My childhood and other poetry: a book review


Michael Symmons Roberts

Cape Poetry, 2013


Weekends in my childhood were busy times. Sport, church (three times), grandparents, cemetery (where my brother was buried), and a ‘Visit’. Visits were either to the countryside – picnic, walking, paddling – or to a National Trust property. Mostly my parents would have been before and so we would go to the drawer in the dining room where the guide books were kept and pack the relevant volume to be read on the journey. Interestingly, for a very sporty family (but not me), we didn’t take balls, rackets etc for these Visits. Visits were for learning and conversation. ‘Richard, put that book down and talk to us’, was my most frequent telling-off.

I have been an obsessive reader for as long as I can remember. I defeated the best efforts of my family to remove books from me on those Visits. Hiding books in the car, the picnic basket and down my trousers. I have always claimed my need to read was greater than my need to sleep, a claim disproved when I fell asleep as a ten-year-old with the bedside light under the duvet, only woken when the smoke from the burn through the sheet to the mattress woke my brother, who shared the room. Dad quickly attached a bedside light to the wall.

It is unbearable to me to be without a book, and as well as my Breviary I always carry a book of poems with me. For many years it was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in a beautiful leather-bound, pocket edition I had found second-hand. There is a snobbish rejection of Palgrave and it undoubtedly is over-romantic and, of course, very dated, but, even now, I wouldn’t be disappointed to have it as a Desert Island book.

At other times a lovely pocket leather-bound and clasped volume of Wesley’s Hymns satisfied my needs. There have been many years when a version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus were my constant companion, including, at times, the version by Don Patterson. For the last few years it has been a collection of Denise Levertov’s poetry The Stream and The Sapphire that has been to hand.

Just two days ago I discovered (Ok, bought) a book I hadn’t seen before and which I suspect will be with me for a while, and (warning, dear friends) my gift of choice when I visit people, a gift more of my heart than flowers, or even a bottle of wine. Michael Symmons Roberts was born in the north-west and teaches in Manchester. He is probably best known as a collaborator with the composer James MacMillan (recommendation enough for me).

Drysalter is a collection of 150 extended (15 line) sonnets. The title deliberately evoking the 150 psalms of the biblical psalter.

The poet can be heard reading poems from this collection (introducing by the inimitable Simon Armitage) here:

There are numerous reviews of the book online.

What makes a book a daily companion for me is a timeless, revelatory style. Like the psalms themselves, these poems come from a deep mine that surely is other than just one person. They are not too obvious as to defy frequent re-reading but neither too complex that they are an intellectual exercise in de-coding.

At the front of the book Roberts quotes Neruda:

I shivered in those


when I heard

the voice

of the salt

in the desert.

The poet like the psalmist is not just reciting his or her own consciousness but is one who has listened, and reports what he or she hears.

I am only just getting to know Drysalter so need to be careful of suggesting more knowledge of the collection than I have. But already I love the variety of form within this tight structure, the strong sense of poet as a compassionate observer, and the subtle and not so subtle, but all-pervasive, echoes of the biblical psalter.

There is no sense in which Roberts is attempting to parallel the actual psalms, but I would love in one round of praying the Divine Office to read the equivalent poem with each psalm – if only there were time!

Like the Psalter, Drysalter, is strong on lament, rightly identifying the purpose of lament as naming our losses:

Slowly, come slowly, o agents of despair,

paint the skies with portents, number my regret,

rent me a hotel room, lend me one more night,

let me name my losses, help me pay my debts,

slowly, come slowly, o agents of despair.

(A Plea For Clemency, 9)

Or, as in the magnificent Ascension (11)

Because the sun has a dark heart,

the heart must have a dark sun shut inside,

unable to rise or blaze or set

Because dark has a sunburst heart,

it fights to hold night in: the firmament itself

down among us, standing at a bar

all day with one malt …


Poetry helps me bear the darkness of the world, without it I don’t think I could contain the night: a sunburst heart, a malt whiskey, powerful images that act as life-belts.

There is less ‘praise’ than in the biblical psalter, and it is certainly not directed to God, but there is some, and it is strong stuff:

Sing a new song to the Lord

sing as if singing made sense,

sing in the caves of your heart,

sing like you want them to dance,

sing through the shades of your past,


sing what you never could say,

sing at the fulcrum of joy,

sing without need of reply.

A New Song, 128

The ‘fulcrum of joy’ is a delicious, tantalising phrase that expresses just that moment when joy is possible, a moment I have never named before and which Roberts has given me the words for. But praise takes new forms in other poems:

The sheer beauty of machines is magnified

by multiplicity …

Hymn to a Car Factory, 101

And sometimes the praise is more tense:

Gravity is weaker than it should be, fate

is not enough to keep us here, tensile creatures

stretched between darkness and light.

Hymn to a Roller Coaster, 80

There are deeply wonderful insights into prayer:

Small hours. the parts of speech

     –  lost to us in sleep – are found again

in rain outside: sibilants, fricatives, glottal stops,

nothing is wasted. Prayer that speaks

itself (on skylights, roofs of cars,


on nodding leaves).

To Listen, 21

This is not religious, or Christian poetry; it is mystical. Like Rilke, it is the poetry of someone whose soul is close to the surface and who loves by paying attention.

I feel I may have done my parents a disservice. It was them who taught me to read, who had books everywhere in the house, who listened to me, asked me to, read poetry aloud to them, one of the strongest memories of my childhood, and one my brother still teases me about. Burying my head in books they were always wanting me to see, to pay attention, and to be paid attention to.

So once again we walk and witness,

give thanks for the tangible and visible

Fragments Into World, 152









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