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Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts – review


Adam Newey admires a spiritual, Forward-shortlisted collection whose assertions of belief are hedged with both certainty and doubt

The titles alone in Michael Symmons Roberts's Forward-shortlisted new collection make plain the territory we're in: here are pieces called "Song of Ascent", "Through a Glass Darkly", a series of poems titled "The Wounds". There are also plenty of "Hymns" to the mundane – to a car factory, a photo booth, a roller coaster.

For the secular reader, then, this is a poet who requires what you might call a willing suspension of agnosticism. The urge to find the immanent in the ordinary material world is paramount for Symmons Roberts. From the first poem – "World into Fragments" – to the final one – "Fragments into World" – there appears to be an arc of design, a wish to discern an ordering amid chaos. Which, of course, is precisely what any poet does when sitting down to forge something from the raw materials of language, whatever her faith or lack of it.

The world we are in is, without question, a fallen one: the speaker in "The Tourists" carries a copy of "Baedeker's Eden"; Paradise is "an old zoo/ abandoned by its keepers" ("Elegy for John Milton"), though it is always "on the edge of evolving into song". And we have fallen selves, our better natures caged by brute instinct: "the bruised fist/ of the heart, its inner walls a cave-art/ record of the beasts that make us hunter, hunted" ("Animal of Light").

Even in that fallen state, there may yet be moments of human interaction that approach something like redemption. One of two pieces titled "Soul Song" (titles recur throughout the collection) is a particularly affecting love poem that points longingly towards – though it finally rejects – the idea of a complete spiritual union between two people. More typical, one feels, is the tawdry encounter in "Hymn to a Karaoke Booth", which seems to offer knowledge of "the true of you long-dead", but ends with the karaoke lyrics "burnt into the locked screen …/ you will never never never know me."

The fierce, seemingly unbreakable grip that "all this ersatz world" maintains on us is what holds Drysalter together. Far from being the result of divine agency, the visible world, it seems, is mere illusion; the great convulsions of human history are purposeless, the operation of blind chance: "there is no such being as the wind,// simply a transfer of pressure", we are told in "Portrait of the Psalmist as an Old Man"; "History is like this …/ blind currents that ruck up empires, eras,/ squall them into heaps of leaves." But, like Plato's cave, it is an illusion that we are unequipped to see through: "its coincidence and chaos,// feels inevitable, utter" ("The Wounds III").

There is, of course, another kind of world, presumably non-ersatz, which is hinted at though barely ever glimpsed. Like a latter-day Blake or Stanley Spencer, Symmons Roberts places his revelatory imagery within a defiantly ordinary, contemporary setting, which both hints at its transcendant strangeness and brings that strangeness down to earth. But, as with the titanic, motionless deity-figure in "Immortal, Invisible, Wise" who "has held so long this, his repose, /that no one sees him any more", this other reality is mostly lost to plain sight in the fretful human world.

Each poem in this substantial collection is just 15 lines long (though they are divided up in different ways), as if the poet were following a sort of spiritual rule to sharpen the senses through variant repetition. If the writing on occasion feels a little over-designed – the move from "prey" to "pray", for instance, in "Through a Glass Darkly" – there is plenty of excellent stuff that more than compensates. The same poem's invocation of the "flaked face of brick/ frostbitten, verdigris and icicles on statues. A world drawn tight" has a calm, poised precision to it that is typical of Symmons Roberts's best writing. The description of the world's reassembly in "Fragments into World" is a wonderful film-played-backwards image of the broken moon's shards being "combed / from shattered sun in utter darkness.// Then like wrong rain it falls up, gathers in the sky."

And if sometimes one resists plain assertions of belief, as in one or two of the "Wounds" poems, then there are pieces such as "On Easter Saturday" that are wholly convincing in their depiction of a faith hedged with doubt and uncertainty. One of three poems titled "Something and Nothing" gives a God's-eye view of the world as a piece of ripe fruit "a-buzz with what you take/ for wasps but is in truth all human life". It is a truly startling image, carried through with real virtuosity, to an ending in which: "The world's sick sweetness hooks your throat,/ and all our songs and lamentations coalesce – / a hornet's nest that will not let you sleep."

The striking thing about Symmons Roberts's worldview isn't so much his faith, as his determination to confront dogmatic atheism with a reasoned sense that our complacent materialism is as much a constructed fiction, a story, as anything else. Like the hound that dreams on the porch in "The End of Civilisation As We Know It", we may not be in any position to privilege one view of reality over another, to be certain that our dream-life isn't just "an openness through which the wilderness/ will pour itself, a foothold, first step to our towns,/ our homes, the crack that lets the desert in."

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