Michael Symmons Roberts: grounded and grand.
Corpus and The Half Healed should be read together. The Half Healed continues, although more grimly, what Corpus begins: the world as "stripped" room, vacated house, war-zone hotel. Both books overlap the world's body and the individual body. The co-identification of world and body dominates in Corpus, and the former--the hotel metaphor--in The Half Healed. We begin with Corpus, winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award, and shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, the T.S. Eliot, and the Forward.
Roberts has been compared to John Donne, but he's more Emily Dickinson, rethinking everything for himself (as Harold Bloom says of Dickinson). Roberts' "cognitive originality" is what makes his poetry so startling even though his language, as to diction and syntax, is straightforward enough, often monosyllabic, always unpretentious. In fact, the perfectly weighted, verb-and-noun dense diction, underscored by musicality, ratchets up the strangeness. The structure of the book also enforces its strangeness. In Corpus, we encounter the body from many perspectives: animal, human, angelic; as corpse, carcass, cadaver; as "pelt" and "hide"; in sex and in hunger; and finally, Edenic or resurrected. Such a breadth of imagery confirms the book's opening identification of skin and world: "I found the world's pelt / nailed to the picture-rail / of a box-room in a cheap hotel." The narrator confesses "I tried it on, of course," and then admits, "but no." These two words are the entrance to the book. There's more to body than pelt or hide:
... your soul as heavy as your self; sleek, seal-like, made of light, love, marrow ... made of body.
Soul is body, and then some.
Similarly, there's something surplus to the geneticist's map: "Somewhere out there," off the map, "are remnants / of our evolution, genes for how // to fly south, sense a storm, / hunt at night...." Dead codes for lost knowledge and skills reverberate through the body and in "our dreams." Each image of the body--as corpse, pelt, and so forth--recurs as the book maps the world's body and, more importantly, maps the body beyond the world, in resurrection. The "World's Body" is a doubly meant phrase. It's the body, or physicality, of the world, yes, but it also refers to the body we bear in the world. There are two formal sequences focused on nourishment--the five-part "Carnivorous" and the elegant six-part "Food for Risen Bodies"--but even in the stand-alone poems, particular requirements of the body, or perspectives on it, keep reappearing. Roberts works in returns, introducing and returning to states and conditions of the body. One of the things I admire about his work is his care with a book's structure.
Corpus is a world-and-time embracing volume: it travels from "the world primeval, / pre-material" to the present-day science of reconstructive DNA and other resurrection events. A pathologist, eviscerating bodies, "fill[s] the cavity / with seawashed pebbles ..." only to dream later the bodies' eventual awakenings, "bend[ing] aside the roots which stitched / them underground...." In "Post-Mortem" the narrator "on the slab" experiences the pathologist's procedure at length, after which, kissing him, "she says, 'In the next room you will find / some simple clothes and food. You will / be hungry. Leave us now.'" Acts of intimacy, tenderness and generosity occur. There's a quiet optimism, an unextravagant sensuality in Corpus. Generosity is often related to food. Each of the five poems in the "Carnivorous" series begins with the cook's spoken invitation, sometimes formulated as a question: "The cook said, 'Let this be a feast / for those who hungered all their lives'" and then later in the series, "'Are there any here / who spent their lives in flight?'" Following each invitation, cooked meat or fish is offered. The series is a puzzle-box: inside each animal, there's another animal. Representative creatures of land, sea, air are offered, ending with the "shell-less snail," which, since none takes it, the cook himself eats. The provisioner to the resurrected--he who has endured all the conditions that are named in the invitations--"slipped away, out into the driving rain, / leaving a clean plate in his place." Spell-like, the series eludes interpretation. This is true of many of the poems in Corpus. They have an impact--move us deeply--but resist exegesis. "Carnivorous" and the other series, "Food for Risen Bodies," which is also distributed through the book, are trace pieces of liturgy, reverberant although plain-spoken.
Besides the numerous poems set in the stainless steel laboratories of geneticists and pathologists, the book is also interested in the evolutionary regressive, "the vestigial fins and gills" that might be found on a lover's body. In "Grounded," the "shoulder-blades" of the beloved "reveal / themselves as wing-stumps." Corpus pulls into the present both an evolutionary past and a sacred past. Several poems retell biblical stories, among them "Jairus": "So, God takes your child by the hand / and pulls her from her deathbed. / He says: 'Feed her, she is ravenous:" In the midst of the quotidian, transformations and miracles occur. The everyday feeling of these occurrences has something to do with the voices of the participants. God or angel--gruff of voice and domestic and commonsensical in advice: 'Feed her, she is ravenous'--is of this world, not another. "The Gifts" speculates on what happened to the wise men's gifts and to the wise men after their visit: the poem's contemporary language ("walls strafed / with bullets") extends their palace-renunciation and their "walk[ing] the hills alone" into our own time. "Choreography" is the best example of how Roberts reworks these stories. Near Jabbok Brook, the narrator boxes with a stammering angel, whose "clicking" tongue annoys the narrator more than the angel's "jabs." The narrator is "damaged," touched on "the hollow of my thigh." only then does the angel speak: "'You had me there', he says, / I had to do your leg to settle things.'" You can almost see the angel lighting a smoke as he says with a shrug, "'You had me there.'" "Choreography" looks forward, in its dance metaphor, to the later poem "Study for the World's Body," set in an abandoned house:
... among the perfect geometry of unfurnished rooms, an intimacy takes two people by surprise. It may be, in the world's eyes they should not be here, but without their risk the house is bare.
An embrace--with lover or angel--is congruent with grace, and in both cases there are risks. These rooms and the other unfurnished ones of Corpus lead directly into The Half Healed.
The reader enters and leaves The Half Healed by way of a war-zone hotel, located nowhere and everywhere. The Intercontinental could be in New York, Sarajevo, Uzbekistan. Frequently, there are lovers in the hotel room. Sometimes the hotel takes the form of a "palace on a hill ... half-restored." The book is populated by bodyguards; men in tunics; hooded victims; the blind and the wounded (of the title poem). There are wastelands and bomb-sites. As compared to Corpus, the language register moves down ("middle-ranking bureaucrat"; "written-off containers"); the tone is ironic and it's a self-conscious irony--"Keep an eye on that irony." Questions such as "How did it come to this?" are ubiquitous. Imagery is apocalyptic. The Hotel Intercontinental is "half-submerged in sand," and in another scenario, in "The Kingdom of Water Is Coming," we are "half-adapted but half-drowned." The "white nights" of the city is an end-state: "There are only hours left now, / no days, nor nights. Sunset / is a tall tale told by grandparents." Unnerving, disturbing, Roberts' fifth collection feels like a countdown.
If Corpus is about resurrection, The Half Healed is about an ongoing fall. The fallen angels are now bodyguards with dogs--dog and man much alike. Alternatively, the fall's not ongoing, but just beginning: "What was the turn, the trigger, / the telling point when paradise ! slipped through our fingers?" "Not a bitten fruit" apparently, but the sound of timers, as in "the mercury tilt of a timer in / a long-parked car." The tongue-clicking of the wrestling angel in Corpus has been replaced, in The Half Healed, by the ticking of bombs.
In the world's hotel--the urban wasteland--glimpses of the sacred are just that: glimpses. Just as in Corpus, where the geneticist is a motorist, so also in The Half Healed, highways and cars crisscross a landscape, and these, curiously, are linked to incursions of the Lord, whose transit through the heated city is a "blind rush," leaving behind rumours of "sightings" and "snow": "the streets and rooftops shine / / with it, unseasonal, unprecedented. / Everyone and no one knows who sent it." The four horsemen of the apocalypse, "unsaddled and suited," are "lost in the city discreet and spread-sheeted." The bodyguards, former angels, wear "hooded tops / like dog skins." The word "hooded" occurs frequently, to sinister effect. In the way in which this book collapses time--ancient and contemporary simultaneous--the "hooded" riders of the apocalypse are now everywhere among us. In another poem, a bureaucrat who has been "filleted" searches for his missing half: "Is it curled in a jar on a butcher's shelf?. / Or cured like a haunch, / strung up in a chilled room?"
In The Half Healed Roberts gears down his language from litany to post-urban gothic, suitable to our limbo state. Similarly, he inverts the feasting metaphors of Corpus. Whereas in the shared meals of Corpus, the "bodily soul" is nourished, in the most recent volume, the soul, separated from the body, is jarred and "chilled." In The Half Healed, we don't know where we are exactly, or who we are. There's a slide between animal and human, rendered eerily in the brilliant pair of poems "Man in a Fox Suit" and "Fox in a Man Suit." This slide, indicative of our confusion, should be considered in conjunction with the illuminant magical animal poems of Raising Sparks (1999)--"Sun-Dogs," an eel "silvering upriver," "a firefly in an ice-nest." One idea in Roberts' second, light-filled book, Raising Sparks, is the notion that sparks from the act of divine creation remain in the world: the firefly found in "an ice-nest" is "a fragment / of the bone china vessels of creation / smashed by God's let-there-be-light." Raising sparks, no matter how dark the present, is a redemptive act. It is what Roberts does.
The generosity and grace celebrated in Corpus is grieved, in the world of The Half Healed, as a lost language. When the excavators of Beauty's grave--in the sonnet sequence "Grave Goods"--discover her body, it is written over with poetry, but only phrasal fragments remain: "in blue across / her breast the words tips of your fingers, / in scarlet on the neck's nape flesh of pears." The twelve-part "Last Words" series, measured out across the book, is the saddest thing imaginable. Roberts wrote it to mark the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11.
The Half Healed is grim in ways that Corpus, in spite of its clinical laboratories, is not; yet there's "Hope, yes. In this half-life, hope." Roberts doesn't ask us to forego the contemporary or ignore present-day chaos to contemplate the sacred and mysterious. He locates these in the midst of the everyday--its degradations and disasters. "Now and in England," T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, "is the nearest, in place or time." There or here or anywhere "the most elusive are the closest" (Raising Sparks), and what's both elusive and close are Roberts' numinous moments.
There are three poets with whose minds I like to live; three books by those poets--Roberts' Corpus; Charles Wright's Scar Tissue; Don Domanski's All Our Wonder Unavenged--that remain permanently unshelved at my house. These poets share what might loosely be called a religious sensibility. Roberts, with whom I've spent the most time lately, writes about "the metaphysics of the quotidian," to use Wright's phrase (Sestets), except in Roberts' work the quotidian is in peril. Imperilled though it is, there is still a holiness lurking in the everyday. Celebrants of the daily, these three are aware of the way in which the "hem" and "seam" of this world touches upon another (Domanski). If they ever get together for a conversation, I'd like to be there to overhear it.
Books by Michael Symmons Roberts
Burning Babylon. London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.
Corpus. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004.
The Half Healed. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.
Raising Sparks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
Soft Keys. London: Secker Et Warburg, 1993; Jonathan Cape, 2009.