The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form. A verse novel with photographs, it manages to evoke with exceptional vividness aspects of post-World War Two history that are rarely parsed together. Swinging effortlessly between combat with its traumatic aftermath, and the brute redevelopment of American cities, The Long Takeshows us the ravages of capitalism as a continuation of war-time violence by other means. It is also a bold, eloquent homage to cinema as perhaps the only medium in which the true history of America has been preserved. This is a genre-defying novel. Cutting from battlefield to building demolitions in San Francisco and LA, to the killing of black men on the streets of America today, it imports into the very form of the writing one of the most famous film techniques: cross-cutting. You could be in the cinema, or listening to an elegy, or reading the story of one man’s devastating experience as he tries to rebuild the shards of his life after the war.
The Long Take is like a film noir on the page. A book about a man and a city in shock, it’s an extraordinary evocation of the debris and the ongoing destruction of war even in times of peace. In taking a scenario we think we know from the movies but offering a completely different perspective, Robin Robertson shows the flexibility a poet can bring to form and style.
The Long Take is a masterly work of art, exciting, colourful, fast-paced – the old-time movie reviewer’s vocabulary is apt to the case – and almost unbearably moving. Walker is a wonderful invention, a decent man carrying the canker of a past sin for which he cannot forgive himself. What Siodmak says of Walker can also be said of Robertson, that he has “what we call / deep focus. Long eyes for seeing.”
And it is immaculately researched in terms of geography, current affairs, and its constant cultural touchstones in the Hollywood films of the time, offering up their glitzy counterparts to Walker’s rawer experience. But the story of a broken man left to his own devices by a country for which he has suffered in war is not, sadly, one we can confine to American or British history, and it is not hard to see much of this as a narrative for our times too. Walker is a superbly rounded character, and his tale one worth telling. Unfortunately, the book is also quite repetitive, in needless as well as effective ways, and palls in places.
A person setting out to write a long poem needs to think about its readers. How are you going to carry them through? Milton did it on tides of blank verse, others have done it in chiming ballad metre. Unfortunately, Robertson is stuck in the default mode of contemporary poetry, which is fond of arbitrary line breaks and doesn’t have much truck with rhyme or metre. That’s fine in a short poem, but reading/ 200 pages of verse/ broken up/ like/ this becomes/ a bit annoying.
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”...The Long Take maps its cityscapes meticulously, at every intersection reeling off imaginatively savoured Americana. But as narrative it is too much establishing shot.