In “The Wood of Lost Things,” the narrator of Robin Robertson’s poem remarks, “I have found the place I wasn’t meant to find.” I have just re-read The Wrecking Light, and I am struck by how this realisation haunts the collection: the exploration of the hinges between the natural world and the human world, memory and clarity, flux and static. Often, these places are permeated with threat and grief. Beginning with a mythical remembrance of childhood walks, listening out “for gypsies, timber wolves,” “The Wood of Lost Things,” transforms into a place of fertility and death, “the shallow creek, churning/ its red and silver secrets:/ failed salmon, bearded with barbs.” Here, sibilance creates an image of rushing water without being overpowering. The sound echoing through “creek” and “secret” maintain the forward momentum of the poem, driving the narrator towards “a life’s worth of women in the forest corridor,” and nostalgia over childhood debris, “my school cap/ and satchel.” Approaching the realisation of mortality and the brevity of existence, he watches at the heart of the wood as “the dead unbury themselves.” The uneasy juxtaposition between the living and the dead which runs throughout the collection is fully recognised in this poem, at the point at which the narrator meets his own death.
This seeking of what has been lost is a central concern of the collection; in “Landfall,” the poet examines fractured fishboxes, mourning that they now only “hold distance, nothing but the names/ of the places I came from, years ago.” Robertson's Scottish origins are a strong influence on his dialect and landscapes. Despite the sharp observation of the natural world, these poems are not only nature poems. Rather they examine the bitter-sweet grief of memory which haunts all human observation. This is evident in the opening poem “Album,” in which the narrator acknowledges his absence in photographs, until he points out that “a ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.”
A sense of loneliness resonates throughout The Wrecking Light. The solitary figure is often reminded of their own transience; “Tinsel,” instructs you to “tune to the frequency of the wood,” until in the silence, “you can hear the sound of your body, breaking down.” Similarly, human frailty is contrasted against the endurance of the natural world in “During Dinner.” Here, superstitions about Hawthorn resonate through nicknames of the plant: “but Ladies’ Meat is another name/ because it smells of sex and it smells of death.”
Robertson’s 2006 collection was entitled Swithering, a Scots word of indecision and change. Similar themes bleed into The Wrecking Light. Death too is presented as transformation. “At Roane Head” reveals the story of a woman and her “beglamoured” sons, born blind and web footed. Her new husband decries their witchery and kills them. The sense of metamorphosis embodied in her sons mirrors the change and flux of the ocean which surrounds them. The ebb and flow of the sea is echoed through the syntax of the poem and the changing men. When the son’s father returns, he recounts how she “gave me/ her husband’s head in a wooden box. Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.” This transformation into the mythical Selkie bridges the division between the human and natural world, transcending the fate of the sons.
The Wrecking Light revels in the boundaries of existence, juxtaposing the domestic and strange. Memory ghosts the landscapes of the poems, and powerful moments of clarity fade in and out of the dreamlike text. The transient atmosphere is continued into the concluding lines: “Look at the snow/ I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold/ would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.”
Robertson, Robin. The Wrecking Light. London: Picador, 2010.