A major new collection of 'super-sonnets' demonstrates the poet's amazing talent for putting intimacy on paper
A drysalter was a trader in salts, chemicals and dyes and these poems seem steeped in a single colour: it is clear they all proceed from the same pen. Michael Symmons Roberts won the Whitbread prize in 2004 with Corpus– a collection that, like this one, showed the surest command of a body of work in all senses. But this is his most ambitious collection to date: it contains 150 poems – each one 15 lines long. One could dub the form a super-sonnet, an experimental pushing at boundaries. He is quoted as saying he found the poems "terrifying" to write. And this is interesting because they could not feel less risky to read: there is a sense of sanctuary, beauty – safe harbour about them. They belong together, call out to one another, it is harmony that defines this marvellous work.
Drysalter could also be described as a psalter (an intentional echo, one assumes). The drift is devotional; many poems read like secular prayers. Symmons Roberts has a gift for seeing the spirit in things even (as can happen in life) at unlikely moments and in bad weather (cars are unexpectedly present in his work – there is even something pushing an epiphany in a karaoke bar). And one cannot help noticing that summer is seldom mentioned. We tend to be in the bleak midwinter – but in his hands, the season transcends itself: the thickest of frosts is no hazard.
Alongside disciplined exaltation, there is an elegiac edge to this writing, like the black border on Victorian letters of condolence.
"If being here and now is nothing more
than memory on the fly, then love
is just a trace of having loved…"
Over and over again, there is a sense that it is poetry itself that is the thing of permanence in time's slipstream. And it is this that makes the writing so moving.
It is a book full of windows – often of literal transparency. We look out through panes of glass. In "Through a Glass Darkly", the beauty of the poem is its precision about imprecision, his writing surer than his "cataracted hawk" as he swoops on his subject, knowing his quarry. There is such pleasure in his ability to steer the poem home, to find a last line of dramatic satisfaction and unforced rightness. "Look up: stars are gone. It's just us." At times, his enigmatic quality, mixed with a heightened lucidity, is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson – although without the whimsy that mars the weakest of her poems. I noticed, too, how often images of swarming occur in this collection. These recurring images contribute to the overall harmony. There is tremendous architecture here – like a cathedral cloister. Take two extracts from separate poems. In an unusual, ambivalent poem about the new year, "A Note on the Sideboard", he writes:
"Turn the paper over and score out my printed name
Leave this message on the sill and watch it fade. No shame."
And in "In Praise of the Present", another imperative:
"So put your book down, it's so late.
I lean close and say your name,
to print it on the face of light."
One printed name is to fade, the other to blaze. But in both poems, he displays an amazing talent for intimacy on paper – sometimes, it almost takes your breath away. And if there is an invitation to the reader here, it is not to put the book down but to pick it up, to read and re-read – and allow it to take hold.