REVIEW by Victoria Mackenzie

NWR Issue 102


by Michael Symmons Roberts

Formally ambitious and packed with far-reaching ideas, Roberts’ sixth collection of poetry, Drysalter, has already won the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award. ‘Drysalter’ is an old-fashioned term meaning a dealer in drugs, dye-stuffs, gums and oils. Such earthy materials act as a counterpoint to the religious ideas underlying the collection: the title is a pun on psalter, a volume containing the Book of Psalms and other devotional material.

Drysalter is remarkable in its structure, consisting of 150 poems of fifteen lines each. The number of poems also indicates the dialogue between Roberts’ book and the Psalms, there being 150 Psalms in the Bible. Fifteen lines is an almost defiant length: so close to a sonnet, yet decisively not a sonnet. Roberts makes up the fifteen lines using almost every conceivable pattern of stanzas: three stanzas of five lines, five stanzas of three lines, seven couplets with a lone final line and so on. This adds variety to the otherwise repetitive framework, but the fifteen-line rule sometimes feels more like a straitjacket than a helpful formal constraint for the poet to play off against.

Many psalms are songs of praise and this is reflected in the titles of Roberts’ poems such as those which begin ‘Hymn to’ or ‘In Praise of’. The subjects praised may be surprising to those unfamiliar with his writing: poems include ‘Hymn to a Photo Booth’, ‘Hymn to a Roller Coaster’ and ‘Hymn to a Car Factory’. However, the unloved aspects of the modern world are familiar territory for Roberts both in his poetry and in Edgelands, his prose book co-written with fellow poet Paul Farley.

Jeanette Winterson has described Roberts as a religious poet for secular times, and his poems are often explorations of religious faith. He is, however, the least dogmatic of writers. The poem ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ ends:

Look up: stars are gone. It’s just us.

God might be there, but he’s not always visible.

Thematically, Drysalter, like Roberts’ earlier collections, is concerned with locating the spiritual in the material. This is epitomised in lines from ‘Hymn to November’:

There is no way to the soul
but through the body. [...]

Roberts is an earth-bound writer, deliberately so. In the same poem he writes:

I keep myself grounded with stones
in my pockets, marked with my children’s names.

It is the here and now that matters. Another poem, ‘In Praise of the Present’, asserts that, ‘Here is enough’, regardless of an earlier poem’s recognition that, ‘We know [...] that all // this is provisional.’

Many psalms are laments, and Roberts’ poems frequently express fears about ecological disaster or other kinds of apocalypse. Like the Psalms, these poems are calls for aid from a God we only hope is listening. In ‘Orison’ the poet pleads:

[...] God of rescue, withhold not.
O come. We are waiting for our future.

Another ‘apocalypse’ poem is titled ‘Hiraeth’, a Welsh word which has no direct translation into English but may be understood as a kind of homesickness for the Wales of the past. The poem itself makes no direct reference to Wales, but is rather a suggestion of the contingency of life, and of the familiar idea that even small incidents can spin off a chain of events that lead to catastrophe. In ‘Hiraeth’ a chef making crème brûlée sets off a hotel’s alarms:

[...] until all over town
the frightened took to streets in flight from unseen fires.
Contagion seized the wires. Within weeks nations
camped in forests; [...]

Feelings of homesickness are attributed to missing the other, older world. Roberts emphasises that the boundary between supposed normality and apocalypse, between life and death, is razor-thin and that the move from one to the other is just a small misstep.

Roberts' work is firmly in the lyric tradition and he has a fine ear for aurally-pleasing phrasing and rhythms, occasionally making use of rhyming couplets and a loose terza rima. Iambic tetrameter is his default metre and it contributes to the easy-reading quality of many of the poems. Yet despite the variety of registers and subject matter – a convincing commingling of karaoke booths and motorways with the Garden of Eden and the nature of the soul – there is a consistency of perspective, a detached, all-seeing-I, that leaves the reader strangely numb. Although individual poems are often accomplished and ingenious, the collection as a whole feels a little too neat, a little too designed. The reader quickly develops a sense of where a poem can go in fifteen lines, and there is sometimes a feeling of inevitability about the journey the poem has made as it comes to a close. Many of the poems seem deeply felt, but Roberts’ ideas deserve greater freedom to roam.


previous review: Relationships with Pictures: An Oblique Autobiography
next review: Word on the Street


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