The Long Take: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

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The Long Take: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize by Robin Robertson

By Robin Robertson

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13 reviews

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Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair.

As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish.

The Dream had gone sour but – as those dark, classic movies made clear – the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties.

While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities.

Reviews

26 Oct 2018

catrionaS

Response to The Long Take 1946.
Poet, I am with you. Breathless, with the images of distortion and hazy focus. Words jump from page to page, gathering in a blurred sequence of negatives, as if seen through misted glass. A long Take, the camera’s eye holds us, unstoppable and unwavering, hurling through New York from Brooklyn Bridge to the Hudson. Reeling through the colour and anonymity of the square blocked, numbered streets, filled with outrage and people from everywhere and nowhere. Spiked with visions of Cape Breton and faded dreams of a past life in Nova Scotia. An escape, a block from the horror of war.
Familiar sights, rank creels stuffed with herring; smell of stewed tea and wet clothes; oil lamps and the roasting crackle of the radio, the cold ice cold of the gunmetal sea.
I hold my head with yours as temples are pounded by visceral waves and the piercing noise of destruction and the rotting gasp of the putrefaction that is war.
I am with you as you shape and change with your pen; railing that we might hear, as the wolf howls across the pack ice or the Selkie throws its skin to take on human form.
The mind is staved and fearful at the carnage of the streets of New York, pining for peace and home as surely as one must yearn.
Poet, I listen.
The take ends.
.
Response to The Long Take. 1948.
In monochrome I watch a colourless world in a soulless frame of shameful hopelessness, black and white, the cockroach skewed existence in a fitful life, hell bent on slinging low.
Life is a fog filled, alcohol fueled distortion of sickly days, running into one another. Each take a picture, a movement, a chiaroscuro, a sharp still life, where everything and nothing moves. Los Angeles, The Hills, the ups and downs, The Long Take shatters all illusion in its path and railroads the reader through the year of 48.
The men, unhinged and maddened by war, live a fragile existence on the periphery of a world thrown together and racked by changes and the mad rush to profit, in any way from anything or anyone. A constant search for meaning in a world which has lost its reason.
Yet hope is here, no guest should go hungry or feel shamed as only a poor man without a job can feel. There is tenderness in the conversation, care in the observation. The war-weary long for the days of camaraderie they felt during the war. From Los Angeles to San Francisco,
all is a cinema, a film, a Take, an image, a pose, a screen play, shortened and ultimately meaningless, save in its search for a reason to mean.

San Francisco
A long take, the rapid ebb and flow of change, seen day by day from the street, through the muddy window, up high and down low, as a time camera speeded up shows change in seconds. Buildings new and old, once inhabited and danced in, gone in the space of a moment. New harsh blocks replace the older elegantly drawn edifices with their futile ever-expanding need for car parking. We are ripped from place to place and torn down with the vast unbending change of the city. All familiar replaced in a trice. As cheap inelegance, rough, crass, tasteless mimicry is constructed, so too does the writer bleed. His fight with the aftermath and the deafening noise of war surrounds and precludes. Life through a mind bent with the poisonous seeping rage of alcohol. His friends, decent, good men destroyed and saddened, racked with sleeplessness and unable to live or love. Billy dead, his books burnt, the unbearable pain of the loss of a friend is tangible, heard and felt through the ominous, clicking of Pike’s lighter...
To the earthquake and final cleansing.
All is destruction. The cracking, splitting of lives, buildings, earth, roads, cars, houses...the quake takes all in its path. Water gushes through and ruins all in its cursed wake. Landslides, trees, gardens, parks, everything and everyone changed, lost or altered forever.
Cleansed. So as a confessor is forgiven, writer, I forgive

19 Oct 2018

kashmirtutt

The Long Take at first impression may appear a difficult and enigmatic story; however you quickly fall into the rhythm, the beat, the skipping through words, which skilfully present a profound and contemporary analysis of a historical and on-going degradation of three of America’s cities.
The book is narrated by the main protagonist Walker. He uses various personal pronouns: he when describing the present, we when reflecting of his past, and I when he takes us into his inner thoughts; all of these are signified by variations to the font.
The Long Take reads like a film. Robertson has created a thing of beauty. Black and white photos and street maps, shadows, angles and light, narration and character dialogue corresponding to the Hollywood film noir scene, and to the political climate of the period. The book takes you to a direct time in history, but also brings you right back to today’s America. From McCarthyism to Trump it’s the same paranoid, fake news and scaremongering state of affairs; this could be a story set in twenty first century U.S.A.
“A never-ending rehearsal with a cast that changes all the time but never gets it right” (p.5)
Set in four periods: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953, Robin Robertson’s America is concerned only in making money, automobiles, freeways, and parking lots, and having a cheap good time. Everything is for sale: liquor, girls, money to loan, burlesque, beds, more for less, $1 a night, diamonds, beer, joy land, dreamland (p.75): It’s one big ‘fairground’, and a thoughtless, hungry-for-quick-thrills society.
Joni Mitchell puts it simply: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.” (Big Yellow Taxi. 1969)
In the background to this glitz and dance is a war-damaged past and crushing future. Nothing is permanent. People outlive buildings which are demolished and rebuilt as America becomes a continuous construction site, choking itself and its residents:
“And they’re closing off the city with these freeways, saying it improves connections, shutting down sidewalks to enhance security. We are bordered and policed by concrete.” (p.109)
The Narrator poetically illustrates how the cities have urbanized out of all proportion to the detriment of the people who live amongst the streets and apartment blocks of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in particular.
He describes how American veterans returning from the Second World War, many (Walker included) suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, are jobless, homeless, forgotten, and lost amongst the rest of America’s anonymous urban population. No more the “Hawthorn hang (ing) like mist in the valley” or “the women wait (ing) with their nets and baskets, on the same stretch of shore where the capelin come, each year, to spawn, to signal spring.” (p. 12/13)
Having lost their previous ways of life, many have now ended up in a heartless web of concrete grid lines:
“The city’s gone. In its place, the grey stone maze, this locked geometry of shadows, blind and black… The buildings close, then spring open to the new future; repetition back tracking, error, loss.” (p. 5/6)
Robertson has got it exactly right, and has shown in black and white that the American system has little regard for its people or its land mass. Everything is swept aside under the bulldozers in the name of power and shortsightedness, towns grow higher and orange orchards disappear.
Already depressed, and now working for a local paper, Walker sinks further as he tramps the streets capturing stories of ordinary people living rough. People like himself who got buried in the rubble of a consumerist system.
Sleeping in an ‘all night picture house’ which was ‘cheaper than a room’, and surrounded by ‘winos’ and ‘lonely deadbeats’ he feels immense isolation and realises that he actually misses the war, and longs to be back there. In the regiment at least he found camaraderie. Despite witnessing and being party to harrowing acts of violence and butchery, which haunt him interminably, Walker feels that the war had at least given him a sense of belonging, and it was better than being ‘a hero in a hostel’. (p 43/44)
There is destruction, demolition, dissatisfaction, war against Korea, unemployment, civil rights tensions, burning and lynching of blacks, and Rosa Park is refusing to stand up. And “In the papers…Bogart is dead” (p.195). Although it is fictional, Robertson weaves in the real story of a period of depression, patriotism, and suspicion, of America coming out of one war, and going straight into the next, of greed, ownership, materialism, where ‘money’ and ‘automobiles’ take precedence over nature, environment, and humanity. He describes the real cost of war with language that bares the unbearable:
‘…the soldier with his jaw half-off, trying to hold it in place’, a German ‘…hanging from a tree… dancing all wrong’. (p. 204/205)
Robertson shows through Walker’s actions, the atrocities of war, the unnecessary brutality of it:
“The edge was blunt by then, or maybe his face was really tough. The skin kept being dragged by the knife, not sliced, so he had to hold it flat, cursing, and work at it with a sawing motion.” (p. 222)
Is Robertson through Walker’s search for redemption, asking whether America can be, or even wants to be, redeemed?
Whether it’s Native Americans, J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Junior, Communists, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, the Russians, the Germans, the Taliban, the Koreans, the Chinese, or Boo Radley, American needs its ‘monster’ to keep the flames of paranoia burning, the guns of battle firing, and the profits from warfare rolling in.
“America has to have its monsters, so we can zone them, segregate them, if possible, shoot them.” (p.109)
This line subtly echoes a core message, the evidence of which we have seen throughout history.
Whatever its literary genre: poetic prose, epic poem, novel, the message is threaded between the words and lines regardless of what shape or layout they take. The ‘poetic’ language, essential to penetrate the profundity of this book, leave to the imagination the back story, as much as it vividly and overtly describes its current and (perhaps) future story. It should be read alongside A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn to realize just how revealing this epic poem is.
Kashmir Tutt. Readers’ Writing Group.(M.A.C. Birmingham)

19 Oct 2018

Karam

And he stood there, far over City Hall –
over the lights of Los Angeles –
as if the whole sky and all the stars had fallen:
displayed, spread out below
in a flickering maze,
this bed of moving embers.

Paradise Lost, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata; for so much of history, the most enduring and widely acclaimed forms of story telling have been epic poems. The Long Take, written as a book length, long form narrative poem, and employing many post-modernist devices including non-linear narratives, magic realism and pastiche, is a radical re-working of this venerable tradition. Robertson has incorporated prose poetry, diary extracts, postcards, maps and photographs in his epic work. Its themes are just as grand and universal. His protagonist, Walker, is a traumatised Canadian D-Day veteran in post-war, McCarthyst, America where he drifts like a living shade. Arriving in New York, from where he travels to Los Angeles and San Fransisco, he encounters the concrete hell of social injustice, rascism and misogny. This is not a land fit for heros. His friend, Billy Idaho, a black homeless veteran observes:

‘This is our fear of the ‘the other’
- Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever –
America has to have its monsters,
so that we can zone them, segregate them,
if possible, shoot them.
They call this patriotism, Nativism,
but it’s racialism, pure and simple. And paranoia.
Now that America’s gone abroad, to fight a war – two wars –
we’re frightened, frightened that foreigners
might come over here and do the same to us.’

These references have obvious contemporary resonances but Robertson's prose poetry feels and reads like classic American Film Noir further heightening that sense of alienation and unreality. In this elision between reality and fantasy, past and present, who can say what is real or a Hollywood fantasy where the city is as transient as a film set?

He walked the monochrome world of the city, after hours,
in the dissipating heat
watching his shadow feed in front of him, tightening
under the streetlight, sidling up each wall
then folding into it, bending like a stick
slid in to water.

He thought about it all night. That long take
inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy
and was just real life, right there.
It made sense of some things, how you get caught up in stuff,
like the guns, when he says, ‘I feel good when I’m shooting them.
I feel awful good inside, like I’m somebody.’

Walker is himself deeply damaged and cannot escape the event horizon of his own darkness; things he’d seen, things he’d done. Los Angeles is a battlefield too as he bears witness to the plight of the poor and homeless. Here he reports on the effects of corrupt urban planning, where cars are prioritised over people, and parking lots over housing. Modernity is traumatic and de-humanising. He is haunted by images of the war, its savagery and brutality. That sense that he has lost himself means he cannot return home to the rural quietude of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.

He dreamt a plane carrying troops crash-landed
onto the cemetery outside Caen, and the long-dead
were churned up with the newly-dead
and he had to walk through it all.
Looking for himself.

Those wartime flashbacks become more frequent as the narrative intercuts with images of landmark buildings succumbing to the wrecker’s ball in the historic Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles and as Walker himself unravels through the chronic effects of alcoholism; His church. His sacraments of whisky, cigarettes. Walker is desperate to unburden himself to wipe the slate clean; but there is no cosy redemption here.

He looked up, when he was done, and Frank was staring at him,
shaking his head. ’You see here?’ he said, turning
to expose the tight gray side of his face, all raised
like a puddle of dirty ice. ‘You’re no better than them.’

‘I know,’ he said to the silhouette in the distance.

This is a deeply textured, multi-layered and rich book, like a great painting, or film, with its intensely graphic style. It is a cry of common humanity against corrupt politics and unfettered capitalism. I did not think that I would enjoy reading poetry, but the only adjective that describes my experience of reading The Long Take is sublime. Sublimity may seem a quaint notion to evoke here, in the context of the story that Robertson tells, but the notion of the sublime has always been linked to the history of poetry, referring as it does to the use of language and description that invokes more than just the beautiful. It is grandeur of thought, and the power of emotion and spirit, that characterises great literature. Perhaps only poetry really has the capacity to do this. Like many of those epic poems of the past; Paradise Lost, The Odyssey and the story of Gilgamesh there is a deep yearning, a sense of loss, and the desire to return.

He saw old people dancing in slow-motion, in the scratchy
black-and-white of a cine-film, moving in their long strathspey,
slow and stately to some silent fiddle and accordion, passing
through each other, through each other’s hands and bodies,
the women turning
under the turning hands, disappearing. Ghosts of one another.
The film sticks; the projector judders to a halt, jams.
The celluloid burning yellow, bubbles; tearing to white.

Karam Ram, 19/10/2018
The Writer’s Reading Group, Birmingham

17 Oct 2018

SarahBartlett

In 2014, Will Self argued that the novel is dead and characterises the finer works written since Finnegans Wake as “zombie novels”, “instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down”.
But The Long Take is no zombie novel. Of course you can argue that it isn’t a novel at all, but an epic poem. Nevertheless, here it is in the Man Booker shortlist, and among the qualities it shares with more conventional literary novels is the trust it generates as the writer takes us by the hand and leads us into unfamiliar terrains. So that trust – essential to both historical fiction and travel writing – is established early on, with impressive geographical detail of the American cityscapes, a conversational vernacular that has an authentic feel, mundane detailing, and the hard-boiled characters of every American film noir you’ve ever seen.
It’s a living, breathing piece of writing, with an authentic feel to every scene and every character, and at the same time it feels like something new and exciting.
In The Long Take we are in the shoes of Walker, a World War Two veteran suffering from what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder. From beginning to end, Walker struggles to readjust to civilian life and keep painful memories at bay, while at the same time honouring his experiences and fallen comrades. This is alien to us, and yet what reader cannot empathise with Walker’s hostility towards Pike, the newsroom upstart? Pike’s over-confident posturing relative to his skills and experience feels like colleagues we know from the world of work half a century later, and maybe we recognise more of ourselves than we’d like in Walker’s passive-aggressive reaction (or is it just me?).
On my honeymoon in New England in 2004 while browsing in a Connecticut junk shop, the American nostalgia for the 1950s was palpable. Only three years had passed since 9/11 of course, and you could feel the yearning for easy prosperity and maybe hegemony. For me that’s why Walker’s journey through New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco so important, looking at the nation in the round, from the Canadian outsider perspective that Walker brings, uncovering the urban underbelly and showing us the disruptive feel of economic growth on the ground as drifters lose their way and beloved buildings fall prey to the wrecking ball.
I personally found it an exhilarating read. I should point out that although I am an inveterate novel-reader, I’m not nearly as literate as I’d like to be when it comes to poetry. Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to read The Long Take out loud or listen to it in audiobook form, and yet there were moments where I would sit back and marvel at the rhythmic variety of the verse, and the sheer poetic genius of its lines.
The Long Take has an audacious feel. You have to applaud a publisher that will take on an epic poem in these risk-averse times, even with a poet as accomplished as Robertson. Funnily enough, the last time a “novel” took my breath away was Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. I would hate to think that poetry is the only innovation coming through in the world of publishing. In the age of the box set though, we know the novel is struggling to compete with TV story-telling. Maybe formal innovations will prove to be a key differentiator as the ever-versatile novel takes a new turn.

13 Oct 2018

Jacky ``M Hotchin

Jacky Hotchin, The Writers’ Reading Group

The Long Take is a brilliant and terrible book. Harrowing and awe inspiring. A book that must be listened to, because poetry comes to life only when you listen to it, and listened to also for the inconvenient truths it tells.
Robin Robertson leads us into the shadows of 1940s and 50s America, a world of whiskey and rye, broads and cigarette smoke, extreme violence. He tells the story with flashback and voiceovers, dark shadows, contrast (thanks to www.thetasteofcinema.com for crash course in noir films of the 1940s) and with the eponymous long take, as we follow damaged and traumatized Walker on his journey, trying to find a way of looking at life from a distance, because
‘Close up, nothing here was beautiful,/and so much now was a close up shot.’
Walker is a second world war veteran, belonging nowhere, trapped in a nightmare he can’t escape. ‘Never a backward step’ was his regiment’s motto, but he can’t stop taking them. He’s haunted, by images of a vanished life and young love in pre war Nova Scotia, but overwhelmingly by the war, and his own appalling part in it.
The story of Walker’s life and times is also a story of now. The opening lines feature ‘the fabled smoking ruin, the new towers rising ..’ In 1946 New York, a hint of the horrors of 2001 New York.
It’s a story of war, up close and viscerally shocking, of failing to learn the lessons of history. Of cruelly discarding the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed. It’s a story of relentless ‘progress’ and disregard for the world, of ‘Orange groves as far as you could see, …Then bulldozers rooting them up, leveling the ground.’
Of greed, where ‘money and the automobile’ are all that matter, where ‘God’s a roll of c-notes’. Of Macarthyism, segregation, racial violence, fear of the other, paranoia.
‘Now that America’s gone abroad to fight a war-two wars-/we’re frightened, frightened that foreigners/ might come over here and do the same to us.’
The story is not without fragile rays of hope, ephemeral moments of beauty, valiantly decent people. ‘The spring trees, somehow, come to bud.’ It’s not entirely monochrome; there are splashes of colour, often red- a clip in a girl’s hair, a flower on a table, a passing balloon. Most powerful though, is the blood flowing throughout, from the battlefield and onto the streets Walker now inhabits, intermittently followed by a coyote.
There is something of Walker about the coyote. Hated, hunted, hero and anti - hero, simultaneously feared and revered in American mythology. A trickster and bringer of fire. A mysterious warning note, whose bright eyes turn blank as Walker finally submits to his fate and the apocalyptic warnings of the deranged street preachers seem come true.

.

12 Oct 2018

bernadette59

The Long Take
by Robin Robertson
(published by Picador, London, 2018)
It had to be poetry. It had to be the movies. It had to be America. Only the creative alchemy produced by mixing that particular form, that particular medium, and that particular setting could produce the work of art that is Robin Robertson’s The Long Take. Only that medley could hold an intimate exploration of human experiences such as trauma, shame and friendship alongside reflections on universal themes such as the aftermath of war for those that serve in it (in this case World War II) and the impact of capitalism on twentieth century urban society whilst holding on to us too by the flow of the story and the power of the visual imagery.
Like all great story-tellers, Robinson knows how to hook us in from the start. The opening segment creates such a vivid shot of New York City that summoned to mind instantly were scenes from Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the opening chords of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The reader is placed immediately in the story, staring in wonder at that iconic skyline:
‘And there it was: the swell
and glitter of it like a standing wave –
the fabled, smoking ruin, the new towers rising
through the blue,
the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint,
the glamour of buried light
as the world turned round it
very slowly
this autumn morning, all amazed.’ (p.3)

and then we are quickly introduced to Walker. The character who will be the core of this tale are captured neatly in the first lines we are given on him

‘He walks. That is his name and that is his nature.’ (p.4)

Thus by the second page of this long narrative poem we have our bearings and, over the next 220 pages of verse, prose and musings, Robinson pans wide with a sweeping vista of revelations about the man and the country as we travel with Walker from East to West Coasts of the USA, taking in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco by way of personal odyssey and confession. Walker has seen and done things during the war that have shattered his psyche and he is going to walk and walk the mean streets of the cities until he has found catharsis, resolution or, at the very least, an ending.

This delicious, fluid reveal of a complex man in a complex place and time through a complex art form is what justifies the book’s title. Recalling examples of classic long takes from actual movies helps us appreciate Robinson’s audacity and skill in borrowing this technique for use with the written word. Two such examples, curiously or maybe not so curiously both in the context of war, would be the long take in Gone with the Wind (1939) of the dead and dying lying amidst the ruins of a burning Atlanta and the other the slow aerial revelation in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) of the scale of the horror on the beaches at Dunkirk.

It had to be poetry. To achieve his long take, Robertson knows exactly what he needs. His literary and technical choices are made with great care to facilitate the creation he wishes to lay before us. His skill is expertly deployed but never attention-seeking. One of the many delights offered by this book is the opportunity to appreciate a craftsman at the height of his powers, masterful yet modest enough to always put the life of the work before the urges of ego or pretention.

It had to be poetry because this genre gives him the flexibility both to paint dreamy, impressionistic sequences of great beauty, even about war, and yet to stun us with the force of a one-word sentence. He can create Monet-like scenes such as those recalling his former life in Nova Scotia or his memories of D Day:

‘We walked down the choir of the forest carrying the dried-up stalks and pods of bluebells – our summer rattles – on through the open trees: our ceremonies of light in the green cathedrals.’

*
‘These moons in their hundreds, pinked underneath by the beginnings of daylight, are barrage balloons towed by the boats. Seven thousand in this dawn armada. Ships and the wakes of ships. As if a giant was drawing them on strings, out from the harbor. The Channel so thick with traffic you could cross it on the back of boats.’ (p. 19)

and poetry also enables him to spit it out sharp and graphic such as the three words that first intimate that Walker is suffering from PTSD:‘Coins. Cordite, Blood.’ (p.4)

It allows Robinson to sculpt dense text when he wants to convey richness, busyness, plenty:

‘He walked through Grand Central Market
with its blaze, its pyramids of fruit,
rubble-mounds of potatoes, sheaves of bananas
revolving on their hooks,
prickly pears, okra, eggplant’
………………………………
………………………………
Next door: stacked bags of dried fruit and candy,
trays of spices, burlap sacks of beans, pecans and pine-nuts,
and hanging above them, clumps of dried chillies
Like lavish, papery, red-and-orange birds.
At the entrance, the sweet smells
of coffee, doughnuts, bagels, flapjacks. (p.60)

and to strip back to simple unadorned statements to convey an idea with great force:

‘The trees in fall like my father: dying from the head down’ (p.125)

Robinson extracts the maximum capacity for storytelling from his poetic genre by choosing a long narrative form with sections of prose, notes and epistolary fragments, a brave step in the current climate of the poetry world with its preference for short, sharp, punchy pieces often designed for spoken word performance. His use of different textual styles, font, italics and structure lets him weave three storylines through the work: Walker’s current trek through brokenness, his flashbacks to wartime experiences, and his memories of his previous life in Nova Scotia. This skilful use of technical devices, always deployed with grace, enables Robinson to keep our attention, ensure variety, change pace deftly, and maintain a vital sense of momentum throughout an unusually long poetic piece.
It had to be poetry because the discipline of language required in this genre gives force and precision which fits with the tough and unflinching tone of this work. In a poem, there is little room for flannel or tangent. The poet must hit the bull’s eye consistently. Robinson accomplishes this with some stunning and often graphic phrases, images and metaphors such as his brilliant encapsulation of a man he meets who has had a stroke:
‘his face dragged down on one side, like it had
missed a button.’ (p.75 )

or a woman he sees in a Bunker Hill bar –

‘This old doll at the other end of the counter,
the look
of fallen masonry about her: face
a ruin of crumbling plaster, badly painted,
eyebrows halfway up her forehead, her mouth
like it had been dug out with a knife.’ (p.197 )

It had to be the movies. Robinson sustains the cinematographic metaphor throughout the book by means of devices such as the title itself and the stunning black and white photographs of iconic cityscapes such as sunbeams at Grand Central Station and the subsequently demolished Melrose Hotel in Los Angeles. He weaves in impressive details of contemporaneous Hollywood movies to add texture to the piece by having Walker witness the making of them or watch them in the movie theatres, including such classics as Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak) and He walked by night (1948, Werker and Mann).
Robinson’s use of film noir stylistic conventions works particularly well in the context of this poem since they require similar constraints – economic use of language, minimalistic expression, concrete details, show not tell, attitudes of rueful melancholy and poignant regret.
For this reader raised on a Hollywood diet by a young mother, in love with film and their stars and a subscriber to movie fan magazines, Robinson’s poem conjures constant poignant memories of great noir classics – the haunting opening sequence of the funeral of Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Comtessa (1954) narrated with wry heartache by Bogart at his best, or the dark twists of Raymond Chandler’s fabulous screenplay in Double Indemnity (1944). Likewise, the neo-noir canon springs to mind such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) or Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997). Although Robinson’s The Long Take is a written work and a poem at that, it feels as though it belongs in the company of these Hollywood movie masterpieces.
It had to be America. Robinson needs a worthy setting for his tale of Walker, everyman, shattered by trauma, struggling with shame, seeking purpose. It needs to be a wide canvas, a big screen of CinemaScope proportions to carry both a literal journey of considerable distance and to allow for the interior explorations of a man in great turmoil. Walker needs to do a lot of travelling to reach his depths and Robinson needs a lot of space to sustain his long take.
Maybe only America could really fit that bill with its traditions of great treks westwards, beyond frontiers, into the unknown, and its love of the road story/movie and now this poem, although Walker’s ‘road’ is mostly travelled on foot or on lengthy train journeys, another nostalgic American trope:
‘The ride west,
like his life, going by too fast
- barreling through
towns in the dark - trying to read
each station’s name -
or far too slow,
in the wastes of
Pennsylvania, Ohio,
dozing off and waking up with the same view
all day, still looking out on the same state
since whenever it was it got light. (p. 37)

As well as a place, Robinson needs a time and a set of circumstances, a cultural context that could support themes such as dreams and despair, hope and destruction, reality and surreality:

‘In this place, the sand-traps are the only things that are real’ (p.40)

America in the aftermath of global warfare on a scale previously unseen offers all of that with its culture of corruption and paranoia, the souring of the American Dream, immigration and dislocation, in evidence a-plenty on the backstreets of its large cities:
‘Because none of it’s real, and nothing’s from here. I’m not,
you’re not, nobody is – not even the palm trees are from here – ‘ (p.52)
In particular, Los Angeles at the turn of the 1940s into the 1950s provides Robinson with perfect metaphors for the destruction and breakdown induced by war both in mankind and in Walker. These take the form of the programs of ‘urban renewal’ that decimated the communities of the poor and vulnerable at that time, and the ever-threatened Californian earthquake and he uses both to great effect:
‘The scrape and whine of metal on stone. The drumfire of falling buildings’ (p. 190)
and
‘If he could drain his eyes of this. The split world, the world
burning. The world, coming to grief.
The marriage of paper and fire. A living thing that crumbled
like a moth, into dust. Into ash. The making of ghosts. ‘(p. 224)

Political happenings of that era in the US, such as McCarthyism, the growth of propaganda and persecution of people on the basis of their opinions, the failures in care of the mentally ill, the homeless, war veterans, give Robinson the opportunity to reflect on such matters through the voices of his characters, such as Walter Freidländer whom Walker meets in San Francisco, and to give us strong intimations that history is in great danger of repeating itself. As Freidländer foreshadows:
‘This is the future, my friend. This is the future.’(p.130)
And what of Walker, with whom we have travelled from sea to shining sea? Opinions amongst readers vary on his fate. The last moving segment of the book indicates that he has taken his place in the underbelly, with the homeless, the dispossessed, the broken-hearted. After all, that is where he has found some kindness and a degree of solace. It seems likely that what is left to him of life will be viewed through the bottom of a bottle. This is not redemption, absolution or even resignation but, to this reader, there was a sense of rightness to it. He has confessed and has chosen to serve his penance. There is a release in acknowledgement and a strange dignity in his choice. His wandering days are over:
‘I’ll make my city here.’ (p.226)

Bernadette Lynch, Birmingham Writers’ Reading Group October 2018

12 Oct 2018

sue bloomer

Review of ‘The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson.

This is the story of a WW11 veteran who is unable to return to his home in Canada because he is not the same person who went to war due to the traumas he has lived through, and the emotional and physical changes he has experienced. These include living with a guilty conscience and his changing views of life and death. He undertakes a journey across America in order to find / free himself, meeting many interesting characters along the way. He eventually finds somewhere to live and obtains work on a local newspaper in Los Angeles. Here he becomes involved with America’s film noir in various ways, as an onlooker, a bystander and a ‘friend’ of various actors and directors. This provides the backdrop for the story along with the themes of homelessness and racism.

A fascinating story that holds your attention throughout. It is written in an unusual style raising the question as to whether it is poetic prose or in fact written mainly in blank verse with parts in prose, namely the flashbacks, postcards, diaries etc. Whichever it is it is very descriptive and thought provoking book that is well worth reading.

Sue Bloomer

10 Oct 2018

Jenny Cousins

THE LONG TAKE
Robin Robertson
A review
Jennifer Cousins, Birmingham Writers’ Reading Group, October 2018

Reading The Long Take is like riffling through an old black and white photo album which is only loosely chronological. Flicking through the album (the book? the poem? the novel?) gives an overview (of a journey maybe) but each photograph gives minute, often unbearably poignant detail. We have characters who are nameless, or named, and come and go; a protagonist, Walker, who drifts through the underbellies of cities (NY, LA, San Francisco) initially at the docks then as a newspaper reporter; images of suburbs, carefully contextualised, with references to the Hollywood films being made there. And, most vivid of all, snap-shots of war at its most personal and visceral: close-up word-photographs of men before and after a shell strikes: the agonies of wounds-in-the-process, almost unendurable to read.

The novel is presented in three styles throughout the four ‘chapters’ (dated 1946, 1948, 1951, 1953): the free verse and prose-poem (the majority of the text) is third-person narration, always from Walker’s perspective; the interspersed sections in italics show the reminiscences about Walker’s native Nova Scotia and, outnumbering these, the many flash-backs to the Normandy landings – all first-person. The third ‘style’ (the least frequent) is in bold font and seems to be fairly functional diary entries or, rarely, post-cards, with dates.

The time is the ‘forties and ‘fifties: Film Noir, Raymond Chandler*, McCarthyism, unemployment, racism, veterans drifting. A baby cries, a car backfires and Walker is back in France with his friends exploding around him. His job is on the city desk of the Press newspaper, with two jaded colleagues chasing stories of fights and crashes and murders – so sleazy bars, street brawls and the occasional one-night stand with a lonely whore are part of the territory. Ever-present is the sinister Pike, the new go-getting, self-centred cub reporter with his eye always on the ladder to promotion. Here we surely have a metaphor for America’s thrust towards ‘progress’, where the poor and the disadvantaged will be left behind as America races towards riches and the hegemony of the automobile.

Walker on the other hand is a good man, dedicated to exposing the injustices he sees all around him. He requests a year in San Francisco to write about Skid Row (the novel’s third chapter). Back in LA, he and black, anchor-less Billy have become friends, and seek each other out intermittently; he shares war memories (a form of therapy) with Red, the one-armed ‘vet’ from the community group. His job just about keeps him going: despite everything, all is not yet despair. But gradually it emerges that a guilty secret is locked inside Walker, gnawing at him, preventing any form of healing. Through the novel we are given delicate hints of this:

“The things he’d seen. The things he’d done.” (page 155)

Billy says: “You ready to talk to me yet? Y’know, about what happened?”
“Maybe another time, Billy…” (page 168)

“He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France.
It was eating him up. Eating him alive.” (page 216)

The story, the confession, is finally told on page 222, to devastating effect.

Robertson is a poet: every word of the 226 pages is selected forensically. Everything is relevant, crafted, succinct, subtle, often vivid. Descriptions are often conveyed through nouns alone – great lists of images unadorned by verbs:

“…streetcars, automobiles,
horns going; the panhandlers, streetwalkers, kids rolling drunks;
scuffles down the alleyways; saloon doors
swinging open to jukebox music
and a gash of laughter;
police cruisers; the calls of hot-dog sellers,
whispers from the pimps and the whores,
the dealers; the cops out on the corners,
the soldiers and sailors, their whistles, shouts,
broken bottles; reefer smoke, beer and sweat.
This was the city.” (page 43)

Robertson is a poet with a photographer’s eye:

“He’d stumbled out of there, blurred from drink
like an accidental photograph...” (page 149)

Here are oil wells:
“…hundreds of the jacks still moving, like shore-birds feeding,
dipping their heads to the sand.” (page 161)

He minutely records humanity’s idiosyncrasies. Here are old people crossing the street:

“He stood with them on the corner, by the liquor store,
unsure when to cross, then
stepping off the curb just as the lights change, and the cars
jump forward and stop with a lurch, horns going,
and they all clamber back up, feeling for the lamppost,
holding on to the stop-sign.” (page 151)

Dominating the Los Angeles chapters are the many references to the movies, and here the seedy subculture of the strip-joints and alleyways, and Robertson’s snap-shots (word-photographs) are straight from film noir. Amid the street-canyons of the cities there are shadows which move up walls; shafts of light which criss-cross into rectangular shapes:

“There were parts of the city that were pure blocks of darkness,
where light would slip in like a blade to nick it, carve it open:
a thin stiletto, then a spill of white; the diagonal gash
of a shadow, shearing; the jagged angle sliding over itself
to close;” (page 104)

Here is Grand Central Station:

“The huge cathedral light angles down
- in long smoking buttresses –
from the starred blue ceiling to the concourse
….
He waited in the light;
In the floating dust there
like the beam of a projector:
a still figure in hat and coat…” (pages 30-31)

The mood of the novel, though sombre, is lifted by images of nature: the pools and waterways of Loch Ban, Walker’s home in Nova Scotia:

“…trout you could catch with your hands as they lay still under the ledges, gazing upstream. Reaching for the most tentative touch, just there above the tail, then gently up under the belly till it accepts your hand and you can rock it in the water, back and forth, lulling it easy.” (page 63)

“…an otter, using the road as a scratching post, brisking its fur before slipping back through the reeds to the pool, a skimmer of light in the blue-black water.” (page 54)

The many images of water seem to reflect the fluidity of the poem’s style. They may also stand as metaphors for purifying, healing, soothing – and for Walker’s ultimately futile search for redemption. There are gentle reminiscences of Annie, his old lover; of ‘lichen clinging to twigs, bright as pollen’ (page 5); interludes of beauty which provide relief amid the horrors of war.

In the final chapter, as the corrupt CRA demolish Walker’s historic LA neighbourhood to make way for parking lots, the disintegration of human beings in the unimaginable horrors of war is matched, section by section, with the destruction of the city. In a cacophony of noise and dust, the thudding of the wrecking-ball is like shells landing; the exposed sides of apartment blocks are like open wounds. Yet more devastating flash-backs crowd in as Walker’s PTSD escalates. The poem’s momentum gathers pace; there are conflagrations; the earth quakes and shudders; a neighbourhood coyote** with blank eyes is spotted again; war images increase in intensity and become even more lurid; the nakedly ambitious Pike, the new, thrusting, amoral America, appears again, ever more sinister, clicking his biro. The tension mounts.

And then the release. The guilty secret is revealed, in all its visceral brutality. Frank is repulsed: “You’re no better than them” (page 222) – and walks away. But there is no redemption: the boy evangelist in the blue suit intones:

“But I will send a fire upon your cities,
and it shall devour your palaces.
The days of visitation are come.
You shall reap the whirlwind.” (page 223)

And, once more, the “blank-eyed coyote loping away”.

And then, finally, in bold type, the threatened earthquake, mighty and devastating – real, or imagined? The wrath of the gods?

Walker “…laid down copies of the Press on the blackened sidewalk…
then set his duffle bag on top.” (page 225)

He has confessed; “the slate is clean”; here he will remain.

But for Walker, the slate will never be clean. Now there is nothing but a slow fade to black.

*****

*Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell My Lovely, featuring the LA private detective Philip Marlowe, was published in 1940. In 1944 it was made into a film, set in LA (released in the US as Murder, My Sweet).

** Robertson’s recurrent use of the coyote – is this the mythical wolf-like animal, the bringer of fire from the gods to mankind? Or the classic trickster of popular belief? Or the survivor? Or the mediator between life and death? On page 215, Robertson hints at an answer:

“The coyote was watching.
Tail bushed open – held straight out.
In its eyes, the stolen fire”.*

10 Oct 2018

Russell27

Review: The Long Take (Russell - Writers Reading Group, Birmingham)
Out of the Past; Night and the City; While the City Sleeps; I walk by Night, such post-war Hollywood film noir with its characteristic settings, themes, values and aesthetic lie at the heart of Robertson’s portrait of Walker, a traumatized WW2 ex-serviceman seeking a new life in the corrupt, uncaring and opportunistic America of the forties. His odyssey, dramatized in an impressively fluid combination of free verse and prose, omniscient narration and diary entries, trace his journey from New York across America to Los Angeles and San Francisco, though the main focus of Robertson’s searing account of Walker’s experiences is in a rapidly changing Los Angeles, home to the movie industry. Drawing on the iconography of film noir and borrowing from the angular, shadowy compositions of its Expressionist cameramen, the narrative is suffused with a sense of anguish, disillusionment, alienation, guilt and loss. This is a world of increasing darkness, murky morality, violence, greed, loss of community and degradation. A racist, increasingly McCarthyite post-war America of contradictory social and corporate values is in conflict with itself. It is a land decidedly ‘unfit for heroes’.
As the protagonist, Walker is a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose creation. He is both an exemplar of the psychological damage inflicted by war, but also a register of the state of post-war America. His odyssey from East to West provides a quasi-documentary account through his own eyes, as a newspaper reporter and those of his informed contacts. In Robertson’s dramatically visualized account, he is. In effect,’ the man with the movie camera.’
As an individual, he has been mentally scarred by his traumatic experiences of the Normandy landings and is wracked with guilt both for what he has done and not done. He turns from his native Canada to start life afresh in New York, but this intended new beginning cannot be divorced from his ever present happy memories of growing up in the idyllic setting of Broad Cove, Nova Scotia and the distressing, intrusive brutalities witnessed and suffered in Normandy. In a crosscutting, contrapuntal, narrative, images of war erupt into his present even as his mind drifts back to more innocent days at home. He would dearly have loved to re-join his ruptured pre-war way of life, but he is a changed man who may never come out of his traumatic past. A car backfires and he is again under gunfire; July 4th firecrackers explode into the flares and mortars of Juno beach; the sight of debris caught in tree branches along East river elides with disturbing images of trapped comrades: ‘It’s the wire. They’re caught deep in the barbed wire, and can’t get free. Can’t get out of the water and onto the beach. They’re waving their arms and screaming but the landing craft just goes over them, the propeller just cutting them apart’ (p.29). These involuntary memories intercut with a more conscious recall of happier times: a fish crate conjures up Broad Cove, the innocence of youth, the countryside, communal dances, making love to Annie: ‘I think of her all the time, back on the island’(p.17). This past and present are cruelly brought together by a reflection in a shop window: ‘He’d surprise his reflection in a store window:/ see the curly-haired boy with his fishing pole;/the skinny white soldier with blank eyes,/getting thinner’ (p.6)
Throughout the narrative, the study of Walker’s fractured mind draws on such opposing flashbacks to emphasise his inexorable decline. Dreams of Annie become more prevalent; postcards are written along with diary entries expressing love and regrets for a life which might have been. ’We we’re so happy. I want to be happy again(’p.121); ‘He could not call her back to his life which is a horror,/which is the dead calf in the bank-head field, a black flap/ bubbling with maggots,/ugly and wrong. Her clean eyes could not see this, /what he had become’ (p. 131); ‘ Do you ever think of those days, those summers? ‘(p.132); ‘I feel closer to her here, with the water all around. The light/Annie/Torn apart, the length of our lives’(134)
This pattern of conflicting images also threads through his experiences of America . New York, for example, seems to offer hope: ‘: Manhattan’s the place for re-invention, mobility, anonymity, where everything is possible. It’s what I came for’(Diary, p.17. But this vibrant, teeming city with its clubs, heaving bars, hookers and Coney Island fairground, in all its tawdriness, may excite and enthral, but in this city of contrasts, former soldiers cannot find work (p.11), drunken violence and bloody knife fights are common place, while bigotry and racism are an integral part of daily living: ‘He remembered every bar as a battlefield/sodden with carnage,/and blurred ghosts of drinkers,/their glasses, emptying, filling, emptying;/the dirt in each corner, dreams and despair.(p.21); the used and discarded body of a whore floats in the river ‘dancing now, face down, in the Hudson’ (p.9); an old lady complains, ‘It ain’t the same this place:/full of kikes an ’spics an’ niggers everywhere’(p.29)
His odyssey to Los Angeles and San Francisco only confirms these dark realities beneath the alluring appearances. The crumbling , cardboard falsity of night time Coney Island is revealed in the cruel light of day; the San Francisco carnival mirrors this experience while in Los Angeles and San Francisco the movies make their own constructed, stylized realities, but none as powerful as the movie that constantly plays out in Walker’s brain. The racism and bigotry encountered in New York is endemic. Negroes are insulted, turned off busses, brutally stabbed to death, lynched and burnt to death. The best smell in the world? ‘Barbecued nigger’ (p.218).And so is poverty, unemployment and disillusionment. Bitter, disillusioned ex-servicemen know: ‘every place full of people, all chasing something,/but no jobs for us, the guys who fought, y’know,/fought for freedom. (…) Money’s all that matters. Money and the automobile.’ (pp`146-47) ’; Yeah.‘Fought all over, then came back to nothing./My girl gone. Job gone. Got played for a chump’ (p.123). McCarthyism is gaining ground, feeding off the social malaise: ‘This is our fear of’ the other’/-Indians, blacks, Mexicans Communists, Muslims,. Whatever-/America has to have its monsters,/so we can zone them, segregate them,/ if possible shoot them./ They call this patriotism, Nativism, but it’s racism pure and simple. And paranoia.’ (p.109) McCarthyism is readily equated with fascism: ‘Exactly the same. Propaganda and lies, opening divisions, fuelling fear, paranoia’ (p.130) A comparison with Trump’s America seems invited, is perhaps, inevitable.
The great American dream of the sunshine future is a bleak nightmare. Homeless numbers grow as housing is destroyed to make freeways, those convenient barriers segregating rich and poor: ‘The Four Level Interchange/ Makes you proud to be an American.’ (p.145). The mentally ill are put onto the streets, homeless and abandoned, a policy presented positively as ‘deinstitutionalization’. Plans to promote social housing are considered creeping communism. Parking lots take the place of social space; there is nowhere to sit and talk. The poor and old are further dispossessed, their communities destroyed. Violence and drunkenness grow as the country slides towards complete social breakdown. Walker, himself, turns increasingly to the bottle.
The centrality of a disturbed protagonist as the mirror of a broken society fits smoothly into film noir. Film references proliferate; locations are visited; directors -Siodmark, Dmytryk- are interviewed, the screen both reflecting and filtering out contemporary America. If the major themes of the genre are apparent, so is the aesthetic. Chiaroscuro lighting, high unsettling camera angles, dark shadowy compositions suggest the ambiguities inherent in individuals and society. As Walker tours the cities by night his very being becomes an expression of the street lights :‘His shadow moving with him/ below the streetlamps: dense, tight/very black and sharp, foreshortened, but already/ starting to lengthen as he goes, attenuating/to a weak stain. Then back/under another streetlight, shadow/darkening again, clean and hard. /Who he really is, or was,/lies somewhere in between’.(pp.11-12) This dark, unsettling celluloid world is indistinguishable from his own: ‘He walked the monochrome world of the city after hours, in the dissipating heat/ watching his shadow feed in front of him, tightening/under the streetlight, sidling up each wall/ then folding into it, bending like a stick/ slid into water’ (p.66) ; He saw its hard lines all; the way home through the fog; the raking headlamp opening up a wall, the shadows/ tightening in around the spoon of light that’s dragged/across the metal doors, snapped back into darkness./The white verticals tilt and fall,/ till they become one long spine of light/ through those rainy streets: a needle’ pp 175-76). The point is driven home by a liberal German emigre: ’At last!/ German Expressionism meets the American Dream! (p.130)
Haunted by war memories and nagging guilt, Walker seeks drunken oblivion. ‘The corpse in the chair resolves itself/into a pile of clothes and a hat’ (p150). This sets the pattern for his continued decline as he fails to cope with guilt and his troubled memories. A crowded bar is his solace: ‘His church. His sacraments of whiskey and cigarettes.’ (p.156). A drink in any bar will do as he seeks to forget. Robertson provides a memorable evocation of the drunk: ‘A few more whiskeys, and he felt his shadow catching up/ so he steadied himself to leave; saw an old man/ right in front of him doing a strange, stiff, shuffle, /shifting his weight from foot to foot/not knowing where to put his hands, as if he’d discovered/ the pockets of his jacket were still sewn up/ Then he sees, it’s himself, in a mirror./ Outside the ground slewed under him/ yawning and dropping/ like he ‘d stepped down into a canoe/ There was a blur of neon as he fell,/headlong, into his own shadow, a shadow the length and breadth of him. (pp 214-5)

In nightmares he pictures himself looking for his own body, while those of his many dead comrades look back at him, accusingly. ‘Another sunset bloods the bay/back into slaughter, back to/ bodies on the barbed-wire. (…) That dream of the mess hall, cavernous in shadow, /full of the fallen/ line after line of the regiment’s dead, who raise their eyes to you,/the living betrayer, then lower their heads’(pp138-9).
The intercutting rhythm of the narrative gathers pace as Armageddon nears. The warnings of impending social unrest and catastrophe intensify. :’We won the war, but we’re living like we lost it’ (…) Things are hotting up, Walker.’ (p108). Billy warns of the coyote ‘they steal fire and bring it to mankind./you better hope they stay away’ (p108) ; ‘I don’t know if its three years, five years ten,/but I’m telling you, friend, this city is getting ready to blow’. (110) The first tremors are felt and ‘On the dead rails of Angels Flight: the coyote’s eyes were like miners’ lamps’ (p.110) On the way to San Frisco Walker has a ‘dream of wild-fires, earthquakes, tidal waves’ (115) A castigating street preacher, forecasts impending retribution: ‘You have sown the wind.’ (p152,p.186,p193). ‘The days of visitation are come,/ You shall reap the whirlwind’, p223) and the ominous presence of the coyote, a harbinger of conflagration, is increasingly felt.(p158) (p.215) ,p. 223).
Painful war memories amass, and as though a modern day Ancient Mariner, Walker feels a growing need to unburden himself, to confess. Billy, burnt to death on skid row, cannot absolve him so he turns to Frank, tortured by the SS group that murdered his prisoner comrades, in cold blood. They have been transgressed rules. So, too, has Walker. He has taken sadistic revenge on a decorated SS officer, cutting his face to pieces. He has crossed the moral line, the rules of engagement. He has descended into the bestiality displayed by the Germans. Frank cannot condone his actions: ‘You’re no better than them’ (p.221)
The unheeded warnings of disaster come to fruition In a virtuoso, graphic evocation Roberson depicts distressed animals, disorientated birds and boiling lava as the rumbling landslide wipes away the new-built city (p. 223.) The collapsing world and Walker are but one, a down and out on skid row :’If he could drain his eyes of this. The split world. The world/burning. The world coming to grief. (p224). He has confessed his guilt: ’But the slate is wiped clean… The slate is clean./All sins are confessed, so the slate is clean…(p225). But has he achieved closure? ‘He looked around at his comrades-in-arms, ‘Remember me’,/ then closed his eyes./I can stop now’ he said, putting his mouth to the mouth of the bottle. ‘I’ll make my city here’.
He has confessed, but neither he nor America have been given absolution.

10 Oct 2018

Jackie Beavan

Review of “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Is it possible to read the opening lines of Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” and not think of 9/11? I don’t think so.

“And there it was: the swell
and glitter of it like a standing wave –
the fabled blue smoking ruin, the new towers rising
through the blue,
the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint, the glamour of buried light
as the world turned round it
very slowly
this autumn morning, all amazed.”

Robertson’s epic poem is set in the USA of the nineteen forties and fifties but the parallels with present day America continue well after the first stanza. The tyranny of big corporations, homelessness, fear and loathing of the outsider, the slaying of young Black men – they’re all there.

We see the plight of post-war America through the eyes of Walker, a traumatised Canadian ex-soldier who finds work as a reporter at The Press. He bears witness to the wholesale demolition of homes and communities in downtown Los Angeles, a process that further worsens the lives of the poor, many of whom are war veterans just like himself. His reports detail their struggle for survival as well as the acts of compassion he observes in his interactions with them.

There is Billy Idaho, the Black homeless veteran who makes it his business to look after others like him, Red, the one-armed newspaper seller, “with one sleeve pinned up”, the old man, “half-folded, right-angled like a wall bracket”, the elderly neighbour who keeps an ailing pet rodent called Alfredo in a shoe box. Walker is the chronicler of the marginalised in a world that doesn’t care. His nemesis in the newspaper office is Pike, a ruthless, ambitious reporter whose diabolical nature reveals itself as time goes on.

As the story moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco back to Los Angeles, Walker is not the only one telling stories: every day, films are being shot in the city locations that are becoming familiar to him, films that reflect the violent and corrupt underbelly of urban America. The cinema is a place of refuge for him, both physically and mentally. And he needs a psychological escape more than anything else. His sleeping and waking hours are haunted by the grotesque savagery of the war and something, hinted at but unexplained until near the end of the book, that he did. His survival, when all those around him died, seems a tragedy, his ghastly flashbacks as real to him as the present day.
“We were running up the hill, zig-zagging like we were taught, when off to my left I saw a sudden pink puffball, which was Cargill’s head being coughed apart.”

The streets of Los Angeles, at times, seem hardly less violent and dangerous than the battlefield. If people did not die from disease or exposure, they could be seen off by the Mob or random ne’er-do-wells or the cops. “The Long Take” could be a compelling but relentless read but its depiction of the survival of kindness against all the odds and the beautiful reminiscences of Walker’s Cape Breton home provide a welcome relief from the horror. Robertson writes about the natural world in a way that sometimes had me on the verge of tears, perhaps because of the juxtaposition with the truly awful accounts of the many ways in which people can live and die.

“On the still lake that evening, the swan rode out on her own reflection like a shield,
sending back slow chevrons to the shore.”

However, this is not simply an elegy to some prelapsarian idyll: there is something of the desperation of trench warfare even in the memories of Walker’s farming community.

“…..the month of the great storm when so many sheep died the shepherds built walls with carcasses, just to keep the snow from the few beasts left alive.”

Indeed, many of the most enduring descriptions are of not of some rural Eden but of cityscapes, like this view of a Los Angeles dawn.

“The blue buildings step out from the gray,
The cool night slipped from their shoulders like a bathrobe.”

The inexorable trajectory of the narrative, though, is towards a kind of apocalypse, prefigured by the coyote that Walker glimpses from time to time in the city streets. Billy recounts the native American belief that the coyote and the raven “steal fire and bring it to mankind. You better hope they stay away.” Billy’s warning is horribly prophetic and the final appearance of the coyote is followed by catastrophe.

It could be said that there are echoes of other works: the film “Apocalypse Now” and the war poetry of Sassoon and Owen”, for example, yet I have never read anything like “The Long Take” and it will stay with me for a long time. It deserves to be a classic.

Jackie Beavan
Writers’ Reading Group
Birmingham

06 Oct 2018

pondechuca

Robin Robertson’s Long Take is potentially as powerful as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. His three dimensional message is stark and honest. Like an old black and white film he outlines in a “long take” the corruption he observes in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. He despises the greed and discrimination against humanity. The American Dream to him has become an American Nightmare! The original and unique writing of this great poet deserves public recognition.

06 Oct 2018

Judy Tweddle

The Long Take review by Judy Tweddle

Robin Robertson, says John Banville, takes a ‘great risk’ in writing blank verse. But The Long Take reads easily, richly, poetically; visceral at times, and lyrical. It flows. So why was it a risk? I tried to write in his style and immediately found how easy it is to get it wrong, to do it badly. A sloppy line, an easy verb or adjective, the word order not quite right, the rhythm out, and the result is awkward, pretentious, loose, banal.

For content, his character Walker, damaged, is at the shoreline of post 2WW America, dwelling on the minutiae of the tragedies and triumphs of life at the edge, illuminating all with flares and torches, dim lightbulbs and slashes of sun. And we trust him, and go along with him, exhilarated by the way he captures despair and bravery, friendship and loss, with no self-pity, no pretension. Like a Beckett hero he can't go on, must go on, goes on; but gloomily aware he may be leaving the world in the hands of those like Pike, a Gormenghastian Steerpike.

Stylistically Robertson rides the waves, surfs them gloriously, finds the eerie light of the tunnels, and never slips. He would know, or find, the word for falling off a wave, tumbling with the board, but he never does it. It is an extraordinary tour de force of style, which allows him to take the reader with him to places we might not want to go. He leaves us breathless.

Jeepers.

06 Oct 2018

polly.wright@btinternet.com

THE LONG TAKE
Robin Robertson
A review

Reading The Long Take is like riffling through an old black and white photo album which is only loosely chronological. Flicking through the album (the book? the poem? the novel?) gives an overview (of a journey maybe) but each photograph gives minute, often unbearably poignant detail. We have characters who are nameless, or named, and come and go; a protagonist, Walker, who drifts through the underbellies of cities (NY, LA, San Francisco) initially at the docks then as a newspaper reporter; images of suburbs, carefully contextualised, with references to the Hollywood films being made there. And, most vivid of all, snap-shots of war at its most personal and visceral: close-up word-photographs of men before and after a shell strikes: the agonies of wounds-in-the-process, almost unendurable to read.

The novel is presented in three styles throughout the four ‘chapters’ (dated 1946, 1948, 1951, 1953): the free verse and prose-poem (the majority of the text) is third-person narration, always from Walker’s perspective; the interspersed sections in italics show the reminiscences about Walker’s native Nova Scotia and, outnumbering these, the many flash-backs to the Normandy landings – all first-person. The third ‘style’ (the least frequent) is in bold font and seems to be fairly functional diary entries or, rarely, post-cards, with dates.

The time is the ‘forties and ‘fifties: Film Noir, Raymond Chandler*, McCarthyism, unemployment, racism, veterans drifting. A baby cries, a car backfires and Walker is back in France with his friends exploding around him. His job is on the city desk of the Press newspaper, with two jaded colleagues chasing stories of fights and crashes and murders – so sleazy bars, street brawls and the occasional one-night stand with a lonely whore are part of the territory. Ever-present is the sinister Pike, the new go-getting, self-centred cub reporter with his eye always on the ladder to promotion. Here we surely have a metaphor for America’s thrust towards ‘progress’, where the poor and the disadvantaged will be left behind as America races towards riches and the hegemony of the automobile.

Walker on the other hand is a good man, dedicated to exposing the injustices he sees all around him. He requests a year in San Francisco to write about Skid Row (the novel’s third chapter). Back in LA, he and black, anchor-less Billy have become friends, and seek each other out intermittently; he shares war memories (a form of therapy) with Red, the one-armed ‘vet’ from the community group. His job just about keeps him going: despite everything, all is not yet despair. But gradually it emerges that a guilty secret is locked inside Walker, gnawing at him, preventing any form of healing. Through the novel we are given delicate hints of this:
“The things he’d seen. The things he’d done.” (page 155)

Billy says: “You ready to talk to me yet? Y’know, about what happened?”
“Maybe another time, Billy…” (page 168)

“He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France.
It was eating him up. Eating him alive.” (page 216)

The story, the confession, is finally told on page 222, to devastating effect.

Robertson is a poet: every word of the 226 pages is selected forensically. Everything is relevant, crafted, succinct, subtle, often vivid. Descriptions are often conveyed through nouns alone – great lists of images unadorned by verbs:
“…streetcars, automobiles,
horns going; the panhandlers, streetwalkers, kids rolling drunks;
scuffles down the alleyways; saloon doors
swinging open to jukebox music
and a gash of laughter;
police cruisers; the calls of hot-dog sellers,
whispers from the pimps and the whores,
the dealers; the cops out on the corners,
the soldiers and sailors, their whistles, shouts,
broken bottles; reefer smoke, beer and sweat.
This was the city.” (page 43)

Robertson is a poet with a photographer’s eye:
“He’d stumbled out of there, blurred from drink
like an accidental photograph...” (page 149)

Here are oil wells:
“…hundreds of the jacks still moving, like shore-birds feeding,
dipping their heads to the sand.” (page 161)

He minutely records humanity’s idiosyncrasies. Here are old people crossing the street:
“He stood with them on the corner, by the liquor store,
unsure when to cross, then
stepping off the curb just as the lights change, and the cars
jump forward and stop with a lurch, horns going,
and they all clamber back up, feeling for the lamppost,
holding on to the stop-sign.” (page 151)

Dominating the Los Angeles chapters are the many references to the movies, and here the seedy subculture of the strip-joints and alleyways, and Robertson’s snap-shots (word-photographs) are straight from film noir. Amid the street-canyons of the cities there are shadows which move up walls; shafts of light which criss-cross into rectangular shapes:
“There were parts of the city that were pure blocks of darkness,
where light would slip in like a blade to nick it, carve it open:
a thin stiletto, then a spill of white; the diagonal gash
of a shadow, shearing; the jagged angle sliding over itself
to close;” (page 104)

Here is Grand Central Station:
“The huge cathedral light angles down
- in long smoking buttresses –
from the starred blue ceiling to the concourse
….
He waited in the light;
In the floating dust there
like the beam of a projector:
a still figure in hat and coat…” (pages 30-31)

The mood of the novel, though sombre, is lifted by images of nature: the pools and waterways of Loch Ban, Walker’s home in Nova Scotia:
“…trout you could catch with your hands as they lay still under the ledges, gazing upstream. Reaching for the most tentative touch, just there above the tail, then gently up under the belly till it accepts your hand and you can rock it in the water, back and forth, lulling it easy.” (page 63)

“…an otter, using the road as a scratching post, brisking its fur before slipping back through the reeds to the pool, a skimmer of light in the blue-black water.” (page 54)

The many images of water seem to reflect the fluidity of the poem’s style. They may also stand as metaphors for purifying, healing, soothing – and for Walker’s ultimately futile search for redemption. There are gentle reminiscences of Annie, his old lover; of ‘lichen clinging to twigs, bright as pollen’ (page 5); interludes of beauty which provide relief amid the horrors of war.

In the final chapter, as the corrupt CRA demolish Walker’s historic LA neighbourhood to make way for parking lots, the disintegration of human beings in the unimaginable horrors of war is matched, section by section, with the destruction of the city. In a cacophony of noise and dust, the thudding of the wrecking-ball is like shells landing; the exposed sides of apartment blocks are like open wounds. Yet more devastating flash-backs crowd in as Walker’s PTSD escalates. The poem’s momentum gathers pace; there are conflagrations; the earth quakes and shudders; a neighbourhood coyote** with blank eyes is spotted again; war images increase in intensity and become even more lurid; the nakedly ambitious Pike, the new, thrusting, amoral America, appears again, ever more sinister, clicking his biro. The tension mounts.

And then the release. The guilty secret is revealed, in all its visceral brutality. Frank is repulsed: “You’re no better than them” (page 222) – and walks away. But there is no redemption: the boy evangelist in the blue suit intones:
“But I will send a fire upon your cities,
and it shall devour your palaces.
The days of visitation are come.
You shall reap the whirlwind.” (page 223)

And, once more, the “blank-eyed coyote loping away”.

And then, finally, in bold type, the threatened earthquake, mighty and devastating – real, or imagined? The wrath of the gods?
Walker “…laid down copies of the Press on the blackened sidewalk…
then set his duffle bag on top.” (page 225)

He has confessed; “the slate is clean”; here he will remain.

But for Walker, the slate will never be clean. Now there is nothing but a slow fade to black.

***

*Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell My Lovely, featuring the LA private detective Philip Marlowe, was published in 1940. In 1944 it was made into a film, set in LA (released in the US as Murder, My Sweet).

** Robertson’s recurrent use of the coyote – is this the mythical wolf-like animal, the bringer of fire from the gods to mankind? Or the classic trickster of popular belief? Or the survivor? Or the mediator between life and death? On page 215, Robertson hints at an answer:
“The coyote was watching.
Tail bushed open – held straight out.
In its eyes, the stolen fire”.

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