For reasons of economy, our hair was cut in the kitchen with a bowl and scissors. Well, until a slip of my father’s hand nicked my brother’s ear – then we were granted access to a proper barber, who worked from a wooden shed in the heart of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was Larbert’s Foundry Loan. There, waiting my turn to ride the board straddling the chair’s great arms, I mined a comic from the pile of papers and read, sickened, as a man was tied inside a gigantic wicker man and burnt. To my revolted six-year-old self, this horror was incomprehensible and Robin Hardy’s 1973 film was not going to make sense of this moment for many years. So, as I was lifted down and set back on my feet, I knew that the earth beneath me had twisted out of kilter forever.
Robin Robertson’s most recent collection, Hill of Doors, is greater than the sum of its parts, as its Dionysian sternum unifies his exploration of excess, sacrifice and resurrection. The Straw Manikin opens with the sombre drama of a Mediterranean Passion play: ‘The hooded penitents have passed – the shackled / Nazarenos holding their long candles – and the altar boys, / carrying the trappings of the Passion on their pillows: / the hammer and nails, the crown of thorns, the chalice / and the pliers; the soldiers’ flail, the solders’ dice.’ The plosive alliteration in line one kick-starts the poem with rhythm and energy, only for it to stall on the dash and suddenly is feels more like the slow march of a New Orleans funeral band. The alliteration repeats in line three before the poem stalls again, becoming a litany of torture and perversion as the tools of creation are reimagined as the most sadistic methods of stripping dignity and humanity from a person. The stanza leaves the reader with the distasteful ‘dice’, the waste not want not attitude of soldiers too poor or too savage to care. Robertson’s eye rhyme of ‘chalice’ and ‘dice’ appears to end the stanza with a harmonious little couplet but, while the chalice of sacrifice and the soldiers’ dice are twin halves of one august event, they are poles apart. Robertson’s refrain, with its easy rhyming couplet also offers a grotesque counterpoint to the Passion: ‘What shall we give him? The straw man is sick? . We’ll finish him off, and beat him with sticks.’ We’re suddenly transported to Mardi Gras, and to the fertility ritual in which women beat and burn the Pelele. Dionysus and Jesus eat your hearts out: we’re a species that’s always killed its gods. As Yeats writes in his play, The Resurrection, ‘Dionysus is but the newest face of this creature, the god who died and yet lives. The mob that howls through these streets does its bidding, and in time this mob will exchange the face of Dionysus for another.’
In 1964, Robertson’s listing lends the poem a dead, forensic quality: ‘In the barber-shop mirror, I study this museum of men / through glass: their shaving brushes, talc and whetted razors, / the bottles of bay rum, hair tonic, astringents; long / leather strops; those faded photographs of hairstyles, / that blue Barbicide jar on the counter / dense with pickled combs and scissors like a failed aquarium; the special drawer full of Durex, copies of Parade.’ The fact that the razors are ‘whetted’, and the special drawer is ‘full’ leaves life’s potential as dead as the failed aquarium in the Barbicide jar. Robertson’s attitude towards the past is unsentimental and unflinching. A Quick Death presents us with a restaurant lobster and gives us a ‘forecast for stormy weather. Read it / in the glass,’ adding a prophetic, portentous ‘mirror mirror’ quality to the poems. In A Childhood, ‘The last bottle of lemonade is nodding / in the rock pool, keeping cold.’ The fact that it’s already ‘the last bottle,’ even within the memory of the moment, injects a sour note of mortality. ‘Nodding’ might be interpreted as a sign of assent, but it also suggests fatigue and sleepiness, as the poem cools and freezes into something large, lonely and menacing.
The title of The Halving suggests that heart surgery diminishes the speaker. Again, Robertson assaults his reader with a list of instruments and functions that are not for the squeamish: ‘a median sternotomy / achieved by sternal saw; the ribs / held aghast by retractor; the tubes / and cannulae drawing the blood / to the reservoir, and its bubbler.’ However, in contrast with The Straw Manikin, The Halving shows that humanity’s tinkering with the body is capable of doing good, as well as inflicting suffering. Robertson invokes the Dionysus myth: in some versions, the god is torn to pieces, cooked and eaten. His heart is saved by the goddess Athena, and he is resurrected from this. However, Robertson’s title is dubious about the degree to which one can be resurrected from circumstances like these. Indeed, when the speaker awakes, it is with ‘pump-head,’ with ‘debris from the bypass machine / migrating to the brain – but it felt / more interesting than that. / Halved and unhelmed, / I have been away, I said to the ceiling, / and now am not myself.’
Hill of Doors is unflinching, honest, brave writing. The Dionysus myth both depersonalizes things by offering the reader a little distance and respite, and magnifies them, as the myth functions as an echo chamber with depth and power.