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This item is taken from PN Review 75, Volume 17 Number 1, September - October 1990.

We request the courtesy of your columns to invite submissions for an anthology issue of new poems which Agenda is preparing for publication later this year. Submissions from poets under thirty will be welcome.
5, Cranbourne Court, Albert Bridge
Road. London SW11 4PE.

T.J.G. Harris, your pernickety reviewer of Charles Tomlinson's recent volume Annunciations (P·N·R 72 ), says that he wishes he could like Tomlinson's poetry better than he does, but just cannot. If P·N·REVIEW readers rely on this assessment they will be missing a great deal of pleasure.

Over the years since he first started publishing, Tomlinson has introduced us to a universe with unique perceptual, moral, and intellectual qualities. Part of the pleasure of a new volume by such a poet is re-entry into a familiar world, one which is meaningful in ways we have come to understand, and is nevertheless suprising. Since Harris struck such a sour note, I will start by mentioning Tomlinson's humane and understated humour. In 'Far Point' of this volume, the speaker is in a café where the road peters out along the northern British Columbia coast:

... a skiff
with an outboard goes past the window.
It's from the island (a strip of sand
with pines and houses on it) and a deer
is swimming in its wake. 'It belongs
to the people in the boat. They should mark it.
I knew a couple who tamed a seal.
It would swim behind them, too,
then one day somebody shot it.'

The owner of the deer comes in to join some pool-playing Indian lumberjacks, while his pet stares mournfully in the window,

then catching sight of a pair of dogs
arcs off to play with them,
perhaps thinks it's a dog.

The humour lies in the flat acceptance of a medley of inconguous stereotypes. Somewhere in the modern Canadian landscape one might not be suprised to find a German café proprietress counting out change in German, or a deer, a motorboat, and some pool-playing Indians; but in quite this combination? The observer, musing irrelevantly, asks: 'How would you mark a seal? - a tangent rightly ignored by the proprietress as she goes on explaining about the deer. This poem belongs with the delightful tourist-eye poems of earlier volumes, those especially of Mexico and the United States.

Staying on British Columbian ground for the moment, how could one not enjoy Tomlinson's tribute to Emily Carr, the great painter and interpreter of the coast and its totem poles? Finding an old Indian site in ruins -

  She began putting the place together
In careful paint - and then the cats,
  An army of them out of every quarter
Of the dank, forsaken clearing, crept
  Closer and closer in, yellow-eyed and lean,
Purring, pleading to be taken back
  Into the circle of recognitions they had known

These feline 'attendants of the wooden goddess' - relics, like the totems, of the vanished Indian culture - are related both to the cat which 'took fright' at the annunciatory angel in the first poem of this volume, and to the startled cat in Lorenzo Lotto's painting of the annunciation reproduced on its cover. Hardly any of Tomlinson's critics, certainly not Harris, have acknowledged the mischievousness or pathos of such poems.

In Annunciations we re-enter Tomlinson's world of visual change and motion. In 'New Mexico', for example, we find clouds billowing, drifting, re-shaping moment by moment, their shadows on the ground seeming to unanchor even the rocks. Each level (upper sky, lower sky, ground) reflects and re-patterns the motion of the others. Even the seeds of the cottonwood tree, shaken by the same breeze that shook the cloud, are sent flying 'like shreds of sky'. Octavio Paz has commented on this aspect of Tomlinson's work in his perceptive introduction to In Black and White, the 1976 Carcanet collection of some of Tomlinson's graphics. He notes how Tomlinson can isolate a thing, 'leap suddenly inside and, before it dissolves, take his snapshot. The poem is the perception of the change, a perception which includes the poet: he changes with the changes of the object and perceives himself in the perception of those changes'. Harris says Tomlinson conceives of the aesthetic in narrowly visual terms. This is simply not true. Motion in space, the visual exhilaration of perceiving the world in patterned metamorphosis is always (if not in the same poem, in the next) paralleled by motion through time and by an intimation of the pathos and menace of time passing for human beings. Visual and moral, spatial and temporal, exhilarating and menacing are intermingled and interdependent.

In spending so much time expressing his disapproval of the versification of a single poem - and a poem which has to be somewhat exceptional at that, taken as it is almost phrase for phrase from Ruskin - Harris betrays a deafness to the characteristic aural pleasures of Tomlinson's poems. In an earlier poem Tomlinson spoke of the 'rage of the ear for discrimination, its absurd/Dwelling on ripples, liquidities'. His lines are full of the subtle semantic discriminations made audible by assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal slant rhymes, the play of polysyllabic Latinisms against native simplicities, syntactic parallelisms, and the fracturing of syntax against line ends. In one poem about an unaccountably sharp, blade-like shadow appearing then fading across a landscape, we find the following lines:

You could see time
trickle out, a grainy
lesion, and the green
filter back to fill
the crack in creation

These lines play off syntax against enjambment, phonetic echoes and chimes against irregularities of meter (the only line which allows an iambic reading is the fourth). It is a pleasure that has to do with 'the elements and minims of language', to quote a phrase from Charles Olson's 'Projective Verse' which Tomlinson has himself quoted with approval.

The rustle of Tomlinson's syllables is connected with his sense of the dance of primal and cosmic energies - what poets once called the music of the spheres, but in Tomlinson has been secularized and darkened to the 'growling of the constellations'. By quoting Ruskin's wonderful distinctions between the tunes of Scottish streams and those of Yorkshire or Cumbrian streams he is paying tribute to Ruskin's delicate ear for another kind of music, the primal but earthbound music of weather in combination with geological formations ('concurrence of the rock and of the rain'). In another poem he speculates that these 'energies pouring through space and time' await the chance arrival of a perceiver/speaker 'to remurmur [the story] in human sounds'. Surely we should rejoice in a volume that arrives to re-murmur these and so many other kinds of perceptions.
York University, Ontario.

This item is taken from PN Review 75, Volume 17 Number 1, September - October 1990.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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