Slice of Life

Colin Burrow

  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson
    Picador, 256 pp, £14.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 1 5098 4688 7

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 sufferers are so entranced by the appearance of what’s happening to them that they can’t actually see how bad it is. There is a fine slight poem from Slow Air (2002) called ‘Break’ in which a woman is washing glasses in the sink and hears

a dull click, like a tongue,
under the soap suds.
The foam pinked.
Now she could see blood
smoking from the flap of skin

She is left ‘holding water, feeling nothing’.The anaesthetised slice under water which may end it all is a Robertson signature moment. He often writes as though a poetic image itself has an anaesthetising effect. A poem gruesomely entitled ‘The Halving’ relates having open heart surgery, and ‘A&E’ describes a visit to Casualty afterwards when the sutures open. A triage nurse waves him away until he opens his tweed to show her ‘my chest undone like some rare waistcoat’ with ‘its red, wet-look leatherette,/those fancy, flapping lapels’ of flesh. In one of his poems about Strindberg he has the playwright admit ‘I steer towards catastrophe/then write about it.’ Catastrophe transformed to image as though to neutralise its pain is very much Robertson’s thing.

That has made him a very good translator of savage deaths and dismemberments in classical poetry. His output includes great brutal versions of the flaying of Marsyas (‘Hock to groin, groin to hock./That’s your inside leg done:/no more rutting for you, cunt’), and of Actaeon being torn apart by his dogs: ‘his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,/as if a god was being born.’ Robertson’s interest in unseeably awful scenes gives strength to his fine translation of Euripides’ The Bacchae (2014), in which Agave is inspired by Dionysus to tear her son Pentheus apart, and then enters, oblivious, while carrying his head. She is told to look at it, and, in Robertson’s carefully flat style, just says it how it is, in all its unlookability: ‘What is it? What am I holding in my hands?’ Robertson’s eye for Dionysian violence has made him one of the few English poets to have translated passages from the Dionysiaca, the massive Greek epic by the fifth-century Egyptian Nonnus. ‘The God Who Disappears’ (after Nonnus) describes an uncanny scene in which Dionysus is sliced apart by Titans while looking in a mirror: ‘he followed his image into the glass, and was soon/split and scattered, divided up, diced/into the universe … – he shatters us to make us whole.’ The phrase ‘a slice of life’ takes on a particularly graphic edge when you’re reading Robertson.

Robertson was born on the north-east coast of Scotland. He can write wonderfully about Scottish coasts and myths, and is temperamentally a northern island or isthmus dweller. In that respect he’s like John Burnside, to whom he dedicated his best poem so far, ‘At Roane Head’ (LRB, 14 August 2008), in which there is not just a selkie at the bottom of the garden but there might be a selkie in the bedroom that could cuckold you, or make you kill your children because they might be a selkie’s bastards, or in which the selkie might even be you. Robertson’s cutting edge is again present in this poem, in which a mad drunk husband lines up his fish-eyed children and

went along the line
relaxing them
one after another
with a small knife.

Robertson, unlike some contemporary Scottish poets, can also be ostentatiously cosmopolitan, writing about Sweden, or Liguria, where ‘everyone is going home, and I realise/I have no idea what that means.’ Uprootedness is one of his major interests. In ‘Beginning to Green’, from The Wrecking Light (2010), he wrote: ‘I find a kind of hope here, in this/homelessness, in this place/where no one knows me.’

That sense of deracination connects Robertson’s earlier work to his latest, The Long Take, or a Way to Lose More Slowly. The Long Take is a verse novel, a hybrid form that has flourished over the past thirty years, from Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986) to Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband (sections of which appeared in the LRB, 13 April 2000). Recent judges of literary prizes have looked favourably on this kind of writing, which has won several awards more usually given to works in prose: Ros Barber’s The Marlowe Papers took the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2013 and Sarah Crossan’s One (about conjoined twins) carried off the Carnegie in 2016. These are good omens for The Long Take, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker this year.

The Long Take is not just a verse novel, it’s a historical verse novel set in the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco of the late 1940s and 1950s. Its protagonist is a Canadian called Walker, who comes from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He fought with Canadian troops against the 12th Panzer Hitlerjugend division after the D-Day landings in the summer of 1944, and during those battles he sees and does things too awful to talk about. This has cut him off from his home country, in which people aspire to be part of landscape, ‘becoming like a thorn tree, twisted hard to the shape of the wind’, and now he has no home. Walker walks the streets and goes to films to forget. Flashbacks take us back to Nova Scotia, or (with increasing vividness) to France in 1944. The Long Take is laced with references to film noir, and to the work of the directors Robert Siodmak and Joseph H. Lewis in particular. The title alludes to the shot in Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) in which a getaway car is filmed in a long continuous shot ‘near three-and-a-half minutes straight through with no cuts’. The Long Take, though, is really a sequence of short takes intercut with one another, which cumulatively evoke life as one long process of taking.

This cross-editing is combined with a film noir setting and visual style. Walker sees a homeless black friend burned to death, and later pictures

those last moments
in negative, a blaze of black,
the effigy on the bonfire
sagging in the flames.

That black and white image – a hideous reversal of the famous closing shot of Lewis’s film The Big Combo (1955), in which Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace are silhouetted, black on white, against bright lights – mirrors an earlier flashback in which Walker recalled a German hit by a flare, who ‘went up like a bonfire: so white you couldn’t look, but you couldn’t quite look away’. The Agave syndrome, having to look at the unwatchable, is a key theme of this poem, and its response to that syndrome is to describe violence in the coldly beautiful visual language of black and white cinema.

Walker watches LA being stripped apart by McCarthyism and by land-grabbing developers. He writes home to his former girlfriend on Cape Breton Island, and remembers ‘Finding the otter’s slide … the kingfisher’s flash, the wing coverts of a jay. There are spokes of light through the dark pool.’ But flashbacks to the war are brought into full spate by the crashes and explosions as the city is demolished and gentrified around him, and by the late 1950s Walker is remembering the episodes he had spent the past years trying to forget. We discover (spoilers) that not only did he witness the unwatchable massacres of Canadian forces by the drugged Hitlerjugend, but that he sliced the ears and face off a German officer in revenge: ‘he cut off the ears. The nose. The lips. He left the eyes,/so the German could see what had happened to him. So he would see.’ That all makes the poem, despite its transatlantic setting, entirely Robertsonian. LA is Walker’s homeless place of exile, and Cape Breton Island – home to a large number of Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances – is a new world version of Robertson’s Scotland. And the knife slices deep to make you see the pain.

As a squeamish misopolite or poliphobe (why is there, I wonder, no English word for people like me who hate cities?), I wasn’t sure I would enjoy a work as bloody and urban as The Long Take. But I did. Its continual cuts between past and present piece together a misopolite’s view of the city – ‘the city expands at pace – to the edges of its territory: the mountains, its neighbours, the ocean’s verge – an infestation, a carcinoma,’ – and, as the crashes of demolition increasingly recall the violence of 1944, Walker sees the city as a battle zone: ‘cities are a kind of war, he thought.’

But The Long Take is unsettling to read, since it tries to create a Dionysian vision, in which pain is seen from the outside as though by a god or on a screen. Walker sees a man’s throat cut in LA just as he would if he were watching it at the movies: the blood from the neck is

a twisting rope
so hot it steamed
as it splashed on the cobbles;
the blood that ran out of him
till he ran out of blood.

Down an alley he hears the sound of what he thinks is a couple fucking, but sees

this guy, on his knees: rummaging in a bag
it looked like. Then he saw
that his hands were red; and that,
under him, was curled the body of a man.

That transformation of violence into visual simile, though, works really well when the poem cross-cuts between past and present. A flashback to the war recalls that ‘there, hanging from a tree, was a German: dancing all wrong.’ Then a cut to the present burns that image onto the retina: ‘outside on the line, a white shirt on a wire hanger begins to dance.’

That mirroring of one scene by another is one of the poem’s many debts to the visual language of cinema. But in Robertson’s work the mirror tends to be an enemy that makes you see what you don’t like in yourself. In ‘Beginning to Green’, he says:

I like this
mirror-less, flawless world
with no people in it,
only birds.

In The Long Take, Walker repeatedly sees himself in mirrors and doesn’t want to recognise what he sees. He works out ‘the hole in his life by his eyes in the broken mirror’. That strange scene in Nonnus, in which Dionysus is torn apart by the Titans while he’s looking in the mirror, and is then remade from sliced-up fragments, seems to run beneath much of this ultra-realistic new work, which is not so much a departure from Robertson’s earlier poems as a reconfiguration of their concerns on a bigger screen. Life shatters us, but because we are not gods it may not make us whole again.