Robin Robertson, Sailing the Forest – review

Sailing the Forest: Selected Poems by Robin Robertson, Picador, £20 (hardback), £14.99 (paperback).

Sailing the Forest brings together poems from five separate collections. It’s a body of work that’s been both highly varied and remarkably coherent from the beginning. Robertson has always been exceptionally good at and interested in evoking place and the atmosphere of places. He’s always been intensely interested in myth and folklore, and he’s always been haunted by the cruelty of men and nature, by loneliness, pain and loss, and by the idea of something missing or broken in the self. The depth of these preoccupations gives the writing its power and inner focus.

Variety comes from the range of his experience and intellectual interests, and from a technical resourcefulness that allows him to write with authority in very different rhythms and styles. Many of his poems use very short lines and show an extraordinary spring-heeled agility in the way they leap over line-endings. They plunge us into situations with a vividness that’s the more striking for the spareness of their detail, often seeming to take huge imaginative strides between lines, as in the beginning of “Dream of the Huntress”:

It is always the same:
she is standing over me

in the forest clearing,
a dab of blood on her cheek

At the other extreme there’s “Leaving St Kilda”, largely taken up with a leisurely survey of the island in long lines and sentences of sometimes positively Proustian complexity. Between the two are poems like the septets of “1964”, each of which focuses on the relatively slow development of a single image or scene with just one major shift of perspective. Alongside this variety of formal organisation, there’s wide variation in terms of genre and of what I might call overt topic as Robertson moves between the stark brutalities of Northern British folk tale and the sophisticated mythography of Ovid and Nonnus, between kirk or family beach and pagan forest, between lyricism and the objectified biographical vignettes of “Actaeon: the Early Years”, between dream and almost documentary glimpses of life in the sixties. Some poems stay pretty well purely within one genre and style. In others, much of the power comes from changes of register or apparent genre, a bursting of the frame that brings sudden shifts of perspective. Both within and between poems, one world or way of looking at the world is constantly breaking in on another. The almost obsessive recurrence of key feelings and ideas in different forms gives coherence and continuity, but the endless re-angling of vision gives richness and depth.

The question remains, is this Selected Poems the best way of approaching the body of Robertson’s work so far? I think it has definite limitations. There are a number of omissions I regret and one or two that seem to me astonishing, like that of “Wire”, a long sequence of triplets set on the Mexican – American border. It’s not just a matter of the loss of individual poems though. Equally importantly, Robertson shows great skill in the overall composition of his collections, orchestrating the grouping or poems and the movement from poem to poem in a way that maximises the transfer of energy from one to another, sometimes by imaginative consolidation, sometimes by counterpoint. The best way of reading him would be to own all his books and to familiarise oneself with each as a whole. However, if you only owned one or two of his individual collections, Sailing the Forest would give a valuable if provisional overview of his development, and probably includes most of his best work.

I would like to thank the editors of Acumen for their permission to reprint this review, which I wrote for Acumen 81.


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