Grimoire, Robin Robertson, Picador, 80pp, 2020, £14.99 (hardback)
Poet Robin Robertson, whose original tales summon the violent beauty of the Scottish landscape, dedicates his latest collection to ‘the taken: for all those feart of the glamour’, as Grimoire is a collection of the shadow self, for and about those who dwell on peripheries.
In a collaboration that calls to mind the Brothers Grimm, the poet’s brother, Tim Robertson, has rendered illustrations that appear on the page like an inkblot test, dark mirrors lending space to the imagination. They complement the liminality of the writing, which is also stark and layered. Like Macbeth’s witches, the rule of three echoes throughout Grimoire, not least in Robertson’s languages – English, Scots and Gaelic. In the poem ‘Under Beinn Ruadhainn’, the ‘three moons in the sky’ reminds us that these thrilling ballads are full of frightening weather and best suited to nights by the fireside. Read them aloud and they would sound like curses: ‘with four small candles burning (…) / Milky smoke poured up from the grate / like a waterfall in reverse / and she said my name / and it was the only thing / and the last thing that she said.’ Throughout the collection, the poet does not mark a clear boundary between light and dark. Among the pins and the poppets, even among the gravestones, there is a sense of freedom: it lies not only in the topography of the Scottish wild, between its sea and skerries, but also in in the narrator’s ability to shapeshift. In Grimoire, death is understood not as an ending but as transfiguration.
In ‘Through the Struan Door’, the narrator speaks of a boy who imbibes magic, or perhaps, more tellingly, ‘knowledge’. He changes into a series of beings, including a hare, a mackerel and even an ear of corn to evade death. The poem itself morphs, switching its perspective to first person in the final stanzas. Satanic imagery is put in direct comparison with the Christ figure, as we recall that Lucifer too was an angel once.
In the gothic tradition, Robertson asks us to question what is monstrous. Parents, believing their children are bewitched, commit infanticide. To be ‘spelled’, in this time and space, presents as justification for murder; these gruesome acts are born of fear. Often the subjects suffer from some kind of affliction or simply differ from the wider community, and the language in Grimoire is shot through with physical and emotional rejection. Underneath, a note of sympathy reverberates. As was the case in ‘Through the Struan Door’, the poems usually offer some form of release for their ‘misgrown’ subjects. In ‘By Clachan Bridge’, it is said that the girl with the fascination for bones, who herself becomes the victim of an attack, has ‘found out how to fly’. The predicaments are bleak, but all is not lost. Sacrifice tends to give way to something better; a further Christ-like parallel appears in ‘Near Gleann Nam Fiadh’: ‘And I watched as he changed from a god to a human / and back to a deer, ready to be remade.’ Perhaps this is the keenest trick, the power to convert injury to strength. In the final poem, ‘Before the Donnachaidh Falls’, the narrator tells us ‘I forged myself into the blue blade / that made my wound’. In this way, balance is restored. The contrast – the rip of it – can also exist in a neutral space.
In Grimoire, Robertson has wrought new myths with the power to unsettle.. Its warning and its magic bleed into the facets of modern life, through idioms, through our associations with different places. But in refusing to turn from horror, he makes a grim beauty of it. Phrasing such as ‘She unpuzzled rabbits to a ricket of bones / dipped into dormouse / for the pip of its heart’ observes the macabre through a curious lens, like a child who doesn’t realise the magnifying glass she holds is burning the butterfly beneath it.
Robertson has won critical acclaim for his past works, which include The Long Take, a novel in verse, among other collections of poetry. With Grimoire, he has once again proven his gift as a storyteller, joining narrative with sensory image. The strangeness of this book, which was on the longlist for the Highland Book Prize 2020, promises to stay with the reader far beyond the winter nights ahead.
Words by Charlotte Newman.
For more information and to buy Grimoire by Robin Robertson, visit Pan Macmillan’s website.
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