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This review is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

LESSONS IN LEARNING CHARLES TOMLINSON, Cracks in the Universe (Carcanet) £8.95

While place remains a defining preoccupation in Charles Tomlinson's twentieth collection, what makes this book so engaging is its multitude of perspectives. Tomlinson can evoke, with spectacular effect, a pigeon's view of New York, showing, from the roofscapes, a 'city above the city'; he can also capture the contrastingly minute, 'the glints and splinters/ of a room' reflected in a glass of icy water.

Defamiliarisation itself is a natural, or inevitable, process in the world shown by Tomlinson. Through his (longstanding) motifs of cities, motorways and cars, he depicts human nature in a collective, evolutionary sense.

An almost disturbing aspect of this book is its initially depersonalised mood. Yet this charges the urgency of most of Tomlinson's work, encapsulating the essence of things observed, whether trees, pebbles, or subtle movements of light. Comparisons with Wallace Stevens are worthy; Tomlinson's early work as poet, editor and professor contributed vitally to the spread of Stevens' influence amongst English poets.

Tomlinson's sentences are audaciously lengthy. Through this characteristic, the poems read almost like paintings (another form in which he has achieved acclaim); the reader's gaze is guided across successive images. These, as 'Bread and Stone' confirms, can carry simultaneous, often biblical, symbolic qualities.

The poems name other artists with a frequency which initially daunted me; but Tomlinson exudes his learning with dignity and generosity. I now know that 'Thomas Jones in Naples, 1782', preferred ...


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