Carl Griffin reviews Drysalter, an ambitious poetry collection by Michael Symmons Roberts which borrows from the Bible without becoming a ‘sermonic preachment’.
It is rare for a Michael Symmons Roberts collection to reach anywhere near 150 poems (a rare target for any single collection, unless your name is Felix Dennis) so Drysalter’s first ambition is to steer clear of the pitfall of including any fillers, the total number of poems being a deliberate echo of the Book of Psalms. Although browsing the collection by title may not bode well for a groundbreaking, albeit patient, exploration of secular spirituality, Michael Symmons Roberts does justice to a challenge some readers might claim has been too-heavily relied upon by poets past. Personally a diehard for poetry which dredges life’s edgelands, which searches beyond ‘self’ to find ‘self’, as a Christian, I am further intrigued by the dependence, or borrowing, of the bible for this collection, whether structurally or materially, especially given the fact that Roberts is an atheist-turned-Catholic. Although the biblical source is nothing new for Roberts, it is blatant in Drysalter, yet by no means is Drysalter a sermonic preachment. It would not have won the 2013 Forward Prize if emblazoned with religious undertones (even accounting for the fact that a poet who collaborated with Roberts on a book recently was on the judging panel) but its subtly regarding divinity and its relatable humanity were hugely attractive factors for the judges; Drysalter has also won the Costa prize, but missed out on the T.S. Eliot prize after making the shortlist; his name is not as well known, of course, as the author of Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, the last poet to win all three awards, back in the late ’90s.
Eleven poems begin with ‘Hymn to…’. Most of the lucky dedicatees are machines, such as fairground rides and various types of booths. Should these particular poems be taken seriously or are they just a mood lightener, part of a bigger picture?
In ‘Hymn to a Car Factory’, we see beyond banks of trucks, ‘new-minted, not yet owned’, to a creationist truth we would rather not be made aware of:
vast hangars harbour rows of robot arms,
tilted at the tail like beak-down birds. Their work,
these flightless freaks, these corvines
– who have to scavenge to survive –
is to pick at the skeletons of family sedans.
While in ‘Hymn to the Falschfahrer’ comes a more obvious and rebellious tribute addressed to the rider of the vehicle as it tears to the end of a slip road: ‘to him and his machine be praise,’. On the topic of cars, don’t overlook the ghostly, distant-land focus of the superbly subtle ‘Asleep in the Back’. In lower numbers, but still effectual, are song poems, elegy poems and ‘In Praise of…’ poems.
It is so difficult to miss the connection with the hymns, lamentations, thanks-giving, prayers and pieces for royal occasions, which dominate the Book of Psalms and which pop-up elsewhere in the Old Testament, that Drysalter becomes Roberts’ own personal psalter.
Restricting freedom further, each poem in Drysalter is 15 lines long, although the stanzas are broken up in different ways, the forms familiar if you have read a previous collection by Roberts. Is Roberts making an obtuse point about the absurdity of sonnets, or are the poems in Drysalter, as Kate Kellaway, writer for the Observer, suggests, super-sonnets? Either way, the blurb’s claim that all 150 poems are 15 lines long is not, pedantically speaking, accurate. ‘The Limb That Carried Everything’ is only 14 lines long (every line of this book has now been counted; goodbye Boxing Day), meaning either Mr Blurb Writer cannot count or Roberts is a spoilsport. To be fair though, ‘The Limb That Carried Everything’ is a worthwhile read, which will mainly remind you of the agony of stoically allowing your partner to rest on your arm while sleeping. Maybe an extra line would have spoiled it.
Do the fifteen lines ever become conspicuously restrictive? While it is true that some lines are absurdly long while others are short, this could be for variation and sound. The image of Roberts sat at his desk spending further hours ensuring not a single poem reached its sixteenth birthday, while retaining each poem’s idiosyncrasies, is not the most flattering.
In Drysalter’s first poem there is a worldwide earthquake, a breaking of everything. In the last, everything that is damaged or broken is healed, a ‘recapitulation of the world we knew.’ In this repetition during growth, has anything changed? Is contemplation and secular spirituality kit enough to constitute a significant renovation? Psalms 146-150, the final handful, begin and end with ‘Hallelujah’, or ‘Praise the Lord!’ Likewise, Roberts ends with gratitude. He has arrived at transcendence but it is mutable. He is weary of the fragility of the surface, for his growth might be reversible. What could also be construed as ungratefulness, the last thought is a superstitious pause, or careful consideration, as if a stone has been dropped onto a frozen puddle, and no one knows, though they fear the worst while praying for the best, what will happen when it lands:
So once again we walk, and witness,
give thanks for the tangible and visible,
but no one dares to sing a note, dig in a heel.
As the cliché goes, this poet’s latest book is by far his best, but after reading Drysalter, the temptation will be to dig up Roberts’ previous books, such as Corpus and The Half Healed. And you will be thankful for it.
Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts, 176 pages, Jonathan Cape, £12.00.
Carl Griffin has written many poetry reviews for Wales Arts Review.