August 10, 2011

Review by Erin Feldman

THE WRECKING LIGHT
by Robin Robertson

Mariner Books
215 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10003
ISBN 978-0-547-48333-7
2011, 112 pp., $13.95
www.hmhbooks.com

Robin Robertson’s fourth collection of poetry, The Wrecking Light, is an elegy; it is a work both permeated with and punctuated by loss. The speaker in the opening poem, “Album,” states:

…When you finally see me,
you’ll see me everywhere: floating
over crocuses, sandcastles,
fallen leaves, on those
melting snowmen, their faces
drawn in coal – among all
the wedding guests,
the dinner guests, the birthday-
party guests – this smoke
in the emulsion, the flaw.
A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.

The theme of loss is indicated even earlier; the book’s introductory quote says, “I dropped it, I dropped it, / and on my way I dropped it.” The “it” is not defined, which allows for the loss of many things – identity, people, life itself – throughout the work.

The Wrecking Light is divided into three, named sections: Silvered Water, Broken Water, and Unspoken Water. Silvered Water, which refers to a Scottish rite of blessing or a preparation for a wish, is the most personal of the sections. In it, the speaker loses his wife, his lover, and his daughters. He says in “About Time”:

I swim one length underwater,
pulling myself up on the other side, gasping,
to find my marriage over,
my daughters grown and settled down,
the skin loosening
from my legs and arms
and this heart going
like there’s no tomorrow.

The speaker also mentions a lover, but her presence is as transient as that of the wife and daughters. It also is unsatisfactory and associated with death. The speaker recognizes this fact in “Tulips”: “Look / at what’s beached here on the night-stand: / a flipped photograph and a silk scarf, a set / of keys. These tulips, loosening in a vase.” The lover takes on renewed and deadlier force in “A Gift”; in the poem, she acts as a femme fatale who proffers the speaker with a variety of flowers, all of which are poisonous. The loss of wife, lover, and children culminate in the final, two poems of the section, “Tinsel” and “Leaving St Kilda.” In “Tinsel,” the speaker can hear “the thin noise that losing makes – perdition.” “Leaving St Kilda” has a two-fold purpose: it reveals that the speaker is being forced to leave his “island” and the things that occupy it, and it acts as a transition into the second section, which delves into the world of myth. The poem accomplishes this transition primarily through the creation of an Odyssean atmosphere:

At last we turn away, and see them
leading us: bow-riding dolphins,
our grey familiars,
and thirty gannets in a line
drawing straight from Boreray:
a gannet guard for this far passage,
for the leaving of St Kilda.

The second section, Broken Water, opens with the poem, “Law of the Island.” The poem finishes the transition from the personal history recorded in the first section to the accounts of myths and religions in the second. The poem itself reads as one of the islands Odysseus might have visited:

They lashed him to old timbers
that would barely float,
with weights at the feet so
only his face was out of the water.
Over his mouth and eyes
they tied two live mackerel
with twine, and pushed him
out from the rocks.

They stood, then,
smoking cigarettes
and watching the sky,
waiting for a gannet
to read that flex of silver
from a hundred feet up,
close its wings
and plummet-dive.

The mythic quality of the section is sustained through the appearance of other myths, including translations of Ovid’s “Pentheus and Dionysus” and “The Daughters of Minyas.” Other religious practices are addressed; Christianity is mentioned in the poem “Religion,” and Hinduism is addressed in “Kalighat.” Even Norse paganism receives attention in the poem “The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala.” The various traditions are united through themes of loss, death, and passion. Loss occurs at a much more physically violent degree than it did in the preceding section. A goat is sacrificed at Kalighat, his “legs…trembling, / pedalling at the dirt – slowly trying to drag / the body back to its loss.” In Uppsala, sacrifices are tied to the tree in front of the temple:

At the top [of the tree], what look like cockerels, rams
and goats, then dogs and pigs, and hooked
to the lowest, strongest boughs – their legs
almost touching the earth – horses and bulls.
I count nine of each of them, and nine
that aren’t animals but hang there just the same,
black-faced, bletted, barely
recognisable as men.

Passion, like the lover in Silvered Water, is affiliated with death, although, ironically, it sometimes is the refusal to embrace passion that results in death. Pentheus dies a gruesome death because he refuses to honor Dionysus or to indulge in Dionysian rites. The daughters of Minyas don’t die, but their refusal to indulge their passions – and they are passionate based upon the stories they tell each other – results in punishment: they are transformed into vesper bats that can only speak in high-pitched squeaks. It would almost seem that the poems encourage the indulgence of passion, but that is not the case. “Pentheus and Dionysus” is an apt example; Pentheus’ mother and aunts are so consumed by their desire for Dionysus that they lose their ability to recognize or remember Pentheus. As a result, they tear him to pieces “with their own bare hands.” If that story does not illustrate the dangers of passion, the poem “Lesson” does:

The green leaf opens
and the leaf falls,

each breath is a flame
that gives in to fire;

and grief is the price
we pay for love,

and the death of love
the fee of all desire.

Perhaps it is the recognition of that truth that results in poems like “Grave Goods” and “Web.” In each of those poems, the speaker or main character is trapped. In “Grave Goods,” the “he” desires to “outlive the grim husbandry / of battle order” and “to reach a place / of peace and honour, fresh running water, / a morning of porcelain and lavender / combed by light, folded and smoothed over.” What the man discovers is none of those things:

He came instead to a closed silence.
…A seated woman with a baby
in her lap, dusted in red ochre, next to a man
wearing a crown of antlers. Between the two,
and dead like them, a young child laid down
into the wing of a swan.

The speaker in “Web” also is incapable of escape. He says, “I am ravelled here / to the live field, in a rig of stress,” and is left to watch as “the spider unknots itself / slowly, and elbows out of the dark” toward him. That immobility and impossibility of escape culminate in the final poem of the section, “White.” Like “Leaving St Kilda,” it serves two purposes. It closes the section with its apparent suicide attempt – “I just felt light and very cold at the end, / astonished at how much red there was / and my wrist so white” – and it bridges the second and third sections of the work.

The third section, Unspoken Water, refers to another Scottish rite in which running water is taken from under a bridge over which the living walk and the dead are carried. The first poem of the section, “The Wood of Lost Things,” finishes the transition from the second section to the third section through its melding of the personal and the mythic. The poem refers to the speaker’s wife, daughters, and lovers as well as mementos from childhood:

…The rows of lovers.
Mother and sister. Wife. And my daughters,
walking away into the blue distance,
turning their heads to look back.

Hung on a silver birch, my school cap
and satchel; next to them, the docken suit,
and next to that, pinned to a branch,
my lost comforter –
a piece of blanket worn to the size of my hand.
My hand as a boy. The forgotten smell of it,
the smell of myself.

It maintains ties with myth and folklore through lines that are reminiscent of the Hansel and Gretel story: “We went walks here, as children, listening out / for gypsies, timber wolves, the great / hinges in the trees.” The merging of myth and personal history continues throughout the third section; in “At Roane Head,” the speaker is given a sealskin by his lover and is revealed to have fathered sons that are “more / fish than human.” The poem “Widow’s Walk” blends the fairytale of Peter Pan with the speaker’s desire to escape:

Trying to escape myself,
but there’s always
someone
wanting to sew my shadow back.

Life and death, like myth and personal history, intermingle in the final section. It begins with the first poem, “The Wood of Lost Things,” when the speaker and the corpse state that the wood is their home:

I see the dead unbury themselves
and take their places by the seated corpse
whose face I seem to know.
He was shivering. It’s cold, I said.
He looked up at me and nodded. It’s cold.
What is this place? What brings you here?
This is my home
, we replied.

It is mentioned in “Widow’s Walk”:

I felt like going in,
there and then,
like a widow
toppling forward at the grave;
going in after myself.

The final poem of the section and of The Wrecking Light, “Hammersmith Winter,” perhaps is the most ambiguous in its integration and contemplation of life and death. The speaker states:

It is so cold tonight; too cold for snow,
and yet it snows. Through the drawn curtain
shines the snowlight I remember as a boy,
sitting up at the window watching fall.
But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed. None of you are. Look at the snow,
I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold,
would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

In this poem, it is not apparent whether the speaker is alive or dead. His lines reveal a kinship with the corpse in “The Wood of Lost Things” who shivers and complains of cold. Although he shares that bond with the corpse, he seems to both desire and decry it. He first says, “Hold me,” which suggests he wants to join the dead, then undercuts that statement with the final words, “Let me go.” It seems, then, that the speaker is trapped in an in-between world where he is neither alive nor dead, simply “a drowned man, waked / in this weathering ground” (“Signs on a White Field”).

The ambiguity and ambivalence contained within the final section seems appropriate, considering the themes at play within and the elegiac quality of the work. What does one do with the grief that accompanies love? What happens when that love disappears because of the “hot accelerant of drink… / [t]he rot of desire” (“Strindberg in Berlin”)? What is the appropriate response when the wife and daughters are gone? What does one do when a person recognizes his or her culpability in the events that have transpired? The speaker contemplates those questions, but he does not provide answers to them. He is as trapped as the gentleman he addresses in “Arsenio” is:

[Y]ou are a reed that drags its roots behind you;
they cling so tight you’ll never be free;
trembling with life, you can only stretch out
to a ringing emptiness of swallowed grief;
the crest of that old wave rolls you,
overwhelms you again,
everything that can reclaim you
does – street and porch and walls and mirrors – all
lock you in with the frozen myriad dead;
and if you feel the brush of some gesture,
the breath of a word,
that, Arsenio,
might be the sign – in this dissolving hour –
of a strangled life that rose for you; the wind
carrying it off with the ashes of the stars.

____________

Erin Feldman received her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Texas State University-San Marcos. She works as a freelance writer and social media manager. She can be contacted at: factotumllc@ymail.com.