In the eighteenth century the term “drysalter” was used for merchants who dealt in a range of chemical products; dyes, salts, varnishes, colourings and preservatives. Michael Symmons Roberts has now taken this archaic word as a title for his sixth collection of poems, published recently by Cape Poetry. It’s an apt appropriation – Drysalter has a distinctly alchemical feel to it; each of its one hundred and fifty poems is an experiment, a mixing together of volatile elements to see what might result.
The opening poem is deeply promising. “World Into Fragments” paints a picture of an apocalyptic shattering that overtakes the world. Cups, mirrors, plate glass windows – even the smoked glass monoliths of office towers – all fracture and crumble. It is a magical and haunting idea, deftly executed. The echoes of all that shattering glass can be heard long after the page has been turned.
There are far too many fantastic ideas packed into Drysalter to even begin to list them all. Each new page opens up a new world, from the surreal and ghostly bank set up by the narrator of “The Offset” to the lucid, magical atmosphere of “How To Raise The Dead” – a poem that belies its title by ending with a wonderful evocation of food and light and life. Throughout the midsection of the book is strung the “Wound” series; these five poems follow on from one another and tell the story of a fugitive man who finds a fallen, greviously wounded pilot. They are dark little gems, bleak and frightening – though the series concludes with a surprisingly bizarre twist.
The sheer wealth of excellent ideas is one of the great delights of this particular book. Roberts is endlessly creative and original, taking the reader from the present day into the dark realms of myth and legend, into impossible futures, through the strange and the irreal. Such variety is a feat when you consider that each and every poem in the book is comprised of exactly fifteen lines. This formal constraint results in a fairly dry, by-the-numbers-looking book, the contents of which are anything but. The plain, nondescript cover functions almost as camoflague for the fantastic poetry within.
Drysalter is published by Cape Poetry, and was deservingly shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.