I really feel like reading another verse-novel,” is not a sentence anyone has ever said. That’s not to say no one has ever enjoyed reading a verse-novel. But the classics of the genre are each a rare success — interweaving, against the odds, the fireworks of poetic form with the long haul of narrative voice.
Ancestors of this modern hybrid include Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1824), Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1833) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856). Its contemporary vogue — among poets at least — begins with one of the most unlikely bestsellers of the 1980s: Vikram Seth’s 8,260-line debut, The Golden Gate (1986). Composed in the sonnet-like stanza of Pushkin, Seth’s story of love among the yuppies of Silicon Valley zips along on sly rhymes (“sibling”/ “nibbling”) with a light wit that makes its “marvellously quaint” project appealingly readable.
The 1990s saw an upswell of verse-novels follow in Seth’s fluent wake, perhaps most notably Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990). But the literary ambitions of subsequent epics have not had the same popular touch as The Golden Gate, and to write one now is presumably more a labour of love than advance royalties.
Robin Robertson’s The Long Take feels like a book that has been a long time in the making. A prize-winning poet with five previous collections, Robertson is also the editor of the Cape poetry list. Born in Scotland, he is a seasoned traveller in North America. And it is here — in Nova Scotia, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — that he sets a verse-novel that pays painstaking homage to the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.
The Long Take’s poetry is a sustained tribute to the cinematic art of light and dark, evoking the “gridded streets” of the American city as a “chessboard of fear”. In virtuoso passages of abstract description, Robertson catches the shadow play of urban life, its “multiple blades of light”.
He also does a nice line in sound effects: fairground rides “screeling”, “the flittering of the station-board”, a bottle opening with a “sspuck”. Such onomatopoeic delicacy will be familiar to readers of Robertson’s shorter poems, as will the way he is stirred to metaphorical invention by moments of violence, such as the shot man who “seems to pull out a red handkerchief” from his top pocket (compare the rabbit in Swithering (2006) who has “the red drawer / in his chest” opened by a raptor).
What The Long Take misses compared with the brooding movies it admires, however, is a compelling central performance. Its hero, Walker — a D-Day veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — couldn’t be more wooden if he were a California redwood.
Cipher-like, he drifts from 1946 to 1953, keeping up with the news of the day (McCarthyism, slum clearance). An impassive but sensitive tough guy, every so often he rebuffs a cardboard broad (“Hey, don’t get sore. You a fruit or something?”). The dialogue nods to the slang dictionary but does not come dramatically alive. Yet if the interpolations from his diaries and memories are to be believed, Walker has an inner life as lyrical and pretentious as that of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.
His story, “burning like a coal-seam fire”, builds to a bravura apocalyptic climax. As so often in the post-Seth verse-novel, though, the rhyme-free poetry lacks the pace to carry off pages of exposition. The Long Take maps its cityscapes meticulously, at every intersection reeling off imaginatively savoured Americana. But as narrative it is too much establishing shot.