Poetry - Winter 2013

Old Gods and Young Ghosts

By Langdon Hammer | December 7, 2012


“I grew up with a very strong sense of place,” Robin Robertson comments, “in a landscape that seemed freighted with significance, mystery, and power. Everything since has seemed a displacement: a deracination.” The four poems by Robertson in this issue explore both conditions: a youth rooted in the mystery and power of a place, and an adult consciousness of displacement and homelessness.

The landscape of Robertson’s childhood is the northeast coast of Scotland, and, like Seamus Heaney or Ted Hughes, he is a distinctly northern poet: stoic, wry, and brooding, compelled by the archaic pre-Christian world of  Scottish and Celtic legend and by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. “We were the wrong side of Scotland for the Gaelic tongue,” he remembers, “but there was still, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a real and vivid sense of the old gods, the old ways, and many superstitions persisted vestigially.  Samhain (Hallowe’en) was celebrated with great enthusiasm and A’Callainn (pagan Hogmanay)”—the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration—“was almost more important in the community than Christmas.”

Yet Robertson’s tone is urbane, his poetic line elegant, his diction delicate: there is classical decorum, as well as a romantic spirit, in his work. He has translated Euripides and produced his own memorable versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He lives now not on the North Sea but in London, where he is a publisher at Jonathan Cape. His poetry has won major prizes in the U.K. and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fifth collection, Hill of Doors, will appear in the U.K. in 2013, and his selected poems will be published in this country in 2014.

Displacement is the premise of “Broken” and “On the Island.” The first concerns a reencounter with a home that is no longer home. The second is about finding a place of shelter in flight with a lover. “The Dream House” combines aspects of both themes to form a Gothic fable. The poet knows his “dream house” like his own body, save for the riddle of the little red door. To open it requires a key “the size of a sparrow’s claw”—an exact, disconcerting detail.

Could the son behind that door, lost but still alive in the poet’s imagination, be the youth he remembers in “Tillydrone Motte”?  This poem takes us to Seaton Park in the city of Aberdeen, a place of “mystery and power” that Robertson knew as a child. Tillydrone Motte is an ancient mound, which may have been a burial site or fortification. The child stood there like a “brocken spectre.” The phrase (from the German Brockengespenst) refers to “the magnified shadow thrown by a climber standing on high ground looking down into mist or cloud with the sun behind. The head of this apparently huge figure,” Robertson explains, “is usually encircled by a halo of coloured, diffracted light, called a ‘glory.’ ” That glorious boy, on top of the world, feeling the power of the place, is also already a specter: destined to become one of the displaced ghosts in Robertson’s other poems, looking for the way back home.

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