Robin Robertson, Hill of Doors, 96 pp, £9.99 paperback, Picador.

Hill of Doors is packed with fine individual poems, highly varied in form, theme and style, though continually picking up motifs familiar from Robertson’s earlier work.  Contrasts of landscape heighten the sense of imaginative range. Scottish settings full of water and mist are opposed by luminous Mediterranean scenes and by the barren desert of “Wire”, an outstanding haiku sequence set on the Mexican – US border. These settings draw the poems together, both by similarity and contrast. As different strands develop, they’re often associated with different kinds of landscape. There’s a Christian strand, starting with a lovely meditation on Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, and including a beautiful piece about Jessie Seymour Irvine, who wrote the tune of “Crimond”. This merges with a series of poems set in Scotland, some apparently about Robertson’s own early life in Aberdeen, where his father was a Church of Scotland minister. Interwoven with it, there’s a series of superb versions of passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Nonnus’s Dionysiaca, the latter describing events from the life of the Greek god Dionysus. In the world of Dionysus, emotions are unrestrained, whether in the violence and tenderness of love or in savage virginity. The world of the speaker’s youth is one apparently chilled by emotional repression and neglect, unhappiness and yearning for escape into a fuller life. Behind such obvious contrast, there’s a complex and subtle interplay between strands. This may involve an image from one world penetrating the other in an overt and striking way. When boys make a bonfire in the woods round Aberdeen they see something that seems to come from the world of Ovid and Nonnus, and that echoes “The Flaying of Marsyas” from Robertson’s first volume:

In the light from the blaze, there’s a fox
nailed to a fence-post: the tricked god
hanging from his wounds.

Other poems come in at a tangent to those belonging to the more obvious groups, echoing them and each other to weave more elusive threads. The more you read, the more connections emerge, and the more one poem lights up the depths of another. Through much of the book happiness seems hard to find. When it arrives in the last few poems it is the more moving for the austerity of so much of what has gone before and because conflict and pain are not forgotten but subsumed, at least temporarily, into a larger peace:

We were displaced birds, and weathered here
a winter: long wing under heavy wing,
grey wing over brown.
The sun slipped into the sea and sank,
and our clambering hearts fell in
with the draw and plunge
of the wave in the bay, the surf

breaking, drowning itself
deep in the sand.
The moments of shaking
shudder through me still.
Our mouths are stopped; my body
rests against yours now, my hand
sleeps in your hand.

You can hear Robertson reading from Hill of Doors at the T S Eliot Prize Readings 2014 by clicking here.

Thanks to Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to reprint this piece, which I wrote for The North 51.


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