Palpably here


CRACKS IN THE UNIVERSE
by Charles Tomlinson
[80pp, £7.95, Carcanet ]


It feels presumptuous to review a book by someone who was writing poems before I was born, someone who's received many prizes and honours, including a CBE. I did wonder whether I would find as much to enjoy as I had done in Jubilation,  the last book of his I read. But there are themes that run right through his work: art, friendships, marriage, seasons - and walks and the garden. In 'Jubilaci—n', written as a letter to a friend in Spain in celebration of retirement, he said 'So I must pause from versing and start burning / To anticipate the time we're once more here / In the great cycle of the ceaseless year.' He's still busy, and still writing.

In spite of his translations, the languages he speaks, and his cosmopolitan friendships, his writing always sounds very English (or maybe is it because of all these things rather than in spite of them) - by which I mean the poems are characteristically quietly spoken and well-mannered, courteous and somewhat self-effacing - the 'I' of these poems isn't about to unburden his psyche; this 'I' is immensely interested in looking at the world out there. And what he sees, he sees as a painter does, registering shifts in the light:

     The window frame, cut out in black,
        Lies beside the sun on surfaces
     Not seen before - the walls that we had come
        To take for granted, as the unchanging shape
     Of home.
                  ['Seasons']

while interpreting the changes in that light as poet - that 'unchanging shape / Of home.'

Reading the poems, you become accustomed to this tone, so it's interesting that the poems which break with it are the ones I enjoyed least in this new collection: 'Lessons', a group of poems which are
personal, looking back to childhood, and figures from whom he learned - mainly to draw, (but also to ride a bike). Maybe these should be read with the poems about artists; there are many, from Cezanne learning from Pisarro, to the American sculptor David Smith.

Unburdened by current compulsions to sound as much like speech as and as unpoetic as possible, he is comfortable with myth and abstraction. Walking 'In the Valley'

        Lethe rose beneath the layered leaves:
     I thought of the murk of Dis, of lavaflow,
        But this was one of mercy's moments:
     Lightly I trod between the shadowed earth
        and the unseen horizon, entering
     A cool as of waterÉ

An awareness of time passing, which becomes of increasing concern with age, seems to run through the book. This comes from the cumulative effect of many poems which pinpoint moments in the natural cycle of the year; poems like 'In Autumn', 'In January', 'November', 'Morning' - there are more than a dozen such accounts of objective observations of the world out there in rain, frost, wind, sun which nevertheless add up to lengthening shadows in human life: 'Returning' opens with this image:

     My long-legged shadow
     pointing east
     measures out the sundown
     across half a field

Measuring out the sundown is a metaphor which develops quietly and inevitably across the body of these poems. The last two stanzas of 'Morning', a poem which wonders what the weather will be when the curtains open (in winter) are as explicit as Tomlinson comes - that is, not very: leaving the vocabulary to do the work of implication, before returning the poem for closure to the actual moment of opening the curtains:

     The choice is not ours to make,
     so we await the chance
     of weather's looming, loosening
     in its long advance

     up the valley reaches
     and straight at our panes,
     not to be predicted, contradicted:
     let us draw back the curtains.

A very definite and concrete closure sweeps up the exploring thought and tidies many poems like this. 'In the Valley' ends with

                                          The drift
     Of a universe, rehearsing its own end,
        Stood at a pause, in a present
     Brimmed with unexhausted time
        Between the hidden sun and the awaiting dark.

and the final line of 'Across the Dark' could itself describe such endings: 'To arrive, through limestone, time, palpable here.'

          © Jane Routh 2006