Counterblast to grief

Slow Air

Robin Robertson <em>Picador, 62pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0330488805

Robin Robertson has the eye of a painter. This book, his second collection, is at once a series of still-life studies of natural forms and an exploration of the means of repre- sentation; it gives primacy to sense-impressions while also attempting to understand and establish the privileged perspective of the viewing consciousness. Or, to put it another way, there are an awful lot of colours in it - from flamingo feathers to the scarlet and amber of Virginia creeper, the bruised blues of a sky at sunset and the "pale yellow flare" of beech leaves.

Not only does Robertson have a painter's eye, but he also has a marvellous lyrical gift; there is considerable beauty in these poems of attachment and loss. His similes have the smack and shock of both originality and verisimilitude: the side wall coming away from a house is "like a glacier calving"; burning coals sound as though they are "unwrapping themselves like sweets". Above all, there's a sustained engagement with the skin of the plastic world, whether it's the memento mori of a sheep's skull or a broken glass in the sink.

But there is something else going on, too, and it's hinted at in a poem towards the end of the book, a haiku called "Natural History". It retells a story from Pliny about two artists who compete to see which of them can produce the more convincingly realistic painting. One paints a bunch of grapes so true to life that birds try to peck at them; but the other conjures a trompe l'oeil pair of curtains that fools even his rival: "Draw the curtain that/cannot be pulled, watch birds peck/at a painted field."

The paradox here is to do with the notion of an artistic representation that is apparently more real than the reality it portrays. A forest seen at dawn, for instance, is "like a botched photocopy of itself". Yet framing experience as art is perhaps the only way to accommodate the unapproachably, intolerably real.

Robertson at times seems to be reaching back to and reclaiming an earlier tradition: of Coleridge and Keats certainly, but also of the empiricist philosophers for whom sense-impressions provided the basis from which all other knowledge proceeds. Yet for all the sensuality of the verse, this isn't about seeking refuge in luxuriance. There's an honesty in Robertson's lyricism, even as he faces the Cartesian conundrum: what are the conditions for knowledge? How do I know I exist? The answer lies, perhaps, in a walk on the beach: "The tide was out,/and each step whitened the sand/like pressed skin./Behind me all this evidence:/an almost straight line/of footprints,/clothes, credit cards,/proving I exist."

There are a couple of less satisfying pieces (in particular, a short sequence of prose poems that read like dream narratives). But Slow Air is an impressive book, a defiant counterblast against grief and the evanescence of things through the determined construction of meaning, whether it be with pigmented oil on canvas or these black strokes on a white ground.

Adam Newey is poetry editor of the New Statesman

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