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Robin Robertson

Robin Robertson’s narrative poem, The Long Take, was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Poem: ‘Inside Tobar na Marbh’

Robin Robertson, 25 November 2019

for Maggie Fergusson

Four years old, I was, when her thrawn mood finally snapped.‘What you staring at? That daft face on you.You’re always gawking, always querious.Watch the wind doesn’t change, or you’ll stay like that…’So I stayed and watched the wind so long I became it;became it, for its very changing.

My sklent eye took in everything –the...

Poem: ‘Beyond Dubh-Chladach’

Robin Robertson, 23 May 2019

for Duncan McLean

Seven years we’d waited; three bairns lost inside, and two born dead. Rab blamed himself, then me, then the crone on the next island, then the wee folk – the sithchean – the fair folk, the peerie folk. So when I started to show, for certain, he went to work: pulled a handful of nails from the ruined jetty, gathered pieces of oak and elder and the sacred rowan;...

Poem: ‘In Easgann Wood’

Robin Robertson, 18 February 2016

For Don Paterson

Rain works the road; its grey hand passing over and over, in waves: lashing, stotting down. A stour-wind’s in the trees, churning their heads, and the sky’s full of leaves and the sky is raging: it will not subside and will not cease, and will not be consoled.

As thunder brings the toads so rain draws worms from the ground, the rapt god to this bedroom window, this...

Poem: ‘Beside Loch Iffrin’

Robin Robertson, 22 October 2014

for Catherine Lockerbie

Late January, and the oak still green, the year already wrong. The season miscarried – the lambs in the field, and the blossom blown – the whole year broken before it began, and me standing where winter should have been: a reived man, a man forspoken.

A woman’s kiss will lift you all morning. A woman’s curse will grave you to hell.

By the...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 7 February 2013

The God Who Disappears

after Nonnus

Born to a life of dying, the boy-god’s first death came when he could barely crawl, the budding horns just there, nudged among curls, as he played on the floor with his toys: a knuckle-bone, ball and spinning top, golden apples, a tuft of wool, and on his other side, the thunderbolts of Zeus.

They entered the throne-room’s dark, their round...

Poem: ‘Dionysus and the Maiden’

Robin Robertson, 25 October 2012

after Nonnus

I

Her only home was here in this forest, among the high rocks, sending her long arrows in flight through the standing pines as if threading nets in the air. She’d never seen a cup of wine or a perfumed room, or a bed: she drank chill water from the mountain brook and had only ever lain with lionesses, newly delivered of their cubs, who licked her hard white body, whimpering...

Poem: ‘The Coming God’

Robin Robertson, 13 September 2012

after Nonnus

Horned child, double-born into risk, guarded by satyrs, centaurs, raised by the nymphs of Nysa, by the Hyades: here he was, the toddler, Dionysus. He cried ‘Daddy!’ stretching up to the sky, and he was right and clever, because the sky was Zeus his father, reaching down.

As he grew, he learned to flit through other forms; he’d become a newborn kid, shivering in...

Poem: ‘Dionysus in Love’

Robin Robertson, 5 April 2012

after Nonnus

Hardened by the hills of Phrygia, quickened by its streams, the boy-god Dionysus came of age.

And as his own body changed his eyes grew wider, and turned towards the bodies of others. Ampelos was the one, above all: most beautiful boy, most beautiful of satyrs: lean and long and new. Even his flaws were gorgeous: the bony nubs at the forehead, that slight skip in his step,...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 17 November 2011

The Shelter

I should never have stayed in this cold shieling once the storm passed and the rain had finally eased.

I could make out shapes in here, the occasional sound: a muffled crying which I took for wind in the trees; a wasp, stuttering there at the windowsill. I listened. What looked like a small red coat

was dripping from its wire hanger.

There was a shift and rustle coming from the...

Poem: ‘Wire’

Robin Robertson, 8 September 2011

In this bled landscape wind moves through the desert bones, fluting their white notes.

*

Wildfires sweep the hills, jump the highways. Outside town fence-posts are burning.

*

The guns go one way, drugs go the other, over the desert border.

*

There’s crystal meth, coke, PCP, smack; after that Tipp-Ex, gasoline.

*

In Juárez tonight three decapitados hang from the Bridge of Dreams.

*

...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 17 February 2011

The House of Rumour

after Ovid

At the world’s centre between earth and sky and sea is a place where every sound can be heard, where everything is seen. Here Rumour lives, making her home on a mountain-top. This house stands open night and day: a dome of apertures and windows set like a million eyes at gaze, steady, unblinking, no doors or shutters anywhere. Her walls have ears. They are...

Poem: ‘Strindberg in Skovlyst’

Robin Robertson, 18 November 2010

I

A manor house in ruin. It suits me down to the ground. A tower to write in, three rooms for the family, with a kitchen, and all for fifty crowns a month. Unbelievably filthy, I have to say: everything broken, unfinished, abandoned. In the yard, two floors below, a mongrel half-heartedly mounts a greyhound; blue flies are hatching in the dung. It fits my mood. Wherever you look: neglect,...

Four Poems

Robin Robertson, 28 January 2010

Law of the Island

They lashed him to old timbers that would barely float, with weights at the feet so only his face was out of the water. Over his mouth and eyes they tied two live mackerel with twine, and pushed him out from the rocks.

They stood, then, smoking cigarettes and watching the sky, waiting for a gannet to read that flex of silver from a hundred feet up, close its wings and...

Poem: ‘The Daughters of Minyas’

Robin Robertson, 3 December 2009

Son of Zeus, son of the thunderbolt, Iacchus the twice-born, child of the double door, Bromius the roaring god, the coming one, the vanishing one, the god who stands apart; god of frenzy and release, god of the vine. The one of many names and many faces. The horned god. Young beyond time. The god that changes. The Other. Dionysus.

*

‘And noise, just a lot of noise: drums, cymbals,...

Three Poems

Robin Robertson, 27 August 2009

The Wood of Lost Things

We went for walks here, as children, listening out for gypsies, timber wolves, the great hinges in the trees. Hours we’d wander its long green halls making swords from branches, gathering stars of elderflower to thread into a chain. Today the forest sends up birds to distract me, deer to turn me from the track, puts out stems and tendrils to trip and catch at my...

Poem: ‘Pentheus and Dionysus’

Robin Robertson, 9 July 2009

after Ovid

Pentheus – man of sorrows, king of Thebes – despised the gods, and had no time for blind old men or their prophecies. ‘You’re a fool, Tiresias, and you belong in the darkness. Now, leave me be!’ ‘You might wish, sire, for my affliction soon enough, if only to save you from witnessing the rites of Dionysus. He is near at hand, I feel it now, and...

Poem: ‘At Roane Head’

Robin Robertson, 14 August 2008

for John Burnside

You’d know her house by the drawn blinds – by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall, the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry. You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it from the sea and from the brief light of the sun, and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap.

A fork of barnacle...

Poem: ‘By Clachan Bridge’

Robin Robertson, 29 November 2007

For Alasdair Roberts

I remember the girl with the hare-lip down by Clachan Bridge, cutting up fish to see how they worked; by morning’s end her nails were black red, her hands all sequined silver. She simplified rabbits to a rickle of bones; dipped into a dormouse for the pip of its heart. She’d open everything, that girl. They say they found wax dolls in her wall, poppets full of...

Poem: ‘Signs on a White Field’

Robin Robertson, 18 October 2007

The sun’s hinge on the burnt horizon has woken the sealed lake, leaving a sleeve of sound. No wind, just curved plates of air re-shaping under the trap-ice, straining to give; the groans and rumbles like someone shifting heavy tables – or something gigantic turning to get comfortable. I snick a stone over the long sprung deck to get the dobro’s glassy note, the crying slide...

Poem: ‘Strindberg in Berlin’

Robin Robertson, 19 July 2007

All the wrong turnings that have brought me here – debts, divorce, a court trial, and now a forced exile in this city and this drinking cell,Zum Schwarzen Ferkel, The Black Porker: neither home nor hiding-place, just another indignity, just a different make of hell.

Outside, a world of people queuing to stand in my light, and that sound far in the distance, of my life labouring to catch...

Poem: ‘Out in the Open’

Robin Robertson, 25 May 2006

after Tranströmer

1.

Late autumn labyrinth. A discarded bottle lies at the entrance to the wood. Walk in. The forest in this season is a silent palace of abandoned rooms. Only a few, precise sounds: as if someone were lifting twigs with tweezers; as if, inside each tree-trunk, a hinge was creaking quietly. Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they’ve shrivelled up; they are like...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 15 December 2005

Manifest

Try to reconstruct me from the heraldry of the flesh, the thick blur of scar tissue, shreds of clothing, that burst vessel in the eye like a twist in a marble, those frost-feather wrinkles at the side of the mouth, the sagittal crest, the arteries’ complicated reds, flakes of semen, the blonde hair at the nape of the neck of either of my daughters, that cipher of birthmarks,...

Poem: ‘Untitled (51)’

Robin Robertson, 3 November 2005

for John Banville

Hello Hello Hello Hellowhat shall we do today? Hello Today.

They come in procession: clown, princess, scarecrow, ghost, a drift of the overgrown: women in their institutional white socks and black shoes, winter coats over nighties, sheets, sack-dresses, party hats, paper-bag masks with eye-holes and straw, hard plastic masks with white elastic: cat, devil, crone. They...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 6 October 2005

Between the Harvest and the Hunter’s Moon

Returning from war, or the rumours of war, I shelter in the lea of the great stone eagle’s head that marks the edge of Carn Boel, what remains of my uniform tattered and tailed as velvet from antlers, as moss flayed from this stretching rack of rock.

From here, the sea is scalloped in marbled endpapers of green and blue and grey;...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 20 January 2005

What the Horses See at Night

When the day-birds have settled in their creaking trees, the doors of the forest open for the flitting drift of deer among the bright croziers of new ferns and the legible stars; foxes stream from the earth; a tawny owl frisks the long meadow. In a slink of river-light, the mink’s face is already slippery with yolk, and the bay’s tiny islands are drops...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 21 October 2004

On Pharos

Four hollows and four seal-skins on the beach, by a cave, their stink undercut by the faint scent of ambrosia; some tracks, of wild boar and panther; the scales of a serpent; the hair, perhaps, of a bearded lion; torn leaves from a tree when there were no trees anywhere near; and, round a puddle of fresh water, scorch-marks in the sand and the signs of a struggle.

Seemed quiet enough...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 8 July 2004

Wormwood

A flight of loose stairs off the street into a high succession of empty rooms, prolapsed chairs and a memory of women perfumed with hand-oil and artemisia absinthium: wormwood to me, and to the sappy Russian sailors, chernobyl. The scooped-back ballroom gown shows the tell-tale bra-strap: red, tired, losing its elasticity. ‘Leave it,’ my maths master used to say at a...

Four Poems

Robin Robertson, 6 May 2004

La Stanza delle Mosche

The room sizzles in the morning sun. A tinnitus of flies throbs at the bright windows, butting and dunting the glass; one dings off the light, to the floor, vibrating blackly – pittering against the wall before taxi and take-off: another low moaning flight, another fruitless stab at the world outside. They drop on my desk, my hands, and spin their long deaths on...

Poem: ‘Trysts’

Robin Robertson, 19 February 2004

meet me where the sun goes down meet me in the cave, under the battleground meet me on the broken branch meet me in the shade, below the avalanche meet me under the witch’s spell meet me tonight, in the wishing well meet me on the famine lawn meet me in the eye of the firestorm meet me in your best shoes and your favourite dress meet me on your own, in the wilderness meet me as my...

Poem: ‘The Death of Actaeon’

Robin Robertson, 5 June 2003

after Ovid

for James Lasdun

The midday sun finds a way down into a deep cleft in the mountain meshed with cypresses and pine, to flare on a distant speck of glass: the sacred pool where twenty Amnisian nymphs attend their queen, huntress and protectress of this place, these woods and hills. As she steps forward, they take her clothes and stand aside, while the deftest folds the locks of hair...

Poem: ‘Sea-Fret’

Robin Robertson, 14 November 2002

The prominent headland at Tynemouth in Northumberland was the site of an Anglian monastery before the Benedictine priory was established early in the 11th century. Because of the area’s strategic importance, the monastic life coexisted with a military one, and the priory developed within a castle enclosure. These fortifications remained in use after the Dissolution, the coastal battery...

Poem: ‘Asterion and the God’

Robin Robertson, 1 November 2001

nec enim praesentior illo est deus Asterion, his name is, King of Stars. Some joke of his father’s, who now stables him here in these spiralled halls, this walled-up palace, where shame cries itself to sleep.

Where is my mother? Whyhas she left me here alone?This is a house of many cornersbut only one room, made of stone.I live inside this stone.

See how he prowls and paces, my beast of...

Three Poems

Robin Robertson, 6 September 2001

False Spring

A lift in the weather: a clemency I cling to like the legend

of myself: self-exiled, world-wounded, god

of evenings like this, eighty degrees and half a world away.

*

All night, the industry of erasure, effacement,

our one mouth working itself dry.

*

But even a god can’t stop the light that finds us, annealed,

fruitless, two strangers broken on the field of day.

In the...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 24 August 2000

The Long Home

I hadn’t been back in twenty years and he was still here, by the fire, at the far end of the longest counter in Aberdeen – some say Scotland. Not many in, and my favourite time: the dog-watch; the city still working, its tortoiseshell light just legible in the smoked windows, and through the slow delay of glass the flutter of the streetlights batting into life.

The...

Two Poems

Robin Robertson, 20 July 2000

The Language of Birds

The sides of the hill are stubbed with fire-pits. The sky is paraffin blue.

A pigeon’s heart swings here on the kissing-gate, withered, stuck through with pins,

while out on the estuary, beaks of birds needle to the wind’s compass,

the sky’s protocol. Swans go singing out to sea; the weather is changing cold.

...

Poem: ‘March, Lewisboro’

Robin Robertson, 19 August 1999

The estate at dawn hangs like smoke; the forest

drawn in grainy bands of smeared, cross-hatched,

illegible trees: a botched photocopy of itself.

Swamp maple, sugar maple, red and white oak; first light lifts

the pale yellow flare of a beech tree’s papery leaves.

Where are you going?What on earth’s the time?

A salting of snow, blown across the white table of the lake:

thrown leaves...

Poem: ‘Hanging Fire’

Robin Robertson, 20 August 1998

The impatience for summer is desire: ritual, imbedded hard as a hinge in the earth’s mesh. From the papery bulb, the spurred, flesh-green horn pushes, straining for air; flexes its distended, perfect, cleft muscle out and up through the crust.

Then the deeper sleep of August, ninety degrees of hanging fire: the yellow lawns, the blighted flowerless trees, the malformed leaves sticky...

Dumb Show, with Candles

Still as a battlefield, the strewn citygoes under, slips into silhouette.Some threads of smoke,the lift and fall of flags in orange light.The glinting windows go out one by one.

Low over the Firth, a fork of geesecomes pulling past, straight-necked:creaking like rowlocksover the frozen hill.On the Parthenon below, querulous gullsscreel and skraik and peel away,bickering,...

Poem: ‘Circus on Calton Hill’

Robin Robertson, 18 April 1996

Edinburgh burns below us, this blazing day where flame’s invisible, a dark wave lapping at the petrol’s grain, as the fire-eaters assuage their thirst. The fanned embers of the city rustle like the wrappers of sweets; heat tinkering in the coal. Sitting under the colonnade, we are so close we almost touch.

Tumblers flip and flex, desultory on the dry grass; gulls channer in the...

Three Poems

Robin Robertson, 16 November 1995

Shot

You sleep as I stumble room to room, unhelmed, heavy-greaved; coming to you through gorse-light and the fallen trees: heraldic, blessed with wounds. Red-handed at the key I was stock-still, gazing back at deer-slots in the snow: flushed, quick from the kill, carrying my shot, my sadness like a stone. In the quarry-hole of your bed you’re sleeping still.

After the Overdose

What...

Poem: ‘Fireworks’

Robin Robertson, 6 October 1994

In the greatness of the flame he gave up the ghost

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, XI

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.

In the small lake, what had once been water now was...

Poem: ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’

Robin Robertson, 28 April 1994

nec quicquam nisi vulnus erat (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, 388)

I

A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves, sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees. In the flittering green light the glade listens in and breathes.

A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire; a bundle of steel flensing knives.

Spreadeagled between two pines, hooked at each hoof...

Robin Robertson

Colin Burrow, 30 August 2018

Robin Robertson​ is something of a specialist in pain. He usually describes what painful events look like from the outside rather than how they feel from within. It’s often as though...

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Send no postcards, take no pictures

John Redmond, 21 May 1998

Kenneth Koch ends his fine and amusing collection, One Train, with a sequence called ‘On Aesthetics’, which, amongst many other things, takes in the aesthetics of Paul Valéry,...

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