often precludes conversion:

I reach the elm-wood,
under the rookery,
slip a bullet into the breech and wait here
in this dark,
between the harvest and the hunter’s moon.
(“Between the Harvest and the Hunter’s Moon”)

When John Banville described Robertson’s writing as “at once muscular and delicate” he hit the mark perfectly. There is a sensuousness that pervades even the bleakest of landscapes, and through it all Robertson does not blink in the slightest.
“Swimming In The Woods” ends with “when she came and sat next to me / after her swim and walked away / back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.” Over the course of Swithering, Robertson often ends with an image as indelible as that butterfly. “Cusp” closes with “Is there anything / more heartbreaking than hope?” Robertson’s voice and tone are things of beauty as he delivers lines throughout the book such as “The softened mouth / of this swollen ground” and “He opens his eyes to a hard frost, / the morning’s soft amnesia of snow.” Each image is careful and rewarding.

Continuing with a theme he began with in his first book, A Painted Field, several poems based on Ovid add a classical feel. “The Death of Actaeon” and “Actaeon: the Early Years” show off not only Robertson’s poetical skill, but also his depth of knowledge and ability to translate familiar images into poems that feel fresh. While both poems are good reads, ultimately “Actaeon: the Early Years” comes off as more successful, if only because Robertson’s voice is much more present and distinctive. It is the shorter poems interspersed throughout that give us the clearest views of Robertson’s ability.

Robertson is also very well aware of the connection between sensuality and food, and in the fact that sensuality is as natural as anything growing in a garden or patch of wild forest. As a companion to his poem “Artichoke” in his first collection, “Asparagus” makes no secret of its multiple reads. Its first stanza:

Pushing up, hard and fibrous
from the ground, it is said to be
grown for the mouth:
steamed till supple
so the stem is still firm
but with a slight give to gravity.

The phallic image is obvious, but in other hands it would come off as easy and unimaginative. Instead, the sureness of Robertson’s voice instills belief, right up to the last lines where “butter / floods at the bulb-head.” It is not poetical sleight-of-hand or forced tongue-in-cheek double entendre; it is a meditation on the relationship between man and nature.

If John Clare’s gift was in describing the natural beauty of England, then Robertson’s gift is describing the unnatural beauty of Scotland. From personal experience, Scotland is a place where fog and mist roll in and cover the sun on more days than you can count, creating an environment where you are never really sure what is ahead of you or around the next bend. It was no accident that that Brigadoon was set in the Scottish highlands. In essence, it is a setting where one would not be surprised at the existence of selkies or other creatures living in the deep Lochs. Along with Don Paterson, Robertson is one of the major Scottish poets of the last decade, and it would do anyone well to pay attention to his poetry.

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Robin Robertson is from the northeast coast of Scotland and now lives in London. A Painted Field (Harcourt) won the 1997 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award. A second collection, Slow Air, appeared in 2002. His poetry appears regularly in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. In 2004 he received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Most recently, the poems in Swithering were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.

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John Findura holds an MFA in Poetry from The New School. His poetry and criticism can be found or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Verse, Fugue, GlitterPony, and The Fortean Times, among others. He teaches in Northern New Jersey and lives with his wife, their puppy, and a charm of finches.


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