for John Burnside
You’d know her house by the drawn blinds –
by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall,
the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry.
You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it
from the sea and from the brief light of the sun,
and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door
where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap.
A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow
squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea’s complaining pull
and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood.
She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough,
and each one wrong. All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.
Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling
down to the shore, chittering like rats,
and said they were fine swimmers,
but I would have guessed at that.
Her husband left her: said
they couldn’t be his, they were more
fish than human;
he said they were beglamoured,
and searched their skin for the showing marks.
For years she tended each difficult flame:
their tight, flickering bodies.
Each night she closed
the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire.
Until he came again,
that last time,
thick with drink, saying
he’d had enough of this,
all this witchery,
and made them stand
in a row by their beds,
twitching. Their hands
rolled in their heads.
He went along the line
one after another
with a small knife.
They say she goes out every night to lay
blankets on the graves to keep them warm.
It would put the heart across you, all that grief.
There was an otter worrying in the leaves, a heron
loping slow over the water when I came
at scraich of day, back to her door.
She’d hung four stones in a necklace, wore
four rings on the hand that led me past the room
with four small candles burning
which she called ‘the room of rain’.
Milky smoke poured up from the grate
like a waterfall in reverse
and she said my name,
and it was the only thing
and the last thing that she said.
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
– by Robin Robertson (from The Wrecking Light)
I'm sure fewer than one out of a hundred poetry books published in London ever gets republished in New York. This one recently achieved that feat, despite several particular disadvantages. Number one, it is not wry and life-affirming (like Seamus Heaney, that marvel of marketing) but is instead quite gloomy. (There is, in fact, a specific strand of gloomy folklore behind At Roane Head, as recounted here.) And then there is the even worse fact that Robin Robertson's poems tend to have Scots dialect words and Celtic-rooted geographical names sprinkled around in profusion (which readers in the New World do not tolerate anywhere near as readily as readers in the Old World do). To overcome these barriers with honest work that does not flatter or seduce, this is like a magic trick. But the truth is that any piece of art that does its work has to be like a magic trick – an ideal, one-time-only magic trick – unexpected and thrilling.