Book Review: Fatal Women by Kevin Roberts
The poems of Kevin Roberts (1969-2008) are indeed an anomaly among the sea of “Modernist,” “Formalist” and “Contemporary” verses that have proliferated throughout the literary world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The poetry of Kevin Roberts is indeed a stupendous exception from the avalanche of dross that we have grown so accustomed to over the recent decades.
Upon reading Fatal Women, the reader will immediately be struck by something that feels and sounds very much like his/her own English vernacular, and yet each poem seems to be permeated by a strange and enchanting quality, a quality that one has perhaps never experienced before in quite the same way. Indeed, we discover that our own English has been newly adapted to the timeless classical forms that have shaped the sound and music of the greatest bards throughout the history of English poetry.
Roberts has not bent to the populist demands of twentieth century critics; he has not been swayed by any of the contemporary zeitgeists who have weighed down so many other aspiring artists with the “monkey see, monkey do” arguments foisted on poets by “serious” publishers. Instead of seeking to meet the standards espoused by an entrenched system of vapid university English departments for over four decades, Roberts eschews the maxims of twentieth century Modernism; he balks at the innovations of contemporary free-verse; and he all-together feels no need for a post-modernist dance to be performed over his works in order to garner blessings from the literary authorities of his age. Indeed, the fact that Roberts is not already a household name attests to the poverty and failure of the literary “authorities.”
Kevin Roberts adheres to the timeless standards that have characterized all great English poetry across the centuries and he applies those principles to our own English vernacular. In so doing, he shows the world why English is one of the leading poetical languages, thriving still to this very day.
In his introduction to Fatal Women, Roberts describes his poetry as something inspired by a kind of “erotic spirituality.” He says of his Muse:
She has been the focal point of countless poets and playwrights, including such masters as John Milton, Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare. And, perhaps most intriguingly, she is a central figure in the religious texts of both Eastern and Western traditions.[…]:
She represents what Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to as a “reconciliation of opposites.” That is, she embodies the qualities of the innocent as well as the corrupt, the ideal in combination with the defiled. In this way, she is a kind of monster, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, irresistible and repulsive, profane and sacred.
Roberts closes his introduction by saying:
In these hauntingly sensuous poems, the fatal woman is still a romantic paradox, both enticing and terrifying.
However, for Roberts her allure goes beyond the physical and psychological to include a kind of erotic spirituality. For him, the femme fatale is also the divine Beloved, the soul mate, the ideal feminine with whom the poet aspires to reconnect. Roberts wrote Fatal Women over the course of the 1990s, after a poetic hermitage in England where he studied the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Poe, Swinburne and Shakespeare. Out of this poetic hermitage the ballads and rondels of his Fatal Women were wrought.
While some may quibble—and some quarrel—over whether the object longed for and described by the speaker in Roberts’ poems is the right one—whether the distant objects of his desires are sacred or profane—what readers cannot deny as they listen to the poet’s telling of his tale is that we too long. Roberts captures the fatal beauty of
his passions as well as their virtues, distills them into verses, and so like roses blooming out of the carnage of some war-torn field, a flourish of sublime images emerges from the horde of dry and soulless verse of twentieth and twenty-first century Modernist, Post-Modernist and Contemporary dross. The images of Fatal Women are crafted with a sublimity and mastery of style that echoes and surely matches the haunting spirit of a Poe, the “negative capability” of a Shakespeare, and the burning loss and desire embodied in Keats’ story of the merciless “Belle Dame.” But Roberts does not imitate these great masters, he builds upon their work.
We have the stunning example of “Christine,” in which the poet sings and foretells his lover’s ultimate return. In spite of passion’s fatalities, something beckons her to come back:
Here amid the fading flowers,
We think of things that shall not be
Christine, can you recall the hours
When I was you and you were me
Beside the sea?
Go not as one whose ste
ps would sever;
Christine, no shred of sorrow show.
As if farewell were not for-ever,
Go forth like snowflakes, soft and slow,
Like lovers go.
Your leaving shall not be the last;
Where e’er you look, there will I be.
And like fond phantoms from the past,
The wild winds that sweep the sea
Bring you to me.
And spectres of our summer showers
Shall dance on in my memory,
The promises of perfect hours,
When I was you and you were me
Beside the sea.
Roberts confessed to some of his poet friends that angels sometimes came and spoke to him. If this is indeed true, it appears that these angels shared not only their deepest secrets, but their deepest desires; they shared things that they perhaps had never shared with anyone else. But Roberts shares everything with us: all his anguish, all his love, all his failings and desires—and those of his many muses. He reveals to us the naked beauty of an Eros ruling over, and yet, also conquered by the poet. Regardless of whether the stories of angels visiting Roberts were true, what is certainly true is that Kevin Roberts was in conversation with another world, and he never failed to bring the magic of this other world back down to us.
We have the case of his rapturous and most extensive of spiritual conversations with Eros, “Allayne”:
I see you wear the look of saints,
The face you feign,
To hide the hungry beast that waits
To strike, Allayne.
To love you was my single sin—
Could I abstain?
Fair flesh has felled far better men
Than I, Allayne.
Henceforth you were his cherished prize
You ruled his world of grim demise
With glee, Allayne.
Angelic armies will descend
And him arraign;
They’ll bring about his brutal end
On earth, Allayne.
It can be confidently said that Roberts builds upon and defends the progress of the great classical poets of the past, and he does so by creating something of new timeless beauty and originality. It is a timeless tradition that is easily recognized in the sonnets of Shakespeare, in ballads like Keats’ “La Belle Dams Sans Merci” and works like Poe’s “The Raven,” “For Annie” and “Lenore.” All these poets fought and dedicated their lives to the development of their creative powers in such a way that they could communicate and bring to this earth—in however brief a glimpse—that quality of Supernal Loveliness, a quality which causes us to suspect that these poets were surely in conversation with angels, or some kindred race which whispered into their ears. As we listen to the verses of Kevin Roberts, we learn that such “angels” have not wholly forsaken our age, at least, not if we listen closely.
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse poetry website and New Lyre Podcast. His first collection of poems is entitled Modern Dreams.