Reviewed by Laura Cameron
The poems in Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light are strewn with corpses and haunted by ghosts. Blood flows and freezes as a chorus of speakers balances on the transitional moment where movement becomes stasis and vice versa. Humans live according to the rhythms of the natural world; this includes history and heritage. Robertson is concerned with the fluidity of communication, the telling of stories – stories through generations, across cultures, among individuals. His collection includes adaptations from Ovid and translations of Neruda, Baudelaire, Montale, and Tomas Tranströmer. The speakers are ghosts, fathers, husbands, and women. They cross-dress, commit suicide, have sex, and observe ritual sacrifices. They are in India, Greece, Italy, and Scotland. “Darkness slides over itself, drawing down / each of its blinds, then, hours later / – even more slowly – / opening them, and the world returns / as a slur of ash and rumour” (80): this is the striking universe of The Wrecking Light.
The strongest poems in the collection deal with death in exquisite and stomach-turning ways. “By Clachan Bridge” recalls the echoes of a suicide attempt – a woman’s “wrists / bangled with scars” (7) – while “White” gruesomely sexualizes it – “I never expected it to shoot so hard / it blinded me: […] I just felt […] / astonished at how much red there was / and my wrist so white” (63). Life and death mingle in “Going to Ground,” where the speaker douses the body of a dead mouse with her “daughter’s cheap perfume” just as a friend “dying of AIDS, / his toes and fingers starting to rot and go brown / […] spray[s] the bed / and his nails / with eau de cologne” (17). In “Kalighat” a goat is sacrificed: the head separated from the body, its “legs go on trembling, / pedalling at the dirt – slowly trying to drag / the body back to its loss” (34). Robertson’s images are unrestrained, and they seek to shock. Yet, he is always sensitive, never gratuitous.
“The bitter sea’s complaining pull / and roll” (87) is constant accompaniment throughout The Wrecking Light; its rhythm, in sync with “the blood-thud in the veins” (15), comes both to define and to complicate human life and death. The laws of nature are far greater and more powerful than the laws of humans, and attempting to manipulate nature has violent consequences. In “Law of the Island,” a man is tied to a raft and sent out to sea with two live mackerel bound over his mouth and eyes. His captors, meanwhile, stand “smoking cigarettes / and watching the sky, / waiting for a gannet / to read that flex of silver / […] and plummet-dive” (33). Birds are revered in this book, and here the bird as torture-tool is the ultimate perversion of justice. Redemption comes for humans when they give themselves over – in solitude – to nature. The speaker in “Beginning to Green” finds hope in “a landscape opening / under broken sun” where “unmissed, [he] can see [him]self again / in this great unfurling – the song, / the fledged leaf, the wing” (75). He establishes a state of harmony with the natural world where the changing of the seasons can be a point of self-renewal.
Admittedly, to point out one single mode of redemption in a book with so much variety is an oversimplification. Robertson sacrifices seamless unity and thematic evolution for polyvocality and impersonality. By offering so many voices – from translations, such as Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” to particular personae, such as Hugh MacDiarmid’s fictional massage therapist in “The Tweed” – Robertson steadfastly sabotages any autobiographical reading and challenges us to dissociate the speakers from the author. Furthermore, the speaker is often both the observer and the observed. The result is decentralization, and with it, a greater sense that the emotional struggles depicted here are universal. This makes the poems more uncomfortable to read, but at the same time, far more compelling.
Some pieces, however, are more compelling than others. The best poems tend to be the short ones that focus on a precise image or emotion and announce its implications with resounding force (“An Ambush” and “The Hammam” are good examples). A few of the longer poems neither sustain that intensity nor build within themselves to any kind of startling or revelatory moment. The result is lukewarm (“Leaving St Kilda” and “The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala,” for example). Similarly, while most of Robertson’s images flow with lyrical ease, some of them seem expository and overwrought rather than organic. That said, these small missteps are only noticeable because the poetry is otherwise outstanding. The Wrecking Light is a haunting collection with the troubling achievement of making death dazzle.
About the Author
At press time: Laura Cameron is a PhD student at McGill University, where she studies Canadian modernist poetry. She did her BA (Honours) in English and French at Glendon College (York University), and her MA at McGill, where she wrote a Research Paper on the fiction of Canadian writer Lisa Moore.