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SASKATOON STARPHOENIX, SATURDAY DECEMBER 16, 2017
William Robertson’s fifth book of poetry, Decoys (Thistledown Press, paperback, $17.95) is a visceral, robust journey into the field, the forest, the lakeside cabin, the urban backyard. As the title and cover image suggest, these poems illuminate the enticements of the natural world as well as the manner in which things are sometimes not what they initially seem.
Noteworthy poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that poetry involves “the best words in the best order,” a statement easily applicable to Robertson’s writing. What immediately jumps out from Decoys is a stunning use of vocabulary to represent sensory experience, every metaphor elegant and careful, and fresh, insightful verbs: robins skirling by, ice that shillies against itself, chickadees topsy-turvying their way.
Robertson’s calling-card humour is both expected and startlingly original, abundant in wry connections to the human condition. In the title poem the author presents his father as a would-be hunter leading his son into battle with fitful birds who simply would not fly “to the stubble horizon/a scene from a hunter’s calendar/minus the hunters/minus the ducks/just a little down, that day/on their brand-new hunter’s luck.” In another poem, “Starting the Story,” we see the narrator disturb a fallen wasp nest and out they come with him in floppy sandals on gravel thinking he can outrun wasps, wrenching his lower back. Swatting at them, his prayer surprisingly isn’t that he will escape. It’s the hope that someone will have seen him, some kid who especially needed a story that day.
Robertson cleverly borrows the occasional line from other poets, resulting in literary nuance that serves with simple grace. Note the italicized lines by Emily Dickinson in “Fly Buzz”: “I take another swing at it/rolled up newspaper/riles it to another window/where it continues its tiny/fly-brained inquiry/with the impossible outside/walking again with blue/uncertain stumbling buzz/up my front window.” Exactly right. Helpful, too, as a path for readers to follow in pursuit of further reading.
In contrast to the hearty tone in many of the poems, Robertson mines obsequious depths of place and time to shape serious recollections. Death and life are pondered in tandem with a deft, engaging touch. Birds flit through much of the writing, their “sweet loop of song behind the leaves,” while geese fly “ … south, looking full grown,/ facing the distance, the guns.” While many of these poems evoke the natural world, it’s really us the author speaks of, us and people we know. Here Robertson candidly transforms personal experiences into universal ones — another attribute of good poetry and great writing in general.
In addition to being a poet, Robertson is also a university English instructor, freelance writer, reviewer and broadcaster. His newest title would make a great gift for anyone who enjoys the natural world, animal encounters, ponderings on birth, death and everything in between. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Bev Brenna, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Bev Brenna is a literacy professor at the University of Saskatchewan who has published novels and poetry.
SaskBooks Reviews, October 26, 2017
In Decoys, the new poetry collection by William Robertson, the long-time Saskatoon scribe plumbs his own history and threads personal anecdotes into a textured fabric that reflects the prairie from what might be considered a bird’s eye view. In the country, kids push a puck around on ice “rippled/frozen by the wind,” and at Gull Lake we see “the grass in all its greens,/that bull, sequestered from the rest”. Birds are carefully considered and rendered poetic in myriad unique ways, ie: “Ruffled grouse leads its perfect/rusty brown and black fan/out of the spruce, through the ditch,” and in “Raven on Frozen River,” the poet beautifully writes “I could spend all day/watching you divide/snowy silence/from itself”. The author’s urgency to “hold onto things beautiful” is apparent, page after page.
There’s a reverence for the rural, here, including lakes, and the Muenster area, with its amicable chickadees at St. Peter’s Abbey, where Robertson penned some of these poems at Saskatchewan Writers Guild artist retreats, but the city is also carefully considered – and sometimes found lacking – “Outside the rickety/red fence, unpainted for years, the weeds/and long grasses try their best/to hide the garbage”. Workmen noisily improve houses, “tapping back into shape/these failing organisms”.
Poems feature both the innocence and the bravado of the young, and expose a life not measuring up to the advertisements, ie: a scene from a duck hunter’s calendar is contrasted against an unproductive father-son hunting trip; children sculpting snow into forts, as shown in schoolbooks and on TV, is measured against the futility of trying to do the same with “the dry prairie stuff/that crumbled in our hands;” and the fish in Turtle Lake don’t measure up to the flashy American magazine and TV fishing-show fish a son dreams about.
Small things breathe through these poems: flies, wasps, mice, wildflowers, and an August dragonfly, whom, Robertson writes, “gathers its memories/of mid-summer air, rises/on invisible wings, leaving me/heavy and human on the sidewalk”. Again, as with many of these reflections, there’s a hint of melancholy, of not measuring up, but also a recognition that perfection’s found in the ordinary.
Stylistically, as both a poet and a writing instructor, Robertson clearly knows what he’s doing. Several poems feature rhyming words on the last and third last lines, which adds a musical lilt. A couple of prose poems are nestled among the free verse poems. Sound is cleverly used in “Dead Clown,” which features a bird in a “black/and white gown,” (magpie, I assume). The cawing bird’s “gaudy yak/yak” is echoed in Robertson’s rhyming – or cawing – words” “call,” “all,” and “fall”. This collection makes a good case for listening closely to poems to hear the small songs within them.
Fish and fishing are other favoured subjects here, and in reading these thoughtful poems in particular, I’m reminded of how writing poetry requires a kind of faith not unlike that of an angler: you sit quietly, you wait, and sometimes, you land a good one. This book is filled with keepers.
— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks