I enjoy reading poetry very much, but seldom read it systematically, an entire volume of poems carefully conceived and published as an architectural creation by one single poet. And it’s even more rare that I actually review such a book when I do read it. So I’ll try to remedy this now.
Michael Symmons Roberts has won the Forward Prize for the best poetry collection of 2013 with ‘Drysalter’, a volume of 150 sonnet-like, rather metaphysical poems. But don’t be put off by its apparent obscurity: there are many beautiful, touching and immediately accessible poems in this volume.
I did not know what a drysalter was (an 18th century dealer in chemicals, salts and dyes, apparently), but there is a poem in this collection called ‘Wetsalter’, which speaks of all the pain and wounds an over-sensitive soul must endure. Perhaps the poet himself.
So here’s the rub: his salt, your skin.
He flays you first, then kneads it in.’
But then self-irony kicks in, there is no time nor patience for weeping and wailing:
but cured you are, prosciutto-man
your self preserved in perma-tan
It is this irreverent mix which makes such a strong initial impression: modern concepts, words with shock-factor writ large, technology creeping in at the seams and jostling alongside old-fashioned cadences, the psalmodic quality of the work, the titles and forms of the poems themselves, each perfectly executed on a single page. A rich tapestry of vocabulary, ranging from mentions of sonnets, cobalt, thou and portents to hymns dedicated to cars, photo-booths or karaoke machines.
There are echoes of John Milton or Donne to many of the verses: ‘essence of turmoil I plead and I pester’ or ‘you start and finish me, you’re my extent’ or ‘slowly, come slowly, o agents of despair/ paint the sky with portents, number my regrets’. Just as you get caught in the beauty of the rhythm and the language, the poet turns suddenly towards the resolutely modern. ‘Email me the date’, he asks of you or states quietly ‘the resting actor hunts down his demons in the pool’.
There are three recurring themes or landscapes in this volume of poetry, all interconnected yet distinct.
1) A grey winter (English winter, which means relentless November most times), a landscape of storms, abandonment and ruins, with flaked brick walls, lit cars flashing by, but also a hint of hope, in the shape of wind-sorrell and willowherb growing amidst the concrete.
2) The desert, both physical and metaphorical: canyons with snakes and scorpions, the villas backing onto the empty, the crack that lets the desert in, tumbleweed rattling in the wind, the blanked, orphaned, vacant set of Hollywood life.
3) A post-apocalyptic world gouged by invisible fires, where you feel pursued by a guild of salters, both wet and dry, where none of the rules or normal signs make sense. You have to work out ‘what the sea could want from us’, you feel dessicated, as if ‘somebody is after me, gaining miles a day/ and unlike me they never stop to sleep.’
But it would be wrong to see just angst and despair in these grim landscapes, although the overall feel of these poems is grim and disquieting. There are some beautiful instances of trust and love, the comfort of personal relationships, such as in ‘The Vows’. Ultimately, it feels like Michael Symmons Roberts has tried to take a world which has broken into fragments ‘a world more fragile than we thought’ and put it back together to the best of his ability, with nothing wasted. There are many references to song, psalms and elegies in this collection, as a way of making sense of a world only partially perceived and understood. “Sing as if singing made sense,/ sing in the caves of your heart.’ He seeks to convey all the variety and richness of emotions, the original fury of words, a diversity of experiences until
…one day the world drops into your hands
like a bruised fruit, a-buzz with what you take
for wasps, but is in truth all human life.’
And, ultimately, is that not what all poetry is about? Trying to capture multitudes, forever seeking and asking questions, trusting to find and save a thin glimmer of truth for all time. A book to savour and return to, in times of plenitude and times of despair, like all good poetry.