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This review is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

Cover of Ransom
Oliver DixonRansom by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape) £10
Alongside more common meanings of the word ‘ransom’ i.e. ‘release from captivity in return for a payment, or a sum of money paid for such a release; blackmail’, my old OED gives a further definition as ‘(Theol.) to redeem from sin, to atone for’, which links back to the word’s etymological roots in the word ‘redemption’. One critical angle on Michael Symmons Roberts’s most recent collection is to perceive it as caught between these two shades of meaning: between worldly wrongdoing and possible redemption, imprisonment and liberty, the Satan of dishonest money-getting and the Christ who suffered and died to atone for our sins.

In exploring such a rich dialogue, Roberts seems to be continuing the protracted search for possible faith and absolution within a radically corrupted world he has pursued in his previous seven collections. If we accept Geoffrey Hill’s parsing of the word ‘atonement’ as a struggle towards ‘at-one-ment’ (ie. a unificatory motion), we may also read Ransom as a set of attempts at piecing together the debased fragments of ‘broken Britain’, to navigate a safe path through the scattered debris of our neglected cities and the malevolence and dehumanisation they contain, as well as homing in on fugitive traces of hope in the overlooked and the mundane.

In keeping with this vision, the volume’s initial poems transport us into recognisable Roberts territory, with his familiar eye for the defamiliarised mise-en-scène, his attraction for unattractive edgelands, ‘hypermarket car parks’, derelict industrial estates. Through a tense, sinuous build-up of imagery, each poem evokes an air of existential unease and ...


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