Reviews of Shadows at the Gate

Shadows at the Gate‘These poems are organic outgrowths of a life encompassing both Ireland and Australia, love and loss, anchorage and dislocation, hurt and healing. While retaining artistic control, Robyn Rowland allows real feeling to inform her poetry, rather than playing safe with a fashionably detached ironic mode. Shadows at the Gate authentically sings of tenderness and courage in the face of ‘time’s corrosive kiss’." - Michael Coady, Irish Poet.

"Soaked in the richness of lived experience and its accompanying shadows..tightly constructed, thick with description and image" - Andrea Breen, Island 98, Spring 2004.

"Memory, anecdotal narrative and strong emotion shape Rowland's strong, personal and well-crafted verse. Her reading was honest and questioning and Irish history filters through her story as told in appealing, unsentimental but humanly touching poems." Eileen Batersby, The Irish Times, (after Robyn's reading on Inis Oirr for C·irt International Festival of Literature in Galway).

 
 

Reviewed by Geoff Page, The Canberra Times, 2005

Robyn Rowland’s fourth book, Shadows at the Gate, is redolent with emotion and Ireland — which can often be the same thing. The emotions here have various sources, mainly love and death, but also attachment to place and a growing sense of identity.

Rowland, unlike many more cautious poets, is not afraid to risk the personal. Intensity is what she is after and you don’t normally get that by pulling your punches — though, of course, understatement and restraint can sometimes be equally effective. Indeed, Rowland’s poems can be so personal that the reader is half-inclined to intervene, to give, for example, that double-crossing Irish monk she fell in love with (and writes about at length) a ‘piece of one’s mind’.

In the poem called ‘The path most travelled’ Rowland talks of how her lover saw the “crucifix (as) a gleaming promise / after the years of wavering, / after love woven in the skin” and laments his “returning to carve (his) place / back among (his) brotherhood / corseted in whalebone ritual.” At the end of the poem, though, back home with her two young sons, Rowland is consoled by the “small grubby hands held out to us, // and the joke’s on you.” There’s no doubt this section (part II) is partly written as therapy but the pain still hurts — like chalk scratched down a blackboard. She does use a few phrases that might seem excessive, such as “wet with longing’s passion”, but the whole sequence of poems is not easily forgotten — or recovered from.

Other parts of the book deal not only with the vulnerability felt after cancer (or from living with osteoporosis) but also with the fragility we have all felt, one way or another, since September 11, 2001. The latter is dealt with mainly indirectly, by invoking small family felicities as a way “to hold back the advance of fear.”

One of the most memorable poems in the book — and still dealing with vulnerability — is “Coming of age”, the definitive “grandfather” poem, in which Rowland notes on her father’s departure: “They’re not like lovers …They’re not like children …They’re not like friends …” “No,” she says, “these are the fathers of the middle-aged … They come now to give their time, / listening to our lives where advice is useless / and they know it.” She lists all the small but helpful things they do and then talks of “the sad tug of their leaving” and of how, after they’ve gone, her cheeks, carry “the soft tears of rain inside.”

The final section, “Connemara Songs”, and quite a few of the other poems, seem both a daybook and a celebration of the eight months Rowland and her two young sons spent in the west of Ireland in 2001/2002. The poet obviously identifies with her Irish roots and regrets that she doesn’t have the Gaelic to do both her feelings and the landscape justice. Nevertheless, she does evoke the hardness of the people’s lives, the weather, the coasts, the estuaries and “this thread of land into the Atlantic” more than lyrically. But, after all this, Rowland still realises that, as far as Connemara is concerned, “I am merely vagrant here, a traveller, / who cannot lock myself into her heart / for she never knew my name.” (“Satin Days”).

It’s interesting, in this context then, that Michael Coady from Ireland has declared, on the back cover, that these are poems of “love and loss, anchorage and dislocation, hurt and healing” and that the book “sings of tenderness and courage, in the face of ‘time’s corrosive kiss’”. Now why can’t Australian reviewers write like that?

Review by Geoff Page, November 2004.

That poem, 'Coming of Age', is one of the most memorable poems in Robyn Rowland's new book Shadows at the Gate. Like many of the other poems there, it deals with vulnerability. In this case, the chronological vulnerability of the father, but also that of his daughter who, it seems, has only just come to appreciate him. It may well turn out to be the definitive Australian grandfather poem. Rather in the manner of negative theology, Rowland starts by noting all the things that grandfathers are not-they're not like lovers, they're not like children, they're not like friends- though, she says, these are the fathers of the middle aged, they come now to give their time, listening to our lies where advice is useless, they know it. She tenderly lists all the small but helpful things they do and then of the sad tug of their leaving, and how, after they've gone, her cheeks carry the soft tears of rain inside. Some may think Rowland skates too close to sentimentality here, but there's little doubt that the feeling is genuine and truthfully rendered. Note, for instance, the negative reference to how, earlier on, he had always been 'turned away, locked in, not understanding, fearful of our tramping march to change the world, our shouting, our disrespect'; there is nothing saccharine here.

Throughout the whole book, Rowland, unlike many more cautious poets, is not afraid to risk the personal. Intensity is what she is after and you don't normally get that by pulling your punches, though of course understatement and restraint can sometimes be equally effective. Indeed, Rowland's poems can be so personal that the reader is half inclined to intervene to give, for example, the double-crossing Irish monk she falls in love with and writes about at length, a piece of one's mind, as it were. In the poem called 'The Path Most Travelled' Rowland talks of how this religious lover saw 'the crucifix as a gleaming promise after the years of wavering, after love woven in the skin.' It laments his 'returning to carve his place back amongst his brotherhood, corseted in whalebone ritual.' At the end of the poem, though, back home with her two young sons, Rowland is consoled by the 'small grubby hands held out to us' and the joke's on you. There's no doubt that this section of the book, Part Two, is written somewhat as therapy but the pain still hurts like chalk scratched down a blackboard. She does use a few phrases that might seem excessive, such as 'wet with longing's passion', but the whole sequence of poems is not easily forgotten or recovered from.

Other parts of Shadows at the Gate deal not only with the vulnerability felt after cancer or from living with osteoporosis, but also with the fragility we've all felt, one way or another, since September 11, 2001. The latter is dealt with mainly indirectly by invoking small family felicities as a way 'to hold back the advance of fear.' The final section, Connemara Songs, and quite a few of the other poems, seem both a day book and a celebration of the eight months Rowland and her two young sons spent in the west of Ireland in 2001 and 2002. The poet obviously identifies with her Irish roots and regrets that she doesn't have the Gaelic to do both her feelings and the landscape full justice. Nevertheless, she does evoke the hardness of people's lives, the weather, the coasts, the estuaries and 'this thread of land into the Atlantic', more than lyrically. But after all this, Rowland still realises that as far as Connemara is concerned, 'I am merely vagrant here, a traveller who cannot lock myself into her heart for she never knew my name.' It's interesting in this context then that Michael Cody from Ireland has declared on the back cover that these are poems of 'love and loss, anchorage and dislocation, hurt and healing,' and that the book 'sings of tenderness and courage in the face of time's corrosive kiss.' Now, why can't Australian reviewers write like that?