The first thing to be said about this intriguing book is
how wonderfully designed it is, from the elegant cover design - image and
typography beautifully balanced - to the textual layout. Rarely would I
advocate the use of such small type (it can't be more than 8 point) but it's
crisp and perfectly legible, even to my failing eyesight, and looks wonderful
on the page. A triumph of design - functional and unfussily elegant.
The poetry itself is largely based around the artefacts from the Hoxne
treasure, a late Roman archaeological hoard from Suffolk, now based in the
British Museum. What's impressive about the writing, apart from its elegance,
is the interrelation between description and evocation, so there is a sort of
oblique narrative going on here which deals with memory, a sense of loss and
of the beauty of 'the artefact' itself, a melding of the past and the
present. Prose blocks relate to open-field poetry and a more traditional use
of verse form but there's an integrity to the entire work which is satisfying
and makes for a very good read:
flickering the wrist, vein and artery: bordered, buoyant.
hand, jaw - molten crisscross congealed: vowel-sailing,
venetian blind: unloosed. She summons, unlocking
herding the heart: impatient, restless. Every escape
lost in the
river's rising lineaments: tree, fading mist. Warbler
across earth, departure a whirlpool. Lips amend the nostril's breath,
outward thrust of words turn earward - hissing,
touch and trill. Indwelling the disk of nail the blink of eye
'Four Matching Gold Bangles')
There's a sense of an emerging quest in the opening section White Swan, where we get:
I was busy
with the details of a bracelet lost many years ago
on a street
filled with people walking north and south.
which merges the teeming present with the archaic past in a visual
encapsulation which is wonderfully succinct yet intriguingly suggestive.
Robles combines a spare and yet lush lyricism with a hinting at myth and
ritual which is attractive, mysterious and yet perennially human, if that
isn't too ripe a clichˇ.
Love, too, is
distant and fatal, requiring coins for the ferryman.
A viaticum of
words carefully saved -
placed on the
The relation between the act of art and the product itself is something which
Robles plays with throughout the text, though her playfulness has its serious
side. There's a section in White Swan which describes the making of marbled paper, an activity which
combines chance with pattern-making, a process which I can well remember
experimenting with - intense, frustrating yet very satisfying when you come
up with a positive result:
planet veers through space, resembles an afternoon in Los Angeles,
fashioned marbled paper on the patio:
red and gold tangled
on the face
of the pan's water, oily and unmixable,
combed into pattern.
fingertips stained, disappearing into the swirl-patterned surface.
paper, good for nothing but wrapping the pages of a book.
by, their paddling feet invisible.
The richness of the Roman hoard is more than matched by the richness of the
writing itself but this is poetry which has no 'fat' or over-ornamentation.
The relation between the artefacts in question with human concerns is both
clear and yet intriguing:
carefully packed they were nothing more
extraneous. The precious stones prized
rings and gone
'There is no
misfortune in the world equal to separation'
Perhaps the act of working with materials from the far past enables us to
better speculate on the nature of loss itself, between parent and child,
between lovers, and to contemplate the nature of desire in a cooler yet not
The final poem Red Boat
contains the following lines:
between them opening faster than the words you speak
My history is
folded into a square of page and colored with childhood ink -
faded to brown, a seepage away from shadow
time's contours -
The book being written becomes part of the hoard, a meditation on mortality
and on life itself, its strangeness and mystery. Yet there's a real sense of
celebration here, amid the sadness and sense of loss, filled with beauty and
with sensuousness. This is an impressive collection, beautifully structured,
taut and pared down yet lyrically rich in its exactness.
© Steve Spence 2013