Robert Creely and Robin Robertson reviewed

In the first our book reviews postings Jo Kjaer reviews Robert Creely's last collection and our new book reviews editor Matt Howard reviews Swithering by Robin Robertson.

On Earth by Robert Creeley
University of California Press (2006)
100pp, £12.95
ISBN: 9780330441681

Robert White Creeley, May 21st 1926 Arlington, Massachusetts – March 30th 2005 Odessa, Texas.

Creeley’s last collection On Earth was being written when he died in March 2005, and contains over thirty new poems, many touching on the twin themes of memory and presence. These were written understanding death was imminent, (he had emphysema). The poems have fragility and his particular brand of prosody born out of the Black Mountain school of Projective speech achieves this as if it had been invented for his leaving:

In the sky
stars flash by.
head for heaven.
(from 'The Puzzle')

His sparseness on the page is in direct contrast to his reputation for conversation; he spoke, communicated, and discoursed with a huge audience and shared himself and his poems with an ease and openness rarely found in literary creators. If he talked to explore the meaning of life before achieving economy in his poems it was done without artifice – nowhere is artifice evident in Creeley. 

His last poems recall friendships and intimacy as he gives death a side-ways look – aware but still in charge. Writing about a fellow poet, junkie and overlooked hero of the Beat underground, John Wieners, Creeley minces words finely, without sentiment but with wry humour and rare imagist lyricism:
There is music in pain but not because of it, love in each
persistent breath,
His was the Light of the World, a lit match or the whole
city, burning.
(From 'For John Wieners')

Creeley was always writing about a character called Robert Creeley. Using a limited vocabulary of ordinary words – 'here', 'there', 'the', 'you', 'one', he retells his experience in a variety of closed yet aligned ways. He knows the inevitable shortfall between desire and fulfillment and views these voids as productive elements so that the absence in his form or rhythm becomes an interval of all our experiences, as if you hear him thinking as you read:

If that has to go, it was never here.
If I know still you’re here, then I’m here too
and love you, and love you.
(From 'Old Song')

Creeley was attentive to the mind’s processes which meant, to him, an existential confidence in uncertainty, and it is for this above else I love his works. Uncertainty is a challenging subject to focus on for most of one's 78 years, without producing a voice of negative portent. His work rarely appears in prominent anthologies; this maybe due to a prodigious output but without any one defining poem or the sparse presence created by his minimalist approach.

'The Puzzle', 'When I think', 'After School', 'Sad Walk' and 'Caves' show him calling on his life to show itself one last time as if to check in that library of his mind for anything he still needs to respond to with amazement or regret. And it is almost impossible, even if you've never met Robert Creeley, to read from 'Caves', 'Try lying in the dark/ ask someone to turn off the light./ Then stay there till someone else comes.' without hearing his voice, rough and warm with its signature end stops finally asking us:

Which way to go
up down
forward ?
(From 'The Puzzle')

I wish I had meet him but I’m glad to have found him – his understated lines come over to me as a huge lesson in less is more.

• Jo Kjaer has been awarded the 2007 Cafe Writers Commission to write a pamphlet of poetry on Norfolk

Swithering by Robin Robertson
Picador (2006)
96pp, £8.99
ISBN: 9780330441681

The book’s blurb clarifies the two meanings of the Scots verb swither ‘to be doubtful, to waver, to be in two minds; and to appear in shifting forms.’ This protean impulse energises Robertson’s third collection through meditations on loss, relationships and an easily worn eco-spiritualism.

Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses looms over the collection and is present in two central longer poems. Actaeon is turned into a stag after unintentionally seeing the goddess Artemis bathing, he is then killed by his own hounds. ‘The Death of Actaeon’, one of many ‘afters’ in the collection, is wonderfully treated by Robertson’s assured voice. In the moment of his realisation, Actaeon is drawn ‘torn between shame and fear’; this sense of masculine guilt and loss broods through all of the poems.

Robertson shifts gear with his theme in beautiful poems addressed to his daughters, refreshingly moving the writing from simple explorations of the split of masculine and feminine and away from traditional goddess poetry. In ‘Leavings’ and ‘Donegal’ Robertson explores the inevitability of letting his growing daughters go in moving lyrical lines; in the latter poem he draws himself  on a beach watching one daughter swimming ‘his hands full of clothes, full of / all the years, / and the daughter going / where he knew he could not follow.’

The poems dealing with adult relationships are less even. True, there are examples of the tender lyric that we have come to expect from Robertson such as ‘Net’ and ‘Bow’. However, pieces such as ‘Crossing the Archipelago’ and ‘The Custom-House’ that deal with the end of a relationship seem less successful.

Robertson has previously explored sex and sexuality in his earlier collections, most memorably in ‘Wedding the Locksmith’s Daughter’ from Slow Air. Poems on this theme in Swithering such as ‘The Glair’, ‘Asparagus’ and ‘Rainmaker’ appear out of place, indeed it is hard to see how they made the grade for such a strong collection.

There is less risk taking with form in this collection than in A Painted Field and Slow Air. Aside from the Actaeon poems the majority of the pieces are shorter and in the main Robertson seems to find his voice most comfortable in shorter, sparer lines. Notwithstanding this the collection as a whole presents a good deal of formal variation that rewards sustained readings.

Robertson has always presented an economical and muscular voice, one that is particularly adept at capturing the natural world. This is present in abundance in Swithering in poems such as ‘The Park Drunk’, ‘The Lake at Dusk’ and ‘Entry’. The drunk who wakes to ‘the morning’s soft amnesia of snow’ sees:
…each bud
like a candied fruit, its yellow
picked out and lit
by the low pulse
of blood-orange
riding in the eastern trees.

Writing of such physical exactness, allied to the human – here it is the tramp’s drinking ‘to close the biggest door of all’, is where Robertson’s voice excels; even if the vision is bleak. 

Overall Swithering is a brooding collection that has only the briefest of positive glimmers. Mostly these appear through versions of Neruda and Montale.

Swithering must surely represent further evidence of Robertson’s place in the first-rank of poets writing in Britain today. Overall Swithering is a pointed work with a clear trajectory. There are poems here that will unsettle but engage, some too have every chance to endure along with the weight of their burden which Robertson captures poignantly in these lines from ‘Trumpeter Swan’:

    …you can’t hold on
to the height you find,
you can never be taught how to fall.

• Matt Howard has just completed the Advanced Poetry Diploma at UEA and is about to start an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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