Nomadic Subjects in Recent Poetry
That sense of place people bang on about is absolutely crucial. And there is
something about trying to get back to that beach where I walked. (Robin
Robertson, ‘Love and Loss’)1
In August 2008 the London Review of Books carried a poem by a leading editor for a metropolitan publisher. ‘At Roane Head’ is dedicated to John Burnside (1955–), the Dunfermline-born poet and novelist who lived in the English Home Counties and Gloucestershire before returning to Fife, where he teaches at St Andrews University. Burnside's novel of the same year, The Devil's Footprints, transfers to the fictional Scottish village of Coldhaven a mid-nineteenth-century South Devon superstition that grew up around the appearance of mysterious tracks in the snow; and then develops it as a convincingly realist narrative of contemporary East-Coast schoolboy experience. Robin Robertson (1955–) sets his poem for Burnside in Ireland, where conversational familiarity – ‘You'd know her house by the drawn blinds’ – and Scoto-Irish idiom – ‘It would put the heart across you, all that grief’ – personalise an encounter with the folk-lore, fairy tale and popular beliefs that Edwin Muir had warned all Scottish writers against.2 In Scottish Journey (1935) Muir presented his appraisal as a matter of ‘no choice’ for poets looking to make their mark, emphasising instead the need for a ‘more individual and less local’ voice.3 Robertson, who was born in Scone, Perthshire, brought up on the coast of north-east Scotland, and has since spent much of his professional life in London where he now lives, exercises a different take on both the folk impulse and local orientation, while amply fulfilling Muir's requirement.
Known as ‘selkies’ in Scotland, ‘roanes’ are the Irish version of ‘sealpeople’ who put seal-skins on their natural human form (or vice-versa) to pass through water from one region or state to another. ‘At Roane Head’ extends Robertson's fascination with the shape-changing customary in myth and legend; and poetry, he has suggested, ‘like myth or spirituality or religion’ offers ‘similar ways of making sense of our lives’.4 Raised in Aberdeen, where his father was Church of Scotland university chaplain, Robertson grew up