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Tuesday February 21, 2017
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Robin Robertson

 

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British poets over the last few years (and one of the handful with a significant reputation in this country), has always been interested in metamorphosis. He calls his new book Swithering.

The form changing in Robertson's poetry consciously resurrects ancient myths of transformation. For instance, he does a memorable retelling of "The Death of Actaeon," the famous story from Ovid where, for his sins, a hunter is turned into a stag, chased through the forest, and devoured by his own dogs. But he also stays closer to home, using the Celtic myth of the selkies — "shape changers with the ability to live in two elements; they swim as seals in the water but can cast off their pelts on land and assume human form," he tells us in his notes — to elegize a friend dead too young.

Robertson uses these myths to control the emotion beneath his carefully constructed poems, which can feel spare and direct even when filled with verbal magic. The poems carry a hint of formal precision and, as the title suggests, use some British diction that sounds fresh and intriguing to American ears. In his day job Robertson edits cutting-edge fiction (a famous Canadian novelist once told me he thought Robertson was "the best editor in the English-speaking world"). It should come as no surprise that this poet is comfortable telling stories in his poems, and that there is often a narrative lurking beneath even the shortest lyric.

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