Review by Anna Tipton
The world Robin Robertson creates in The Long Take (Picador, 2018) is both seedy and violent, one slated for demolition and evoking the textures of film noir cities, with ‘Everything / moving on the street, and across it, straight lines / and diagonals. Drug-stores, grocery stores, / snack joints, diners. Missions. Bars. / Blocks. Corners. Intersections.’ The book-long narrative poem follows Walker, a D-Day veteran tortured by the violence of war and incapable of returning to his home in Nova Scotia, as he stalks through New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Along the way Walker move through the shadows, lights, and geometries of cityscapes that played a focal role in the era’s film industry, eventually confronting his PTSD, and reflecting on the consumerism, finitude, and empty promises that cities offer.
Walker’s bleak outlook on urban alienation puts us in mind of The Waste Land, and like Eliot’s elusive speaker who ‘can connect nothing with nothing’, Walker feels alienated from both the woman he loved and the millions of people ‘just like him’, who ‘[have] given up the country for the city, / boredom for fear’, and ‘[want] to be anonymous / not swallowed whole’. Robertson evokes both the likeness and otherness Walker feels toward people in the city. They are like him, but he cannot connect with them. Robertson’s descriptions of the flashes of endless people are reminiscent of the work of another modernist, this time Ezra Pound and his Imagist poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. The Long Take, however, is far more influenced by film noir than any poetic predecessors, which is made apparent through its use of the cinematographic elements of light, shadow, geometric shapes, and perspective. While Pound’s faces are petals and apparitions, Robertson’s subway commuters are fast-forwarded pictures from an old newsreel:
People from all over, all colours, a hundred languages:
Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish,
Spanish from the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans,
that Chinese – like a tape running backward, at speed.
Walker’s movement through these cities is itself like a long take in a film.
The Long Take is structured into four different sections, each taking place within a different year: 1946, 1948, 1951, and 1953. Within each year Walker spends time in a different American city: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The form of the book is difficult to categorize, moving between free verse, lyrical prose, diary entries, and photographs. The hybridity of form matches the book’s aspirations to document these cities cinematographically, in other words, to illustrate the scenes of cities with language in a similar way that cameras do in film noir. Robertson even uses the language of camera perspective to explain how Walker needs to re-set himself in a new city: ‘He needed to re-calibrate, focus on all this / new geometry, light and shadow, black and white: / take the long view. Like staring out to sea.’ The hybridity also makes the work fragmented, which mimics the demolition Walker observes in the cities and also his own disconnect from other people caused by the shell-shock he continuously suffers.
Walker’s experience of the city is fraught with his attempts to cope with his PTSD. The city acts as a trigger to his memories of the war: ‘A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car / backfiring, and he’s in France again.’ In another instance the narrator observes:
The papers say
‘Keep dogs and cats inside on the Fourth of July’
but nothing about ex-servicemen.
You can’t get tanked enough to block
the fireworks’ whine, their
door-burst slam, the rustling
shivers as they fail, fissling away.
So he watches the endless red, white and blue,
remembering he’s here in the States
not on Juno Beach or Bény-sur-Mer.
The irony of seeing patriotic colors as he flashes back to his wartime trauma illustrates how his sacrifice for the future of others has also made him an outsider from those same people he fought to defend.
Robertson delves into the hypocrisy of cities, their finitude and the false promises they offer. The narrator observes: ‘New York’s got just about anything you want. It’s like a market: a place where everything’s for sale.’ The abundant offering, however, is colored with anxiety—these promises are ultimately false: ‘But it’s all finite, already disappearing. So we want it now; we have to have it now.’ The underlying anxiety about the all-inclusiveness of the city and its prosperity is that it is always disappearing. These promises, though, are attractive to a war-torn veteran, who sees the city as ‘the place for re-invention, mobility, anonymity, where everything is possible’, though he soon discovers a ‘city / that’s too big to measure, / has too many windows to watch. / And nobody sees or cares anyway, / so nothing matters.’ With the loss of human scale comes a loss of humanity and individuality that Walker is forced to reckon with.
The ambience of The Long Takeis created by Robertson’s keen eye for the shapes and colors of cityscapes, reinforcing the sense of emptiness Walker feels with the shadows of high contrast and symmetrical shapes of film noir:
The city’s gone.
In its place, this gray stone maze, this
locked geometry of shadows, blind and black,
and angles hurt into the sky, symmetries breaking
and snapping back into the line.
The shapes seem to lead on to a future, but that future consists in ‘repetition, / back-tracking, error, loss.’ This is a future of tearing down to start over. One might reinvent oneself, but the new self will forever be anonymous among all the other people. Walker notices this in how ‘The subways are rivers, underground, / flash-flooding every five minutes / in a pulse of people.’ Robertson appropriates the language of nature to describe the city, but it does not offer the same renewal and purity, instead reinforcing the city’s artificiality.
The Long Take is a book whose details are ‘slashed by a knife’, ‘ink black’, ‘light locked’, ‘razor-edged’. It is an important contribution both to urban poetry and experimental verse. The reference to the three-minute take from Deadly is the Female gives the work its title:
That long take
inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy
and was just real life, right there.
It made sense of some things, how you get caught up in stuff.
Like the take ‘inside the getaway car’, Walker’s roaming around these cities is a long take of ‘real life’ that attempts to make sense of ‘how you get caught up in stuff’.
Anna Tipton was born and raised in Northwest Indiana. After earning her English degree from Wheaton College, she had a stint teaching American Literature in the west side of Chicago. She is currently studying for her masters in writing at the University of St Andrews.