Michael Symmons Roberts: a religious poet in the secular age

Michael Symmons Roberts is at home in science as he is in scripture, as happy with the sensory world as with the transcendent – which makes his poetry all the stronger

 

The American poet Wallace Stevens once remarked that “the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself”. The British poet Michael Symmons Roberts – described as a “religious poet in a secular age” and whose poetry has been likened to the work of John Donne as well as David Jones and Geoffrey Hill – is one whose instincts and disposition, it would seem, might well side with the Stevens viewpoint.

Roberts does indeed share with those poets an imaginative field, as well as a fellowship of certain sensibilities, but the language and imagery of his poetry, and the areas of exploration with which his work engages, are very much rooted in the world of flesh and blood, of the immediacies of everyday experience and its sometimes terrible realities, a world in which

A silver bullet in your room

can be ignored, unless your name

is on it…..

( from Fire Regs, in his 2008 collection “The Half-Healed” )

He is a poet as much immersed in the sensory world as in the transcendent moment and equally at home in scientific knowledge (Mapping the Genome/Genetics ) as in the revelations of scripture. In the course of several exceptional collections he has established an authorial identity that is distinctively his own.

As a poet alert to the interplay between the sacred and profane, the common and profound, a poet conscious of the inaccessible mystery that lies between the human and divine, his work stands out on the current British poetry scene.

He has integrated the grave subject matter of the metaphysical into contemporary settings and done so with the insights of a 21st-century mind. His titles are sometimes a clue (in his latest collection, the superb Eliot and Forward prize nomination, Drysalter, we find Hymn to a Karaoke Booth, Hitchcockean, Hymn to a Tolbooth:

She has my coins but still the bar stays down.

I tap the wheel and rev then glance behind,

a queue of drivers curses at my back. )

His desert hermit, made over in a very different image to the old desert fathers, is the resting actor who “hunts down / his demons in the pool but every one / he grabs he loses” and in his “bad bank to protect me from my toxic debts…the bad manager weeps into his coffee for his lost career”.

Several of Roberts’ collections have been structured around a theme; the early Burning Babylon was generated by the legacies of the contentious nuclear weapons base at England’s Greenham Common, site of sit-in protests in the peace camps of the 1980s and a focus of the anxieties of the Cold War generations. The observer in those poems is aware of the desecration of the land, not just when the missiles were present but in their wake:

Resurrection yes

but they are sulphur yellow,

and their name is Brimstone.

They could have burst from the silos

when the doors were opened.

The body – human, animal and mystical, its pleasures and pains – was the subject of the invocations in his fourth collection, Corpus, which includes a nod to that celebrant of the flesh (and the spirit) John Donne: “Now as your mistress strips for bed, / her body is already mapped, / its ancient names a cracked code”. That “cracked code” with its cold scientific and clinical terms for what lies beneath the surface attractions of the human anatomy, contains for the poet the “remnants of our evolution”.

In a comment on his Last Words sequence of short poems in “The Half-Healed” (each poem is an imagined message sent by a victim of the 9/11 planes forced to crash into the Twin Towers), he said that the victims “could have expressed anger or fear, but almost all left messages of love and it continuance. That says something hopeful about the human spirit”. He may perceive the “holy ghost among the wet leaves, in the smoke’s mute song” – but it is the human spirit that stands at the centre of the imaginative detail in his richly imagined poems.

Roberts’ latest collection, Drysalter, is an outstanding achievement: a tour-de-force in its buzz of virtuosity and its ripe abundance, a cinematic sequence of 150 poems of 15 lines each and crammed with memorable lines, phrases and images. He sets the tone in the opening poem, World Into Fragments, when he declares that ours is a “world more fragile than we thought”. His dark night of the soul takes place in “box bedrooms / worn down by the weight of nothing” and in high-rise towers where the games of high finance are played and “numbers rise and fall on screens”. Here, the cry “out of the depths” is because “no pearl diver has ever gone so far on one held breath”, and in one of the book’s several hymns

Every second a child is born, a car is made;

knitted together in factory towns

by robot arms with sparks at their fingertips.

One of his finest moments in the collection – which is dedicated to composer James MacMillan with whom he has collaborated in writing opera and oratorios – is the austere and beautiful love poem The Vows ( it is described on a website that recommends poems for marriage ceremonies as a “killer of a wedding poem”):

We want the risen life before we’re dead,

our passion will be squandered more than spent,

we hereby swear to spend our days in bed.

The poetry of Roberts dwells in “the risen life” but is transfigured by his acute visionary sense of what lies beyond the ordinary and everyday. As the title of one of his “Drysalter” poems suggests, his poems are very much “in praise of the present”.

Michael Symmons Roberts reads as part of the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, in the new Dún Laoghaire library at 2.30pm on Saturday