Grimoire by Robin Robertson
Published by Pan Macmillan, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I love all things inspired by the dark side of folk and fairy tales, so when I caught sight of this collection of narrative poems from Robin Robertson, I was instantly intrigued. From stories of ghosts, witches and doppelgängers, to tales of selkies and changelings, the poems draw on Scotland’s rich tradition of mythology and storytelling to explore themes of heartache, revenge, and transformation. Often focussing on those who are vilified for their differences, thematically the pieces pay homage to the classics as much as they resonate within today’s society.
The absolute standout piece for me was a gender-swapped piece about a woman who attempts to keep her half-selkie children safe from the prying eyes of their neighbours – and the wrath of her jealous husband. “For years she tended each difficult flame: / their tight, flickering bodies. / Each night she closed / the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire.” It’s a tragic and beautiful poem with an absolute knock-out ending that is all the more powerful for how subtly it is delivered.
Other favourites include the stories of a town cursed to suffer a brutal winter by a scorned woman; a boy attempting to outsmart a witch; and a couple whose son is snatched by faeries and replaced by a changeling despite their exhaustive efforts to keep him safe.
I love Robertson’s use of language. It’s lyrical yet always so readable, and I adore the way he weaves in Scots words throughout (there’s a glossary of these terms at the back for those unfamiliar with them, but the meaning of most can be gleaned contextually). He has a knack for creating stark, hauntingly macabre images perfectly suited to the subject matter. Take for example a decaying corpse, its ribcage “a rack of bones like a sprung trap”. Or this description of a girl obsessed with exploring the bodies of dead animals:
“[…] cutting up fish
to see how they worked;
by morning’s end her nails
were black red, her hands
all sequined silver.
She unpuzzled rabbits
to a rickle of bones;
dipped into a dormouse
for the pip of its heart.”
Simple yet haunting illustrations – provided by Robertson’s brother, Tim – are peppered throughout the collection as well. Compared in the blurb to cave paintings, these striking images do indeed possess an eerie timelessness that enhances the impact of the book as a whole.
As is to be expected with any collection, a few poems failed initially to land with quite the same impact as the strongest offerings, but the quality of the language and narrative drive is consistently high throughout. Plus, I’ve already been dipping in and out of this again and picking up on new details; my appreciation growing each time I do. A few individual poems are undoubtedly among my favourites from any poet, and it seems the more time I take to mull this one over, the more the collection as a whole is also cementing its place among my favourites.
I’ll leave you with another excerpt, as I think the best way to know if a poet’s style will work for you is simply to give it a try. So here is one of my favourite passages from one of the aforementioned poems, in which a mother accepts the painful truth that the baby she has been raising as her son is in fact a changeling; that he will never belong in their world, and her true son is gone. (Note: ‘north-dancers’ is a term for the aurora borealis.)
“Mother always said that we wear our dreams – all living things:
the goshawk shows on his breast a flock of geese,
the mountain hare becomes snow in winter; the mackerel
carries the streamoury of the north-dancers on its back,
the silver-green and barred black
that ebbs to grey when it’s taken from the sea.
So our son had eyes the blue of far off places,
and he wore his skin like water.
For some it’s not long, the waiting, for that
decay of light – when all is flown, all faded, washed away.
When I reached the cottage, the crib was still empty.
The crib lies empty still.”