A Sequence from ‘Camera Obscura’

Robin Robertson

Dumb Show, with Candles

Still as a battlefield, the strewn city
goes 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 geese
comes pulling past, straight-necked:
creaking like rowlocks
over the frozen hill.
On the Parthenon below, querulous gulls
screel and skraik and peel away,
bickering, into the air’s tow.
Too cold, even for them.
I circle the observatory one more time:
mine the only footprints in the snow.

Now the night has fallen, Edinburgh comes alight
as if each building’s shell
has a fire inside that burned. The follies
– lit exhibits – stand here on the hill
in their white stone; the Castle glows.
And the streets are bright blurs of sodium
and pearl: the drawn tracery of headlamps
smeared in long exposure. For miles west
the city stretches,
laid with vapour trails and ghosts.

To the east, the folding sea has drowned
the girning of the gulls. A lighthouse
perforates the night: a slow cigarette.
Then there is no more light,
and no more breath or sound.

     *

‘She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair,
And so fondly I watched her move here and move there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.’

     *

Polarity

I begin to wish for the simplicities of war:
unison, delirium, a trance of order
in half-light: good and bad
accorded each a uniform.
To survive or die,
not let the side down or turn tail;
not to be here in this mire
of sidelong glances, tired lies.
To have colours to fly and follow:
a god, or rod of empire, an honourable madness;
to be part of this, or some such simple life.

     *

I have lived my life in the camera obscura, working the mirrors and gazing avidly at the world outside, the gloom lit by the living image. Depth without definition, sight without sound. No contact or communication. Platonic shadows slipping out of view. I have lived my life transfixed by a bright disc in a dark room.

May 1849

     *

Four Views from the Camera Obscura

In the Grassmarket, a girl in a red dress
steps between parked cars
into the forensic flash, flash of cameras.
Around her, the Pre-Raphaelite beauties
of Julia Margaret Cameron,
the mongols of Arbus.

Track east to the Calton
where Nelson’s upturned telescope
stands staring at the ground,
where the observatory lies empty, closed
a century ago by railway smoke
from Waverley: the Enlightenment below.
Gulls mill like ash around Valhalla,
over Calton Hill and the empty High School,
modelled on the Temple of Theseus,
the dark, echoing shell of independence.
The sooty Parthenon (unfinished) gapes down
on the black-sailed vessel anchored in the sound.

What I thought was a figure
standing in a doorway
was just a doorway;
the movement in the window
just a loss of light. Look:
my eyes are not my own.

     *

Dead Centre, 1858

Exactly halfway through his life, panning east
on Princes Street, George Washington Wilson stopped
the moving world into focus. After long exposure,
ghosts returned to their bodies. Calton Hill rose
at the top of the frame, the grave-slots of the cemetery
a perfect memento. The first snapshot. Steady traffic.

     *

Atget Comes to Edinburgh

1. The Castle

After the ordered views of Versailles and St Cloud,
the sign of scissors on every plant and bush,
the Rock scunnered him;
the clutter of stones,
its smoking midden of piled houses:
Paris up-ended on an old volcano,
verminous and cold.

2. Calton Hill

He has laboured up the hill before dawn
to see the braided mist in the valley lifting,
the developed city in its liquor of light.
Here are the planned perspectives of man and nature;
formal correspondence; scale and contrast;
a triangular view of history, from a height.
The garden marking where Renaissance starts.

3. Vertumnus

His hands blackened by chemicals, back
bowed under the weight of the camera,
the holders, plates, tripod, his enormous coat,
he eats the same each day: bread, milk, sugar,
and takes the same position to record the seasons.
They flick past and he speaks the colours:
chlorophyll, honey, cinnamon and bone.

     *

Edinburgh Castle (detail)

The Japanese tourist
places his camera on a post,
backs away, and stands,
smiling vigorously.
The small machine flashes; clicks.
I hear the shutter’s
granular slither
as a spade in wet soil,
while he would hear: sha’shin.

The whirr of winding-on.

He drops the smile,
picks up his Nikon and goes,
muttering about something,
punishing the ground.

     *

‘The people were saying no two were e’er wed
But one had a sorrow that never was said,
And I smiled as she passed with her goods and her gear,
And that was the last that I saw of my dear’.

     *

The Great Exhibition
London
1851

Dearest Chatty –

What an age to be brought into! The journey by Steam-train to the Chrystal Palace where I am shewing my Light-Drawings was but twelve hours. Three years past, one was obliged to travel two days (or more) by wooden coach.

But at what cost to our nation? On one hand our Highlands are still being planted with sheep at the expense of People, and those that are not driven to Canada fill our cities. The old ways, and the Gaelic, go with them. On the other, it seems that while our country is diminished, our southern sister grows apace. The price we pay for railways, better roads & speedier mail, is seeing our most able Artists & Scientists leave for London – their places taken by Thomas Cook’s travellers, decked in tartan, looking for ‘The Picturesque’. It is the end of an old song.

Enough of this. They have bought few of my Pictures, but there is time. A kiss to you & your aunt Mary.

Your loving father

     *

With every step of hers towards the light
a step of mine towards the murk.

     *

My daughter feels no fear
because of me.
I have it learnt
because of her.

     *

Sunny Memories

The year of the Sheep, the Year of Burning;
we shall return no more; the Rising,
from Glenfinnan to Culloden Moor;
potato famine; Nova Scotia;
Barra, Knoydart, Ardnamurchan.

Balmoral; the Sobieski Stuart Brothers’
Vestiarium Scoticum; clan maps and tartan,
Edinburgh rock; Walter Scott and Harry Lauder;
Wha’s like us? Cheers! And slàinte mhath
to the king across the water.

     *

The Royal High School

After the children had gone
the gulls came, in a white flit:
sentinel at windows,
falling between buildings.
The janitors and cleaners never saw them
dropping in: ambling down corridors,
looking into rooms, blinking
at their new estate.
They nest here now, among the jotters
and pencils, unopened boxes
of The Scottish Constitution;
living like kings
on a diet of silverfish,
long-life milk and chalk.

     *

They are fading. The damned things are fading. I was today shewn some views of the Scott Monument we made in ′46 – the wretched folly just then finished – and the top is bleached away, with all the edges dimmed. The paper is now going into ugly spots all over, and the image is fast fading out, The light that made it now dismantles it.

Meanwhile from my window the building mocks me in its crisp dressed stone, its hard lines clean against the sky.

How many years wasted? Five? Ten? A life.

May 1856

Notes to ‘Camera Obscura’

The poem is built on the personal and artistic life of David Octavius Hill – an indifferent painter but pioneering photographer in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century. It is mostly concerned with his tragic private life (the death of his second daughter, in infancy, and his wife two years later, the death of Robert Adamson, his creative partner, and the consequent collapse of his photography; the death of his beloved first daughter) and the brief glory, in his middle years, when he made the finest of all early photographs.

In 1843, not long after the death of his wife, Hill witnessed one of the most important events in Scottish history in that century: the Disruption of the Church – when dissident clergy split with the established Church of Scotland. Hill resolved to paint this momentous occasion. In order conveniently to capture the likenesses of the four hundred rebel ministers, Hill’s friend Sir David Brewster recommended the new technique invented in England by Fox Talbot – the calotype – and introduced Hill to his subsequent partner and friend, the chemist and photographer Robert Adamson. They set up a studio together at Rock House, Calton Hill, and for four and a half years produced a mass of extraordinary images.

In 1848, Adamson sickened and died. Hill then abandoned photography. Twenty-three years after beginning it, he finished the Disruption painting; it was an abject failure. When he died in 1870, there was no mention in his obituaries of his ground-breaking work in photography, and his cameras and entire stock were sold for £70.

Hill’s story is also, in a way, the story of Scotland – and, in particular, Edinburgh – during the last flowering of the Enlightenment.

The imagined diary entries and letters by Hill are counterpointed by a contemporary narrative of the city using views from the camera obscura on the High Street by the Castle, and from Calton Hill, where the first camera and first observatory were situated.

The remaining poems and fragments are adjuncts to the main narratives: set out of time and moving between past and present.

*

Dumb Show, with Candles: the third seasonal view from Calton Hill; this set at the time of Imbol, in February.

‘She stepped away from me’: the third of four verses of the traditional ballad, ‘She Moved through the Fair’; words by Padraic Colum.

Sunny Memories: the title of a book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, in which she describes the Highland Clearances as ‘an almost sublime instance of the benevolent employment of superior wealth and power in shortening the struggles of advancing civilisation’.

The Royal High School: the proposed scat of the Scottish Parliament had Devolution succeeded.

‘They are fading’: July 1995. The Scott Monument begins to disintegrate during the cleaning process, which is abandoned. Meanwhile, an exhibition of Hill/Adamson calotypes – in perfect condition – opens at the Royal Scottish Academy.