‘He’s back in the ghost house
where he, himself, is the ghost.’
‘sending her long arrows in flight through the standing pines
as if threading nets in the air.’
(‘Dionysus and the Maiden’)
The opening poem of Robin Robertson’s latest collection, Hill of Doors, ‘Annunciation’, holds within its textured movement a synecdoche or microcosm of the whole collection. Before teasing out the many ways this is so, let me quote a few lines from this poem ‘after Fra Angelico’. ‘A word will set the seed / of life and death…/ But not yet, not quite yet.’ Whether intended or not, this last line recalled for me the infamous dictum of Augustine: ‘God, make me good (chaste), but just not yet.’ And talking of Augustine, to my mind, is highly pertinent to many of the tensions in this collection.
In his (very Platonic) dialogue on ‘Free Will’, Augustine asks – as part of an argumentative gambit to prove the necessity of God – where/how the human mind got the idea of unity, oneness indivisible. He says, in rationalist mould, that it can’t have been from experience: all within the bounds of time and space being infinitely divisible: so how did we get this indivisible idea of ‘one’, which is the basis of all number – mathematics being the epitome of (eternal) truth? He uses this evident feature of human mentality, a unity of consciousness, to leap to the idea of what we might call the consciousness of unity (i.e. God). In a way Augustine’s life-experience is a telling parable complementing this argument. Before conversion, he was a sensualist, a libertine; which is to say he was subject to the infinite divisibility, the radically ranging nature, of the sensual world. This delirium proved to be the ground of a conversion which was more like mania, a centripetal reaction to his sometime centrifugal errata. This tension between formal intelligibility and the sophisms of the body-world is lived out in many ways in what follows. Much like Conrad, say, Robertson’s work in this collection is both formally taut, with a wonderful sense of line and line-break, as well as filled with what for want of a better word one might dub great yarns. I begin, then, again with the opening poem, ‘Annunciation.’
The near-chiasmus in the first stanza, regarding the ‘point / of balance: everything streaming / towards this moment, streaming away,’ is a formal mirroring of what’s implicit here, as elsewhere, by a poem written ‘after’ a painter. Ekphrasis is by its nature an inveterately creaturely thing to enact. In tension with this recognized dependency, though, is the very Titanism of the poetic persona making the tale ‘his own.’ At the end of this poem we read about Mary (presumably) waking one day, ‘with wings, or wak[ing] / …[to] find them gone.’ This either/or might be a metaphor for creativity and its value in general. What I mean to say is that we know that there is such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, ‘better’ and ‘worse’. However, in the wake of the twentieth century, it must be conceded that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to classify the difference in an abstract and discursive manner. Thus, the only Mind that might be the totalizing judge, would be God; for us, sublunary, the truth of better or worse is something in the process of the experience of said art, neither subjective, nor objective, neither godly (with wings) nor totally immanent.
The main reason I decided to begin with the contrast of mentality, its intelligible unity, and its opposite in the infinite divisibility of the sensual world, is that the figure (‘after Nonnus’) of Dionysus looms large, nay huge in this collection. In a way, the Greek mythoi, or the Roman, after Ovid, are both in continuity with and in tension with the more Christian mythoi; paganism at the mercy of Pan’s piping, and the closure or ascent attendant on these various ‘descents:’ ‘Ghost of abandon, and abandoning, / he shatters us to make us whole,’ (‘The God Who Disappears.’)
One way of understanding this latter is to think, as in the Christian doctrine of analogy, of the ‘One’ as conditioning or allowing for the ‘Many.’ There is a sense (following Adorno) in which ‘Identity’ is both determining and liberating: in the following manner. When a poet, like Robertson here, writes ‘after’ Ovid, Nonnus, Fra Angelico, Chardin, and so on, he is both determined by a pre-existing story-telling, which gives a necessitation to his epigone status, as well as that precedent determinant providing the ground of his own ‘man-made’ version of the tale, whichever it is. Where facts or features of human experience were the ground for Ovid’s, say, mythoi – now Ovid’s earlier version becomes as it were the ‘fact’ or ‘datum’ for Robertson’s work of (re)configuration. To put it in terms of the collection: The ‘House of Envy’ is ‘wreathed with darkness / … an endless fog / wound round its running walls,’ (‘The House of Envy,’ my italics.)
Another good example of this paradox is to be found in ‘The Ghost of Actaeon,’ one of my favourite pieces in the collection. It is, quite literally, ‘counter-factual,’ imagining as it does the sequel to the Ovidian story – which is to say its ranging wide of the mark, so creatively, is conditioned by the precedent mythos – story-telling-surprise is predicated on an earlier justification. And another aspect of this duality is lived out in the way some of the (re)tellings are completely dramatized, or ‘shown’, and how some proffer morals to the various sortees / stories. Thus in ‘Argentiera’ the ending stanza which speaks of ‘one swimmer’ drowning under ‘one great wave’ is both the end of the story and the ‘end’ of it in the sense of purport: a bit like the idea of the monstrosity of Christ: that radical (sacrificial) idiosyncrasy is the condition of the centric nature of the rest of us. Or at the close of ‘A Quick Death,’ we read of a shuffling lobster heading towards its boiling doom, and we are told, in finale, ‘it’s the same for us all in the end – / a short journey: eyes first / into the fire.’ What comes at the end, whether a story of a child drowning or a lobster frying, provides the telos for the preceding tale. The best example of this type of totalization against the rambling of narrative is the last stanza, in telltale italics, of ‘Dionysus in Love:’
‘And so, wine was made,
and we made from it: abandon, delirium,
a cure from regret, an end to love and grief.
We hold it in our hands: a brief forgetting.’
This is the prescription or value gathered from the more descriptive gambit of the tale, its more parabolic aspect, in which the tears of the god lead to the metamorphosed growth of his beloved into a fruit tree, from whose boughs the god plucks, crushing the produce into the (henceforward) madness of wine, wine-drinking, decadence or debauchery. Elsewhere, after Ovid, in ‘The Cave of Sleep’ there is no such totalizing of sense, giving a more thoroughgoing sense of parabolic tautness. This is cognate with Robertson’s felicitous use of imagery throughout, which most of the time is seamlessly evocative of and with attendant value. Witness in ‘Dionysus and the Maiden:’
‘Despite her shaking fury, she drew fast and clean:
pinning the last words back in with his tongue,
filling his mouth with feathers.’
This is both direct storytelling (about the rejection of a mythic ‘She’ of some farmer-boy) and depth-charged metaphor.
There is also continuous evocation, throughout the collection, of the hooked doublet of love (as desire) and death, often invoking what Freud described as the ‘oceanic’ return to the womb. ‘I knew how children came, so I look for the stork / in the cliffs over the mussel pools… / …in the black pines, / that she might take me back,’ (‘1964’). Robertson is reminiscent here of fellow scot, Don Paterson – his ‘Letter to the Twins’ in Landing Light. Or, again in ‘Dionysus and the Maiden,’ we read of some Arcadian lover wishing death as a form of (his) love:
“Save me from this passion, this fire that feeds under my heart!
If you can never love me, as you must know now that I love you,
then to watch your bow-arm tighten and your breast rise and steady
is all I can ever ask, so fix me in the heart to end this hurt…”
One way of cashing out this threaded force-field of the one and the many, is to think of the most basic Freudian diagnosis of the human condition. All objects of desire are (radically) displaced objects. At the so-called ‘oral’ stage, say, we ‘need’ the ‘milk.’ However, inexorably between us and the object of need, the milk, is the breast, that which (we come to) wish or want or desire. Hence, throughout life, cupidity renders the human animal pathetically in arrears to himself. Think of Robertson’s use of the cliché ‘Take his breath away,’ in (again) ‘Dionysus and the Maiden’: in a kind of Beckettian revivifying of dead language, we are alerted to both death and desire, again, seamlessly. This is the grounding of the end of said piece, where we realize that Dionysus is ‘air’ and that the she and rape-victim hunting the god for vengeance, and following tracks in the snow, is following ‘her own tracks in the snow.’ Or, in ‘The House of Rumour,’ after Ovid, we read of how ‘the whole house / …hums / constantly / with words repeating back to themselves / round and round, again / and again: the low susurration / of echoing sound.’ The house is as elliptical as a slivering serpent or river water.
Indeed, I’d like to end on this Freudian note of the ‘otherness’ of the self to it-self, both pagan and dispersed, and gathered and arrowed by a poetic person(a) towards his clout: both authority of story and authority of story-teller. In the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy, he writes of a parable, as much Christian as romantic and Hegelian, of how he’d set out to find distant shores and had found himself, ultimately, landing in England, home. This is the haler version of homecoming after Odyssean wayfaring. However, like some Borgesian vertigo emergent out of this Chestertonian hearthside, we read in this collection that this erratum in the self is not totalized into increased integrity, but rather bears witness to the way the self flays it-self, as in some Sisyphean ‘hill’, with no recompense by way of some hoped-for door. Or perhaps not…
The last poem, ‘The Key’ is indeed reminiscent in its curt conceit of Kafka’s ‘Parable of the Law’ in The Trial, or of the similar mythos in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, both being dystopian versions of, say, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The ‘door’ in a place ‘I’d never been’ is opened at the last by ‘the key / I’d carried with me / all these years.’ Perhaps the hill is climbed ‘after’ all, with the poet’s last cadence: love out of death, rather than love as (a form of) living death.
by Omar Sabbagh
Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet and critic. His poetry and prose has appeared in or is forthcoming in such venues as: Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Reader, Stand, Banipal, POEM, The Warwick Review, Agenda, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He has three extant poetry collections, including, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon Press, 2010, 2012). He’s a forthcoming monograph with Rodopi, titled, From Sight through to In-Sight: Time, Narrative and Subjectivity in Conrad and Ford. For the academic years 2011-13, he was Visiting Assistant Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut.