Michael Tolkien’s sixth full-length collection is a reflection on how the present
engages with the past, and how their connections continue to resonate within the
poet’s memory and imagination. The tone, appropriately, is quiet. This is no place
for the clatter of experimentation but for the slow accumulation of detail, a comfortable
and readily accessible syntax, and the familiar language of everyday. It makes for
a coherent collection in which the lack of surprise is compensated for by the recurring
motifs. The apparently -simple Here and Now of the title appears in several poems,
reminding the reader of the poet’s underlying concerns along with his deep enjoyment
of location and its hold on memory.
These poems, drawn from a sustained writing life (his last significant collection,
from Salzburg Press, appeared in 2009) are grouped in four separate sections even
though the poems share the common theme. The opening section, ‘Small horizons’, take
its name from a self-deprecating poem about that familiar collect or auto-return
to source which requires a dog-eared card and i/d. It’s something we’re all reduced
to, hunting out an unfamiliar drop-off address in the hope that the parcel will be
waiting. Tolkien ends in a level of uncertainty – I’m dimly aware that staying put/
is not being still among cross-currents. This recognition recalls a similar probing
of existence from ‘New Moon’, the second poem in the collection –
Unsheathed again, it prods me into
asking what if anything’s
changed course since I craned
to see it a month ago.
But Tolkien’s Rutland home by the willow-lined olive Welland offers him a range of
material: the birds, landscapes, trees, neighbours, weather, the background whispering
from his favourite lyric poets, as well how to balance the past against the present.
In ‘Light and Shade: A dialogue’ he lets Light ask Where is your here and now? while
Shade clings to … where opposed/ poles and undercurrents plague/ every detail like
The second section. ‘Another life’, draws together poems relating to religion and
the spiritual life – the … vistas of before/ and beyond .. as Tolkien describes it
in ‘Constructs of the Spirit’. In many ways I found this the least assured section,
partly because a rooted continuity of belief was absent, and the resulting poems
skirted the larger questions in favour of circumstantial detail. Even so, in ‘The
Word’ he is aware of the shape of such questions –
At offbeat moments a presence beyond
yet deep inside will prod:
a sudden awareness of leaf tongues riddling,
the layered pith of a lemon pip
cracked open as you slice with no thought
– although whether this is spiritual or closer to the nudge a new poem can give,
I’m not sure.
Poems gathered together in the third section, ‘Vantage Point’, have a lighter tone;
they are observations about others (often on holidays abroad) or celebrations of
family occasions. Here his eye for detail works well: we have a French couple making
elegant work/ of tiny coffees … (‘Off-Duty Tableau’); Centuries of gilt-framed squires
line/ the old stables, now a café and museum (‘Ancestral Hall’); He looks young for
a father, shy of what/ a camera reveals, putting on a photo smile/ of grim pleasure…(‘Random
Finally, the section titled ‘Here and Now (Especially for Rosemary)’ brings the different
themes together in a sequence of poems written for his wife. These are a personal
shift between the ‘now’ and ‘then’, using the overlay of visual memory to reveal
the enduring strength of their relationship. Tolkien recalls past holidays, and how
one photograph can be taken in the same place as an earlier image, and how even coincidence
can play its part –
our first picnic spot chosen without
knowing mum and dad snapped this view
and each other forty years before.
Inevitably these are poems about ageing but it is age that continues a range of activity.
The aptly-titled ‘Unbroken Circle’, almost the final poem, brings the central theme
back to the surface –
Strange that I should turn
to you while we bask in
midsummer morning sun,
just when our tea and coffee
drops below a third full,
and ask: ‘So ... what now?’
Isn’t this all the ‘now’ we need?
The connection between these poems gives a quiet satisfaction, and the carefully-modulated
voice supports the balance between question and resolution. Perhaps we should all
ask ourselves how much ‘now’ we need.
Should you wish to buy this collection you will have to contact the poet at his web
address given at the head of this review or else write to Severn Press which has
no online presence at the time of writing.