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DECOYS by William Robertson. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2017. Softcover, 80 pages, $17.95. Reviewed by Edwin Buettner


William Robertson is a Saskatchewan writer, reviewer, broadcaster, and university teacher. In this collection of well-crafted and easily accessible poems, Robertson invites his reader on a kind of exploratory hike guided by verse that “goes down easy.”

This book is the journal of a poet in love with creation. At times, however, one can sense a degree of tension, if not guilt, between the intimacies of the poet’s heart-knowing and his impressive taxonomic knowledge of the natural world: “. . . time was, birds were all just birds / undifferentiated animals that flew and made / noise above till someone had to name them” (Bush League Adam). Evoking the Book of Genesis, it seems, for Robertson, “naming” is risky in that, unchecked, it leads to greater alienation from nature and even other people. For example, in Taxonomy, a local girl returns from university armed with “new names for old things.” This newfound power leads to a rift in relationship when she says hurtful things to a beloved elderly uncle. Her insensitivity “wip(ed) the smile off his face with her word . . . / she tells him, use the proper word, and feels the first little hurt / of loneliness”

Robertson takes many opportunities to give the lie to humanity’s bold pretense of “ownership” applied to the natural world. In Any Tree, he poignantly captures nature’s inexorable triumph: “. . . a farm gone back to ground, the trees still / hanging on to their human roots, planted / by hand against the long view of open ground.” Yet the poet intimates that there exists a deeper and more authentic kind of ownership: “In my small town I own / so much more of the moon” (Trespassing).

Many of the poems in this collection explore points of tension among nature, humanity, and technology. There is a comfortable reciprocity in some, while others bristle with the energy of conflict. For example, Brook Trout touches on the complexities of the human/nature relationship involved in act of fishing. Initially, the “fish wasn’t going to be interested / in what I was throwing at it,” yet it eventually takes the bait and things escalate to a pitched battle. Though ultimately victorious, the fisher pays silent homage to the spent warrior he has landed: “I fall/before it. muddy bloody crazy / both worn out, I rub away the muck / to shine its silver.”

Robertson understands that poetry is most effective when its focus is on the particulars — a thing’s distinctiveness — details that elude the non-poetic eye and ear. His work fairly teems with expressions of the exquisite uniqueness of things: “the hard denim edge / of a pocket”; “boathouse with its leaky canoe, crazy tools / and milk cartons of old records”; “Robins . . . / redbreasts puffed with lust.” In sharp relief, the “local guys” in Not Saying a Word, reveal a certain blindness when they refer to an injured moose as “just one / of thousands on this island.”

While evocative of an intricate arc of spiritual connection between humanity and nature, these poems are solidly grounded in ordinary reality. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Robertson views the natural world as revelatory of a creative and loving force that infuses all things: “. . . the same thing that guides/the fish . . . tells us who to seek out / and love.” As above, so below.