Autobiography and myth are the themes of this collection, which contains poems as satisfying as novels
Robin Robertson's fifth collection has been artfully organised. He has shown in earlier work (for which he has won the Forward prize more than once and been shortlisted for the TS Eliot) a gift for using mythology as a way of exploring what it means to be human. Here, there are invigorating poems inspired by the fourth-century Greek poet Nonnus: Dionysus appears at intervals and "Dionysus in Love" offers a narrative explaining the role of wine in our lives. It is a poem that could serve as a sober companion piece to Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. There are valedictory poems (farewells to a fisherman, a falconer and Punchinello). There are poems inspired by painters – Goya, Chardin and Tiepolo. There is a wonderfully offbeat, zestful poem about Strindberg's stay in Skovlyst in Denmark – where he is thought to have written Miss Julie– and the mad countess who was his landlady. Some poems are as satisfying as novels – but the fullness is always achieved through simplicity. Robertson has sound judgment about when less is more.
This is especially true in the opening poem about Fra Angelico's Annunciation, with its sense that the less words are forced to embrace mystery, the more likely it is to reveal itself: "He has come from the garden, leaving/ no shadow, no footprint in the dew./ They hold each other's gaze at the point/ of balance: everything streaming/ towards this moment, streaming away."
Where more furnishing is required, Robertson rises to the occasion with flair, describing, for instance, in "1964", a visit to a barber's shop in a winter city. I love the line "Frost thistles the railings." "Thistle" has been waiting too long to become a verb. In the same poem, "the day's first labrador' is fun – Robertson's burly humour is well dug in, discoverable in half-buried flashes. The only false – or, to my ear, far-fetched – note is the likening of the sound fighting cats make to "babies singing lullabies to other babies".
The poems that do not have their foundation in myth – the more autobiographical pieces – are the most interestingly precarious. Some have a look-no-hands vulnerability, an unchaperoned quality, in contrast to the lively certainty of the poems supported by mythology. In "A Childhood", a boy sits in a rock pool: "I'm too busy to notice/ the sun is going, that they're packing up,/ that it's almost time for home."
At once shallow and deep, the day's business gently allows for the greater truth that time is always getting ready to go.
Robertson comes from the north-east coast of Scotland and the sea is never far away. "Corryvreckan" describes "walls of water, each tall as a church door/endlessly breaking on the same point". It is a line that has a similar momentum to the annunciation poem – the gathering of energy to a breaking point. But more pervasive even than the sea are the images of houses and keys. "The Dream House' is one of the most pleasing poems. It is almost perfect, except that the frisson of the last line does not quite come off: it tells us too much and not enough. Similarly, it might have been more powerful still if it were understood, rather than spelt out, that the narrator was the "ghost". But these are tiny cavils. And the fine last poem in this absorbing collection, "The Key", unlocks more even than it intends. It describes Robertsons's style – its simple rightness: "The door/ to the walled garden, the place/ I'd never been/ was opened/ with a simple turn/ of the key/ I'd carried with me/ all these years."