BY FINUALA DOWLING
It’s because it’s not enough to say, ‘I love you… miss you … fear death … wonder why I’m here… feel strange… cry sometimes… doubt reality’ that we need poets of Michael Symmons Roberts’ exceptional eloquence. As his poem ‘In Babylon’ suggests, most of us have forgotten how to sing: ‘All they do is jabber now… our harps grew out of reach.’
In an era in which much poetry is composed by the tin-eared, favouring clichés, unedited blurts and facile carriage returns, Symmons Roberts reaches up to unhook a forgotten harp from its willow frond. His Forward and Costa award-winning Drysalter stands out as a virtuoso collection, combining consolation, craft and muscular imagination with a rare musicality.
Much has been made of the sheer feat of Symmons Roberts’ sixth collection — 150 poems, each one (well, there’s one, deeply-buried, exception) 15 lines in length — and of the clever play on ‘psalter’ in the title. But while the design is impressive, it is also risky.
Drysalter is a long collection which initially gives the impression both of containing too much and of being too contained. In a BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson, Symmons Roberts admitted that after a while, ‘I kind of knew what a Drysalter poem would feel like, what it would sound like’.
The risk is that the reader, having grasped the 15-line length restriction (though with varied stanza patterns), the poet’s drive to match the Bible’s psalm-count, and the rhythmic and tonal patterning that marks the collection, will share the quoted prescience, and put the book down.
This would be a mistake. As with famous sonnet cycles and sequences, the display of bravura ultimately proves necessary. The whole exertion of the exercise pushes the poet to the limit of his powers. As the collection expands, it develops a geography that one inhabits.
Poems in Drysalter start up conversations with one another and with the reader. The invitation to participate is hard to resist. ‘Lachrima Negativa’, for example, which begins ‘Someone told me not to cry’, not only answers my implied question about that which is ‘dry’ in this psalter, but also makes ‘Portrait of the Psalmist as a Man in Tears’ all the more affecting.
When you write an admiring book review, you have to have a sense of who you’re recommending the book to. I do not think my Bradfordian great-grandfather Mollin, who actually described himself as a ‘drysalter’ (an importer of chemicals, salts and dyes) would have understood many of these poems. It’s testimony to Roberts’ extraordinary bending of the planes of time, his easy passage between the real and the unreal, that I even consider the long-dead among his target market.
Like the great metaphysical poets, Symmons Roberts writes with conceptual flourish. Almost every poem casts aside readymade thoughts and ponders the alternatives. ‘What gives the real such precedence?’ he asks in ‘Night Freight’, and then goes on, in a series of nighttime poems, to present an argument for the transcendent. Perhaps the night train is
Lit not so that she can see to clip our tickets,
nor so we can read the news, but lit
to make of us and it an eel-shared full
vivarium to show the wild hills what
a world can be
In other poems, this technique of inversion is used for a spiritual or ethical purpose. The effect is to insist that the reader sees the world from the point of view of ‘the others’ who ‘being other… have not met you yet,/but some – with time and chance – could love you,/if you would let them get that close’.
A powerful poem in this vein is ‘Smitten’, which gently mocks the absurd reasoning we use to define our ‘enemies’: ‘we do not like the cut/of their suits’, ‘their taste in jokes,/their labial plosives, their coffee too/sweet and too hot’, ‘the way they look out/over strong drinks at chiselled mountains’.
In this advanced secular age, Michael Symmons Roberts writes poems for people who still have moral belief. The series of poems entitled ‘The Wounds’ make a powerful anti-war statement; the beautiful poem ‘The Count’, and the bookended pair of poems both titled ‘A Plea for Clemency’, work with a George Herbert-like intensity to urge wisdom and mindfulness.
Michael Symmons Roberts is that phenomenon we call a poet’s poet. His poems demand close reading and knowledge of the tradition of poetry, especially elegy. Poems echo the first lines of Auden’s ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, of Empson’s villanelle ‘Missing Dates’, Frost’s ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’ and perhaps even William Carlos Williams’ ‘Red Wheelbarrow’.
They’re not cover versions, but inter-texts. In ‘The Road Retaken,’ we leave Frost not behind but ahead as the poet offers a brilliantly witty vision of evolution in reverse. ‘Elegy for the Unknown Elegists’ is a compassionate memorial for amateur obituarists.
Drysalter is a collection I would recommend to students of poetry. In these poems you can hear the unforced music of the metrical yet nevertheless fully contemporary line. The collection demonstrates form — stanzaic form as well as the genres of elegy, hymn, psalm, vow – and how to reinterpret it.
Above all, Drysalter is an exemplar of the possibilities of imagery. These lines say all that needs to be said about both the power and the duplicity of metaphor:
Hours away, he finds a hair of hers
stitched into his shirt like fuse-wire,
though he will later tell her like brocade.
Beyond the enduring poetic themes of love, death and transcendence, Symmons Roberts is preoccupied with questions about the future and whether or not we have a destiny. The poem ‘It is Coming’ faces up to our inevitable obsolescence; ‘Footfall’ neatly sets out a range of different shoes to signal future possibilities for a baby; ‘Automatic Soothsayer Booth’ mocks our quest for clairvoyance.
As the pun on psalter/salter suggests, Symmons Roberts knows that the role of psalmist/singer comes with the less noble task of salter/preserver. Like the ‘walking desiccants’ in ‘The Guild of Salters’, he knows that this job of preservation — keeping up the poetic tradition, administering the rites of consolation, performing the role of commemoration — comes at a price:
sandpaper for eyelids,
thirst that never pales,
ingrown lips and tongue as biltong.
A poet for South Africans, too.