It was near the end of a two-week vacation in London last September. We had met a British friend for lunch nearby, and afterward we were walking down Charing Cross toward Trafalgar Square. Blackwell’s was right there, and who am I to pass up an opportunity to step into a bookstore?
I wandered around the shop until I found the section for poets and poems. It wasn’t what I’ve come to expect in many U.S. book shops—it was large, and it was diverse, with volumes ranging from anthologies and collections by well-known poets to new poetry by people I’d never heard of.
I can’t explain why Robertson’s The Wrecking Light caught my eye. But it did. I randomly opened it to this poem:
In the time it took to hold my breath
and slip under the bathwater
—to hear the blood-thud in the veins,
for me to rise to the surface –
my parents had died,
the house had been sold and now
was being demolished around me,
wall by wall, with a ball and chain.
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 arms and legs
and this heart going
like there’s no tomorrow.
I bought the book on the strength of that one poem, and then discovered the pleasure of the rest of what the volume contains. To read Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light is to walk in the poetry of identity, place, geography, mythology, geography—and the list doesn’t stop there.
Published in 2010, it’s a remarkable collection. It includes “At Roane Head, ” which won the Forward Prize for best poem of 2009 (Robertson has also won Forward Prizes for best collection and best first collection—the only poet to have won prizes in all three categories). It includes “Leaving St. Kilda, ” a beautiful poem of the topography seen sailing away from the island in the Outer Hebrides. It includes two poems of Greek mythology that make their stories seem almost contemporary. There’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” that is a stated nod to Pablo Neruda, and a poem about Strindberg in Berlin. The command Robertson exerts over this range and diversity of subjects and themes is dazzling.
So who is Robin Robertson?
You can read his entry at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s a brief thumbnail: born and raised in Scotland, influenced by Celtic and Classical myth, author of several poetry collections, editor at several London publishing houses, translator of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and a translator of Medea by Euripides. And he’s one fine poet.
The Wrecking Light is a rich collection, one to savor and even marvel over.
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson
“This book is elemental.”