Robertson's poems are based on a long tradition of Scottish poetry, especially of Scottish poetry written in English. His lines have authenticity:
This is the heart's thorn: the red rinse of memory;
this is the call of the coronach — keening, keening
over the water, haunted water,
the pitched grey, gull-swept sea.
(from 'Fugue for Phantoms')
He is describing here the landscape of North-East Scotland familiar to readers of the work of George Bruce, G S Fraser, Alastair Mackie, Burns Singer and Alexander Scott, for example, but doing it in his own style, his own distinctive voice. This particular landscape is seen and heard time and again throughout the volume:
the grey sea turns in its sleep
disturbing seagulls from the green rock.
We watched the long collapse, the black drop
and frothing of the toppled wave, looked out
on the dark that goes all the way to Norway...
The grey sea turns in its sleep
disturbing seagulls from the green rock.
That refrain is the key-note, the hallmark of the book, and although it may owe something rhythmically to W S Graham's The Night-Fishing (and possibly to Alexander Scott's elegy on Aberdeen, The Heart of Stone, although that latter poem, admittedly, is written in Doric Scots), the debt is more than paid for by a transmuting originality:
Foam in the sand-lap of the north-sea water
fizzles out – leaves the beach mouthing –
the flecks of that last kiss
kissed away by the next wave, rushing;
each shearing over its own sea-valve
as it turns with a shock of sound.
And how I long now for the pibroch,
pibroch long and slow, lamenting all this:
Robertson's poetry at its best is a poetry of precise punctuation then, of close-controlled, worked craftsmanship, and of observed life: there is little content here which is artificial, or contrived. What one remembers on closing the book is a gift for phrasing ('this lobster vanity', 'the sky's film turned fast-forward', 'the frost ringing', 'wind sings wire-songs', 'this night's slipway', 'seed-pods detonating'), of metaphoric preciseness ('the slow valves of the radio / warming like coals', 'the earphones' plastic stirrup', 'a tissue moon', 'a bone moon') reflecting a desire to get the facts right, to make his descriptions spare and correct as his line:
The poplars are emptied at dusk
like blown matches. A gust frees
and scatters the leaves in their last blaze:
the bronze husks catch and cartwheel
round and down the street to the park
in the smoke of a dark autumn,
from the thin, extinguished trees.
The title of the volume suggests the painter's blank canvas, soon to be covered, filled in somehow by life's beauties and horrors:
The rain slows, and stops; light deepens
at the lid of the lake, the water creased
by the head of an otter, body of a bird.
Sparks go up like spindrift,
crackling into the cold night flue.
After the arc of ECT
and the blunt percussion of pills,
they gave him lithium to cling to —
the psychiatrist's stone.
A scuffle in the skirting-board
as something frees itself from something else.
(from Part I of 'Moving House': 'Middle Watch, Battersea')
Robertson's work lies both in the contemporary world and in the ancient Celtic tradition of nature poetry, domesticating extra-human forces:
The storm shakes out its sheets
against the darkening window:
the glass flinches under thrown hail...
He cannot tell her
how the geese scull back at twilight,
how the lighthouse walks its beam
across the trenches of the sea.
For some reason these lines to me recall those of Scotland's first nature poet, Gavin Douglas, 'The wild geis claking eik by nyghtis tyde... Fleand on randon, schapyn like ane Y', writing in sixteenth-century Scotland as Robertson today (or R S Thomas in Wales, or Seamus Heaney in Ireland) on the margin of things, the 'littoral' where the waste of empires washes up:
As if colour TV
had come to Scotland, all afternoon
we watched a testcard
of acid primaries
on wavelengths of green
and lemony blue.
It was a chill parlour, despite the fire,
but leaving was like opening
the door of a fridge: cold
dumping on your sandalled feet,
your bare legs.
(from 'Visiting My Grandfather')
This 'picture' indicates something of Scotland's poverty, its extremes, lived out on the edge of plenty, as well as its as yet unattained hopes for political autonomy:
the dark, echoing shell of independence.
The sooty Parthenon (unfinished) gapes down
on the black-sailed vessel anchored in the sound.
(from 'Four Views from the Camera Obscura')
There is also a hint at times, as in the work of his contemporary, John Burnside, of Celtic mysticism and its long tradition, of symbols. 'After long exposure ghosts returned to their bodies', and the human body seen as a sort of damp squib, 'the softening box on its bed of ash'. This, however, is only an oblique influence. He is much more concerned with the demands of empiricism usually, and specifically, at times, with the ardours of translation. I first encountered a translation by Robertson in The Dante/Pound Special Issue of Agenda Magazine, where I was much impressed with his version of Dante's 'The Wood of the Suicides' (Inferno, Canto xiii). That quality of translation is also to be found in this volume, with versions from Ovid and Rilke.
The centre-piece of A Painted Field is the long poem (thirty pages or so) called 'Camera Obscura', based on the life and works of the Scottish photographer, David Octavius Hill. (The poem reminds me in a way of Alan Wall's 'Lenses', although that particular poem has a fictitious character as its central protago- nist). This work demonstrates all of the qualities previously mentioned in the shorter poems and lyrics, but extends them into the harder 'field' of narrative, where plot, character and poetry have to be harmonised and made clear. Robertson succeeds by collating poetry and prose, history and imagination, so that Hill's story, as he says, is 'in a way the story of Scotland'. Edinburgh, Hill's home town, provides the dramatic backcloth, situated on 'the airish Firth', 'this acropolis of light', 'Paris up-ended on an old volcano':
A herringbone of pends and wynds,
tenements in a guddle...
the stone cliffs of the city scarped...
its cold described as an undeveloped photographer's 'plate':
the glass fledged
with frost: a strung web
and a thin fish-bone
ferning every edge.
The private tragedy of Hill's domestic life is enacted against this backdrop, humanly and movingly portrayed without any hint of sentimentality:
She put her hand on me,
the but of her hand on mine,
and in my withering hands she died...
and at the same time accords the experience proverbial weight: `the trace of happiness is grief.' Photography and Poetry are seen in this poem as a focussing of kindred arts with kindred obsessions:
In the walled garden
form is imposed on this fugitive green,
this rinsing light: to enclose is to make sacred,
to frame life's chaos for a slow repair,
to make an art of healing, of release,
an amnesty against despair.
'This fugitive green' has a touch of Marvell's 'The Garden' about it, the principle that art can redeem reality; though Robertson does not always see that as successful:
What I thought was a figure
standing in a doorway
was just a doorway;
the movement in the window
just a loss of light...
However, on most of the tragic occasions in the poem the disappointments, discouragements and disillusionments of life are in fact positively seen as transmuted by art.
Robertson's attempt to re-work G. M. Hopkin's 'The Windhover', 'Affair of Kites', is a sorry failure, and I do not like his too-clever reliance on Wallace Stevens in 'Three Ways of Looking at God'. Likewise, there is at times an over-reliance on the achievements of recent Irish poetry, a dependence his own voice does not always require. He sometimes also misses the opportunity to utilise the beauty of hame-grown Scottish words in his verse, as in his over-wordy 'Holding a sheet of the Times/ up against' the fire to light it; where as every Scots reader will tell him, 'bleezer' is the word he needed. However, these are small points in an otherwise impressive book. This is poetry distilled from 'the purling flux of blood', of 'filtered subtlety', of 'Faulted silence, dislocation' written in structures tight as 'a drumhead', conveying 'the seen pulse of a hidden drum' — Scotland's poverty and richness. As in Robert Lowell's Day by Day, his ambition for his verse is 'to make the moment hold'. I think he does this successfully in lines of 'crisp dressed stone', 'hard lines clean', shining like the 'mica schist' in Aberdeen granite itself:
A brim of light... across the sea
to lift the bevel in the wave, the water's lens,
and everything moves again:
the pleated land renewed in its bloom
of gold, the broom and yellow gorse...
and the high stones that remain.