Swimming Through Marble by Gillie Robic (Poetry Review)
Updated: May 26
'Once again, gaping boxes unground me, drown me in quicksand, unable to move.'
Bombay born, Gillie Robic, turned to poetry ten years ago and Swimming Through Marble is her first collection. In her bio it says she is a performer, designer, maker, director, teacher and writer all rolled into one. It certainly sounds as though she has had a varied life, from moving to England for schooling, to being a puppeteer, she has tried many things and I think this is why this collection is so eclectically pleasing. Much of her poetry is descriptive and plays to the senses. In fact it seems her words have been pulled from a deep well enthused with the hot passion and spicy richness of India, and frequently cooled and grounded by the cold waters of England. And that’s a good way of describing this collection. Rather than being completely drawn from one or the other, Robic manages to pull her influences from two different cultures into an undiluted whole, while still remaining true to each and at times exclusive to one or the other.
The book is broken down into four parts. In the first part I was immediately taken back by the onslaught of words and complex description, yet carried along by the effortless flow and metre. Her words are diverse and mentally stimulating, and you get a sense that this is poetry that will benefit from multiple reads. For example in the opening poem, Shifting Time Zones, we get – Shells, broken corals, frayed towels and pebbles / my beach time slips through an hourglass, salty, unpolished. These words themselves are unpolished and unapologetic, yet paradoxically accessible and satisfying. And Robic can go from this to, Master of Gossamer, a poem about how awe inspiring a simple spider can be – We too want to dance tight-rope across the moon / drop from an empty sky, weave larders in the air. A spider also features in, Transmigration, a poem about a dying woman fearful of spiders, yet one drops onto her pillow and, when the lady dies, the spider is subsequently buried in the garden next to the dog with full family honours. Yes this is varied poetry, but there are themes running through and in the first part I got a sense of discovery and freedom of a soul studying and swimming through the waters surrounding her until they have been made familiar.
The second part opens strongly with, Mumbai Flood, a poem of a woman who loses most of her material things in a flood, including a framed image of her late mother, but the most moving part is the way that it ends for the woman upon returning to her flood-wrecked home – She wipes her eyes, re-hangs the Virgin on the wall. This is perhaps a subtle and understated declaration of the woman’s unwavering faith, a bringing into focus of what really matters in life beyond physical belongings. And from there I fell in love with, Mosquito Wavelength, for its surreally vivid and oppressive dreamlike quality, and to, The Lost Boys, a poem about young slaves at sea, and how easily they can be replaced if injured or killed, due to the empty bellies of many a parent struggling to live and provide for their children – Should numbers fall, another shipment of hopefuls would be brought to swell the ranks. An all too real account of the exploitation of the desperate, a reality that still exists in many corners of the world. So if the first part is about freedom and the fluidity of the sea, the second part is about oppression and overcoming the many pains, aches and hardships that life can throw up amid a sea of fears.
And so to part three which opens with, Privy, a poem which is either an elaborate cathartic exercise that ends with the purpose of dumping unnecessary pains, or is a fantastical, delirious visual portrayal of the feverish and psychedelic images brought on by illness. In any case it can be treated as an indication of reversing or letting go of the pains touched upon in part two, especially in the concluding line – Such mysteries were gathered there within the hole / I shut my eyes and voided all my pain into the bowl. If you read the entire poem you might see these two lines as fusing the comfort of fantasy with the coldness of truth. As a whole I see part three as floating or trying to fly, taking the first few steps to overcoming the ultimate fears like in, Departure – She saw her death inside her right eyelid / a limitless ocean of limpid blue.
And if part four has a theme it is perhaps an imagining of letting go, of turning one’s head to the sky like in, Twilight Shuffle – Slow clouds of indigo and coppered gold / steal light away from summer’s evening sky. And what about the legacy we leave behind? Robic, imagines the future beyond our own time in, Broken Pixels – the images from an unknown past / recreating a picture of their ancestors’ / forgotten tastes and mores. And ending with perhaps the strongest poem of the whole collection, Starlight, in which Robic feathers us with her words, but makes sure those feathery words drop like lead into our hearts and imaginations – Paint stars on the inside of my coffin. / Let it be lightly woven / to welcome the evening breeze. What a stunning and awesomely affecting poem to end with.
After having read this varied, yet well laid out first collection of poetry from Gillie Robic, I can see why it was shortlisted for the Live Canon First Collection Prize. There is a richness of style buried beneath a mountain of many a coloured leaf here, and by that I mean her style is as varied as her subject, yet still manages to flow as a collection, which is surprising given that a few of the poems have appeared elsewhere before this collection, and therefore not written exclusively for, Swimming Through Marble, in mind. There is great promise here, but that seems unfair to say, perhaps better to say that many promises were delivered with this collection and, on its many strengths, there is an expectation that Robic has more great poems to come. I for one am looking forward to reading them.
I would like to thank Live Canon Poetry for giving me the chance to review this book and I look forward to hearing about their future projects. If you would like to order this book direct from Live Canon Poetry, along with other titles, you can do so by clicking the link below.