Review of Adult Language Warning
From Jon Kertzer , Canadian Literature 135 - winter 1992

Reticence & Extravagance

William Robertson, Adult Language Warning, Brick Books

Don Gutteridge, Love in the Wintertime, Oberon

Ronn Silverstein, Diary of a Glass Blower in Solitude, Cormorant

For the sake of comparison, these three books of poetry can be set on a scale ranging from reticence to extravagance. While William Robertson does not employ a minimalist style, he does write in a wry, subdued manner that is preoccupied with domesticity and the sequence of daily irritations that add up to a haphazard destiny:

and he says to himself, well
this is life, this next
in a series of compromises

His title, Adult Language Warning, seems oddly inappropriate, since his words are mild, his voice is reserved and reflective. The minutiae of family life provide a background from which he launches forays of the imagination backward to his childhood in Japan, or outward into a world that either threatens or beckons or both. The poem which I just quoted, “Weasels in my Lawn,” is a good example. The weasel is a rodent of doubt, apprehension or self-recrimination that gnaws its way into Robertson’s, or his characters’, thoughts:

and each one of them deserved the Dad
they need most to have
and because they can’t
he sits up nights
with his weasel mind
that scrabbles after friendships
chews them to pieces
and leaves them twitching

“Twitching” is a good verb to describe the attitude expressed in many poems, which begin placidly, but grow irritated. What the poet sees when he looks out or back are signs of social unease, time, ageing and death. Winter scenes predominate. Often there is an implied calculation at work, as Robertson measures himself against what he was, what he had hoped for, or what his children have to face. At the limit of his thoughts are flashes of insight that carry him “panting at the edge / of more than one world.” These flashes are conveyed through images that arise literally or figuratively from the scene: the northern lights, Yukon stone, angels. These are hints of transcendence, but the poem dedicated to Gwendolyn MacEwan reminds us how modest are Robertson’s longings in contrast to a poet who loved tumult. Robertson is far more repressed:

I write a poem, a story, I write
the very godhead onto paper
and my family waves me quiet
from the TV
so I go to the kitchen to create…

The danger of Robertson’s style is that it will be too bland, and there are some dull patches, but he usually guards against this fault through a sure touch conveyed by a striking or musical phrase: “gatling,” “diddle,” “chalcedony,” “turbid bed-time,” “tortoise noises.”

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