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Poetry need not be a call to action, but ‘The Long Take’ is

When was the last time you said of a book of poetry, “I couldn’t put it down?” Well, now’s your chance.

Moving between poetry and prose, dialogue and history, Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” is a propulsive verbal tour de force. The book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is also a hymn to destruction that exposes our country’s betrayal of the American Dream in the years following World War II. If you think T.S. Eliot’s “unreal city” was full of the misbegotten and woe, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Robertson, a Scot who’s written six previous poetry collections, is known for his exquisite descriptions of the natural world and dramatic, violent retellings of Greek myths. Here he expands his range to include America, a country he loves. He also loves American film noir, and though its film references will make any noir fan swoon, “The Long Take” is, above all, a carefully crafted narrative poem. It opens with a grand view of New York City in 1946:

And there it was: the swell

and glitter of it like a standing wave —

the fabled, smoking ruin, the towers rising

through the blue,

the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint . . .

The speaker is Walker, a Canadian veteran who survived D-Day and has left his home in Nova Scotia to “re-calibrate/ . . . take the long view.” He wants to see America, so he visits New York and works on the docks. He then moves to Los Angeles and writes for a newspaper. In San Francisco, he investigates the homeless situation for the paper, and upon returning to Los Angeles discovers his Bunker Hill neighborhood is being destroyed to make room for freeways. These cities are full of life, movie theaters and Walt Whitman’s demotic “blab of the pave.” New York is a “river of hats” and its women’s faces sag “like a fallen hem.” San Francisco’s fog is “battle-smoke.” At first, Los Angeles’s “smear of neon” excites Walker, but he can’t ignore “the brown/stars of blood leading down the alleys.” Soon enough the dive bars become battlegrounds; the noise of “backhoes, cement trucks and cranes” makes him cover his ears. Walker’s war experiences unite with this urban destruction and his PTSD worsens.

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Walker’s journey unfolds like the pleats of a fan. Only after the fan opens do we see the full arrangement of its design and feel the cumulative effects Robertson has created. The juxtaposition of poetry and prose dissolves the psychological distance between Walker’s past and his present. His diary entries, initially objective, soon become introspective, fueling his self-destruction. Like Homer, Walker is an avid cataloguer, but instead of Greek ships we get sidewalks, banks, movie theaters, traffic patterns, train stations, signage and great tough-guy dialogue. Were it not for Robertson’s skill, these descriptions would collapse into a frenzied travelogue. Instead, Walker’s observations soon transcend the descriptive and coalesce to become an emblem of America’s decline.

The poem also educates: Black soldiers fought at D-Day; members of Walker’s unit, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, were tortured as POWs and shot by the 12th SS Panzer Division of the Hitlerjugend. Willful urban destruction, McCarthyism, racism, police brutality — these chaotic events provoke dark memories of the war and won’t let Walker rest. The result is that he no longer knows himself:

. . . 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.

Others also suffer this dislocation. Billy Idaho, a black veteran of Utah Beach, is Walker’s guide to Los Angeles. Deeply read, a Good Samaritan, Billy reappears at regular intervals to instruct Walker on L.A.’s past and future: “I’m telling you, friend, this city’s getting ready to blow.” Growing increasingly paranoid, Billy replaces his Santa Claus hat with “a leather flying helmet and a necklace of dog tags.” He’s preparing for battle.

Another veteran is Frank, known as “Glassface.” The Hitlerjugend had burned him with “a trench lighter, trying to get [him] to talk.” Glassface becomes Walker’s confessor. Then there’s Pike, an unctuous, racist reporter who, in a great hard-boiled image, eats a sandwich “like he had something against it.” He thinks he’s “always in a movie,” practicing “fascinating smiles.” Pike represents the future — a slick but nervous man, a progenitor of selfie culture always “pushing into the frame.”

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Robertson places Walker’s world on a continuum of postwar abusive power that still resonates today, while also reminding the reader of older instances of displacement such as the Trail of Tears and Scotland’s Sutherland clearances. “The Long Take” conveys dignity upon its less than noble characters because they’ve been dispossessed by outside forces. We root for Billy and Glassface. And when, at the end, Walker claims a bit of sidewalk by declaring, “I’ll make my city here,” we root for him, too.

“The Long Take” is an audacious and often brilliant book. Poetry needn’t be a call to action but this one raises many questions, not the least of which is: What and whom should we root for in today’s world of diminished dreams?

Sibbie O’Sullivan writes frequently about culture and the arts. Her book of essays about the Beatles is forthcoming from Mad Creek Books.

By Robin Robertson

Knopf. 256 pp. $27

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