By Philip Womack
7:00AM GMT 13 Mar 2013
This collection begins with a poem about the coming of Jesus Christ. Mary (we assume) stands in silence, looking at the angel: “everything streaming / towards this moment, streaming away”. That sense of time and moment recurs throughout, as Hill of Doors moves from birth, through the wild strangeness of childhood, towards adulthood and settlement.
The second poem is called “The Coming God”: not Jesus, but the shape-shifting god Dionysus, whose similarities to Jesus are noted by Robertson in another poem, “The God Who Disappears”: "Dismembered, / he is resurrected.”
We first see Dionysus, “the god / of spark and springheel”, as a child, taming beasts: a she bear covers his hand “with kisses, / wet, coarse, heavy kisses”, emphasising the quiet, humorous potency of the situation. His love for the satyr Ampelos (“Even his flaws were gorgeous”) results in the latter’s hubris and metamorphosis into one of Dionysus’ favoured attributes, the vine. We are reminded of the god’s awful power when he rapes a maiden, and she wanders, maddened, “following these tracks / of a beast, or a man, or a god / when they were just her own tracks in the snow”.
The sense of fleeting moments adding up to make momentous events is exhibited also by versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Robertson picks not the well-known tales, but points where everything is poised – streaming away. The envoys of goddesses visit personifications to bid them unleash their powers on the world: here is the home of Famine, whose “breasts are paper bags; the bones / knuckling out of nothing”. Envy lives within “an endless fog”, feeding on “vipers’ meat”, “bloodless, skew-eyed”. Sleep, charmingly, finds it all but impossible to wake up; meanwhile Rumour “misses nothing / misses no one as she sweeps the world.” Within Ovid’s narrative, these are the drivers of plot; here they are reminders of the vast unknowable entities that shape our lives.
There is also room for the everyday: a child on the beach “panning for light”, a lobster is a “clacking samurai in lacquered plates”. The supernatural can intrude though – particularly with regard to the sea, which gently haunts the poems: sailors are lost, kings are exiled; and, if you look into glass or a mirror, it won't be your own reflection you see.
But all this turbulence can come to an end, and sometimes in a way so easy it has the force and clarity of epiphany. The final poem says it all: “The door / to the walled garden, the place / I’d never been, was opened / with a simple turn / of the key / I’d carried with me / all these years.” Put the key in the lock: turn it. And, without looking back, open the door.