Wendy French enthuses about a prize-winning first collection by Gillie Robic

Swimming Through Marble 
Gillie Robic
Live Canon 
ISBN: 978-1-909703-09-4

There’s a magic in the poems in this stunning first full collection from Gillie Robic: they cast their spell over any reader who engages with the book. The poems take you into other realms of being: distant places, with different colours, time zones, oceans etc. And that for me is what reading poetry is all about. To quote Dannie Abse: ‘I want to go into a poem and come out in a different place’.

It is no surprise that the book was short-listed for Live Canon’s first collection prize. The poems are accomplished and well-crafted; and yet there is a freedom in the writing that makes them appear as though they just came to the poet without effort! We all know that must be far from the truth. To get poems as direct and engaging as this, hard work and toil will have taken place over many months, maybe even years.

The poems travel over continents and time. The form of the first one, ‘Shifting Time Zones’ (a mirror poem), reflects the content of the poem by the second stanza mirroring the first one. It is about an uprooting from one place to go and live in another and concentrates on the changing thoughts of a child leaving colourful Bombay to return to cold England for schooling. Robic’s technique  supports the content of the poem, in which time shifts from one zone to another and we re remnded how time often seems to repeat itself.

Shells, broken corals, frayed towels and pebbles
flounder in  an ocean of bubble and newsprint…

and faster clocks wind me up, jangle me to scramble
my beach time.

Each of the poems in this collection is a story. ‘My Father’s Tales’ captures the fantasy of childhood with the stories children love to hear again and again:

He pulled the cloth over our sleepy eyes
and waved us off with Jack to sail the rainbow skies.

I love the detail in this poem which makes it live in the moment of childhood; and this moment is carried forward to Robic’s present day. She relives the way the stories were told as if she is hearing them for the first time:

Pa introduced us to Jimmy the Crow
on the verandah balustrade, Every day
at breakfast he would gleam his beady eye…

These poems are delightful to read aloud as well as view on the page. Robic is an artist and an actress and this is apparent as the imagery in the poems makes the images dance on the page and come to life when being read.

All is quiet but the singing grass.
I slither out from underneath my stone
and peer about me, ascertain that I am quite alone.

This is the opening stanza to ‘King Cobra’ which transports us to the snake’s world, where he remembers his time of greatness when:

…I spread my hood across 
the sky to shade Lord Buddha from the sun,…

Yet some of the poems take the reader out of a comfort zone into an uneasy read. In ‘Torpor’ we find

 ‘For chrissake I need a dry smoke!’ and carefully targeting 
his rolling glass roared: ‘Barman, bring me a goddam drink!’

The story in this poem is obvious but there’s an undercurrent of suspense that the reader has to fathom out. This complexity compels us, almost like an addiction, to keep on reading.

The poem ‘The Lost Boys’ reminded me of the tale of Peter Grimes:

Some boys vomited but most were fisherfolk , used to the ocean swell;
fear filled them and they cried for their deluded parents.

I had to put the book down after reading this poem and take stock of the present day situation with refugees and wonder how far we have progressed in our humanity. It is good when poetry can remind us of issues beyond the page.

There is beauty, there is despair, there is honesty, there is colour, there is deception, there is life with a capital L in all of these poems. They reach out, saying ‘Read me, take yourselves to another place. Join me on these pages.’

This is a book that I am proud to own and have on my bookshelves.


Wendy French’s latest collection is Thinks Itself A Hawk (Hippocrates poetry press 2016)