by Keith Taylor
Here's a good old word for all you crossword puzzle fanatics: swither. My Oxford English Dictionary says it's a verb that means "to be or to become uncertain or undecided." In Scots, apparently, the connotations are of volatility, and the verb can mean the ability or curse of changing form. Robin Robertson, who has become one of the leading 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.
Metamorphosis becomes the way Robertson understands the great old theme of mutability how one season changes into another, how people age and
then die, how love flourishes and withers, even how food is transformed from its wild state into delicacy. It becomes an all-encompassing vision of the world, certainly tragic, but touched with an unsentimental poignancy for the precious transformations that pass along the way. It informs even a small poem like "To My Daughters, Asleep":
| Surrounded by trees I cannot name |
that fill with birds I cannot tell apart
I see my children growing away from me;
the hinges of the heart are broken.
Is it too late to start, too late to learn
all the words of love before they wake?
Robin Robertson reads from Swithering and his other collections at Rackham Amphitheater on Thursday, April 13.
[Review published April 2006]