Sax Burglar Blues

Robert Walton
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
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‘Rippled through with uncommon beauty’ – SkyLightRain

​‘Dip into Walton’s jazzed-up version of the world and you will inevitably surface from the pages in a brighter hue.’ – Wales Arts Review

‘The pleasing complexity of jazz mirrors the poet’s vocation to embody, echo and reverberate the complexities of lived experience.’ – The Crunch


The poems in Robert Walton’s Sax Burglar Blues range from vivid memories of childhood, such as  ‘Twm Siôn Cati’ where a teacher ‘wiry-haired, fierce-eyed’ brings a fictional villain to life, banging out rhythms with her shoe on the floor of a Cardiff classroom, to memories of a rock‘n’roll influenced youth on the back of the Dusty Springfield night bus, or an archetypal narrative of getting kicked out of a band just before they hit the big time (‘Three Out of Four Original Members’).

Walton is also possessed of (and by) a keen socio-political sensibility, which takes aim via pointed satire, quite literally in the downright fury of ‘Closing Down’ in which the narrator fantasizes pulling a gun on the retail staff who discount all the potential profit away from books (a vision that all of us who retail the word will understand). There is also the surreal lampoon of his canary Joey’s candidacy for the presidency.

But there is further room in this full life for art. There is a lovely poem inspired by a Sisley painting of Langland Bay, Swansea, where the sky is a ‘violet softness between the clouds’.  There is a sharp description of the famously sardonic and iconoclastic Welsh poet John Tripp, with his ‘peregrine eye’.  In the title poem and the marvellous ‘Man with a Double Bass on His Back’ the pleasing complexity of jazz mirrors the poet’s vocation to embody, to echo and reverberate, the complexities of lived experience. There is also a real feeling for the natural world in these poems, as seen in the precise and elegant ‘Ash’ with buds like ‘black jewels clustered on every branch/of its platinum February crown.’  

As befits a poet born and based on the Severn Estuary, his land and townscapes are often damp, misty, watery, and recorded with many subtle variations of blue. There are also pleasingly unlikely totem animals: the career of woodlice, and, seen with a mordant wit, the donkeys in ‘Sanctuaries’ that have ‘cantilevered necks, muzzles scrunched in straw' and a nod to the myth of the man-eating crocodile that infests Bristol Docks. 

But there are also poems about cars, churches and blackberries in in this book, pointing to its refusal to be quite one thing or another, to the artful, expansive range of this not new, but newly revived author.

Listen to Robert Walton perform the title poem, ‘Sax Burglar Blues’:



Review by Clare E. Potter, The Crunch

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The poems in Robert Walton’s Sax Burglar Blues are clever and keenly observed, ranging from vivid memories of youth to pointed satire. In the title poem, the pleasing complexity of jazz mirrors the poet’s vocation to embody, echo and reverberate the complexities of lived experience.

As befits a poet born and based on the Severn Estuary, Walton’s land and townscapes are often damp, misty, watery, and recorded with many subtle variations of blue. There are also pleasingly unlikely totem animals, a nod to the mythical man-eating crocodile that infests Bristol Docks, and the surreal lampoon of a canary’s presidential candidacy. Artful and expansive, this is a stunning collection from a newly-revived author.

Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Robert Walton’s new poetry collection, Sax Burglar Blues, is a terrifically exotic embodiment of his multi-multi-multimedia background. With a writing career behind him that spans work with artists across dance, film, music, storytelling and installation, his poems have timbres and optics that are at times sensational.

The poetry bops between the most intimate of memories and run-of-the-mill happenings; both can be shaped into magical scenes. Walton enlivens everyday moments with fantastical qualities. The collection opens with a musician plodding his way through rush hour, but in Walton’s eyes this is an enormous beetle – a “thorax-swinging jazz scarab” who is imagined into an underworld plot that totally belies the ordinariness of the episode.

Walton’s most beautiful poem, ‘Greenland’, traces what initially seems to be an impression of a frozen, bleached landscape: “This bolt of satin… Look for a vein of blue, you’ll never find it.” As the poem develops, it becomes painfully clear that he is writing of something else – a throbbing, tender recollection of an altogether different absence of colour. (To reveal the twist would, of course, ruin it.)

The vocabulary can tend towards the outlandish – read: alienating – end of the lexical spectrum, which sometimes lends an inaccessible element to reading Walton’s poetry. Without a dictionary to hand, that is. Does anyone really know the meaning of coleoptera, pizzicatos, or carapacial? These words all arise in the very first poem.

This is a minor criticism of a spectacular selection of poems, however. Walton truly beautifies what he sees. His work is a sosban of senses, spilling over with the sounds and sights of rural Wales. To pick out a few phrases: “dazzling tinfoil day”, “horizons aslant”, “scud of clouds”, “scramble of plosives” each add visceral details to various poems.

Colour, too, is sloshed across the pages. The palette varies in its potency: in ‘Cyfri’r Geifr (Counting the Goats)’ it is clichéed: the goats are “whiter than snow … blacker than a witch’s cauldron … redder than a dragon’s blood”. Set in a classroom, the poem’s imagery is bound to be unsophisticated. Elsewhere, in ‘Making a Herringbone Harris Tweed Garment’, colour is used to stunning effect. Describing the yarn woven into the material, the poet conjures up dyes drawn from nature’s pigments. Each verse multiplies the number of colours involved, so that by the end we have:

She sews the black and grey, the blue, orange and brown, the red
and green and white, the dye
of the windswept dune, the mountain hare in its winter coat,
the cirrus clouds,
wave, machair and sky

Walton is an expert at harvesting images from the outdoors, swishing between the bucolic and the utterly rugged. Another poem that strikes a lovely harmony amid the blend of themes was ‘Blackberries in August’, which offers up lines such as “black globes hanging by a thread, | each one a constellation | of dark stars glancing light”. A few poems later, another, ‘Ash’, flourishes in natural imagery. The last stanza watches the tree flowering: “to burst into a sphere of green fire. | Its leaves can conjure lovers to a lover’s | dreams and in its glinting canopy | the blackbird sings all summer.”

People are far from the main focus of the poet’s eye – he seems almost to prefer the authenticity of observing nature. When he does write of individuals, it tends to be from afar and with emphasis on what’s genuine or not. This is perhaps most evident in his poem ‘Incident at Birdcage Walk’, in which a woman hobbles along high-heeled, lipsticked and suited in a suffocating outfit, but then literally flies when she steps out of her heels – all the better without artifice.

Glimpses of loved ones crop up rarely, but intensely when they do. In a poem about his grandfather, ‘Man and Boy’, it grows obvious that this man treats his grandson with an affection that his daughter did not receive. The poem ends with the lines: “And while the dog gazes into his master’s eyes, | you close the cosmic, enclose me in your arms.” It is an odd poem – loving but with hints of distance.

This atmosphere follows into the next poem, ‘Up the Bluebirds!’, written for Walton’s father. The poet describes phonecalls in which his father joyfully roars at Cardiff City’s goals, while the son tries to feign enthusiasm. His Bluebirds scarf, alas, “lies folded in the dark” of a wardrobe somewhere. Again, the familial love is there – but with a slight chink between the people involved. Walton is heavily aware of his deceit, well-intentioned and harmless as it is.

One aspect that may puzzle readers somewhat (and the reasoning behind which I would like to know more about) is the poet’s habit of harping back to particular phrases. To share just one example, the adjective “hunch-backed” appears in two separate poems – then in a third is adapted slightly to “hump-backed”. Is there a significance to this?

For me, this was a poetry collection of polarities – I felt a lot for some poems, and very little for others. Yet, on the whole, the poetry’s zest and embellishments made it a wonderful read. I’d heartily recommend it as a medicine for anyone feeling vaguely low: dip into Walton’s jazzed-up version of the world and you will inevitably surface from the pages in a brighter hue.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A verve for life rollicks beneath the poems in Robert Walton’s first collection for Seren. Pinned to the page, they jostle in place – I have the impression of them being eager to flurry off downstream, seeking new sights and new adventures.

Perhaps it’s the tumult of years inside them that’s caused this. Walton’s debut came out in 1978, and while the intervening years included plenty of publications of individual poems and even a chapbook, this, emerging 39 years later, is the second full book from the accomplished poet.

Walton refers to the expanse of time as an effort of procrastination, but I suspect his delight in actually living, rather than pondering, is part of the reason for the lengthy gap.

His appetite for the world ensures even the most ordinary sighting can be reconfigured, and through Walton’s eyes, a man with a double bass on his back becomes a Kafka-esque “armour-plated coleoptera.”

Elsewhere, an evening’s ironing is laced with tenderness and grace. Memories redrafted are rippled through with uncommon beauty, as a teacher’s words transform into “red kites playing the thermals over the Teifi.”

Humour shines throughout, making the moments of poignancy all the more striking. In ‘The Only Medicine’ we meet his powerhouse Nanna. Elsewhere we get more of an insight into his own inner life. In ‘Man and Boy’, an utter sense of comfort and safety surfaces, while in ‘Up the Bluebirds!’, an effort to please is revealed through the simple detail of a scarf that: “lies folded in the dark.’

I’m pretty sure there’s a double-meaning on the word lie – a child’s treachery perhaps built on the love of and for his father. There’s a subtle shame behind the subterfuge, but also a faint self-mockery, not for failing to gain a fanaticism for football, for so yearning to do so. Walton is a man riddled with self-awareness, in both senses of the word, and blessed with an ability to take himself admirably lightly. Just as he sees the glory in everyday occurrences, he recognises the qualities in the paths he’s chosen, and of those he’s turned from.

There’s a fondness for those distant paths, however, which shines up brief flashes of appreciation into something powerful enough to stop you in your tracks. Under Robert’s gaze, the world is full of wonder.

This is never more apparent than in his beautifully weighted poem ‘Greenland’, in which the scope widens then narrows with breathtaking skill as we take in a snowbound steppe that was once pulsed with life. Robert gathers us up in his wings and swoops inwards to deposit us into a moment of dizzying intimacy, beside the white pillow where his mother’s head rests and he is willing her eyes to open.


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