The poet who reviews perhaps approaches this volume by thinking of the author’s skill
and technical ability, but a non-poet like myself often thinks first: What does the
author write about, what are his concerns?...As was the case when I came across ‘John’s
Exclusives’, a section, as I see it, central to the book: three poems each prefaced
with a text from the Gospel of St John. This Christian theme seems to run throughout
the book (as in a poem observing with envy and admiration an artist at work)
…Tomorrow I’ll fix a word
for shaping out of dross, a god word
for making stillness come alive.
And then from ‘Easter Vigil’:
…More than ever
side by side we kiss in peace
as Light scours a way ahead.
Note the capital ‘L’ on light, a special sort of light and for an old humanist like
me it is difficult to find meaning in such a way ahead. It’s like reading George
Herbert (with Auden’s hugely laudatory preface), recognising these are ‘great’ poems
but finding it hard to feel the emotions others have for them.
There is much else in Tolkien’s poetry for me to admire more easily. In ‘Proportions’
he looks at other histories:sculptures of the Ancien Regime: and he has difficulty
finding interest and sympathy for them: they merge into ‘…an echo/ from far down
some/ long-forgotten corridor.’ He also has a broad range of subjects from ‘Yardley
Road Public Library, 1950’,his first experience of reading, ‘Butcher’s Ghazal’ (a
monologue from a butcher who patronises and cheats), ‘Grounded’ (an ambiguous romance
in an airliner), ‘Spree’ (a comic episode set in a local gent’s outfitters). He has
an adroit eye/ and ear for descriptions of place. The collection’s title poem illustrates
his range when he recalls a visit to Castle Howard:
Round the Palladian gable triumphal
chariots, banners, plumed helmets moulder
behind moss and scaffold taped red for danger
Much for me to ponder, enjoy and remember from the collection.
(Adapted from a review by Martin Bax in Ambit 199: winter 2010)
HELENA NELSON A reading of: No Time for Roses
Poetry Salzburg Review No.17 (Spring 2010)
Michael Tolkien was a late starter. Born
in 1943, he first made it into the public (poetry) eye when he was runner-up in the
Redbeck Press competition in 1996. A booklet resulted from this in 1998, followed
by another slender publication from Shoestring in 1999. Then there were full Redbeck
collections, Outstripping Gravity (2000), Exposures (2003) and Taking Cover (2005).
Finally, No Time for Roses (2009) from Poetry Salzburg, marks just over a decade
of service to poetry-in-print.
Of course, there was a long preparation before that. Tolkien is an educated writer,
a lover of literature, a former teacher. His work springs from the centre of the
(latterly somewhat troubled) tradition of English verse, and though he has chosen
to share his work in public relatively late in life, he has been writing all along.
He is a reviewer, a thinker, a lover of the lyric line. And thus it is that certain
words are applied to his way of writing: modest, assured, careful, precise, laconic,
wry-finished. Such adjectives adhere as naturally as iron filings to a magnet. This
is a man who likes structure. Each of his full collections subdivides the poems into
sections, and inside the sections there are often sequences. No Time for Roses invites
its readers in with the opening (and longest) set, 'Inheritance'. Here there are
vivid vignettes of personalities from the poet's past-Mrs Ricks, for example, in
'Wayside Stores', who "kept us alive on bargains":
The door clanger drags her smile and swollen ankles to the counter.
Then there's Grandma in 'Inheritance' (title poem for this section), whose piano
playing accomplishes a kind of metamorphosis, "turning staves loaded with heavy black
/ to rampaging Beethoven who rattled / the metronome and all her fine-bone china".
The contrast between the "petite and elegant" pianist and the "rampaging" is a delight,
while well-placed detail (just a passing mention of that metronome) evokes a world
of piano practice, a world that's in 'Music Lesson' too, with the scary Mrs Birkbeck
driving the fear:
As for my piano hour, one creak of her corset turns keys to pitfalls, baits every
bar with poison. Now she stops my breath, turns my legs to jelly, makes Bach pitch
simplicity beyond reach while slimy Parnell steals my playground girl.
Oh for those creaking corsets-at the going down of the sun and in the morning we
will remember them! But the stanza I have quoted (the final lines of the poem) also
serves to illustrate another facet of Tolkien's writing, his tendency to conclude
with a peculiarly lyric phrase or cadence. Here we have the laconic tone, the wry
self-mockery, but also the grace of the nearly iambic line, the aural intensity of
the numerous 'l' sounds, the assonance between 'Parnell' and 'girl', the alliteration
of 'p'. This, too, is Tolkien's inheritance: the full armoury of English verse. All
that's lacking is rhyme. Rhyme, however, does keep bubbling up, inside the lines
and at line endings, even when he's working in irregular verse. It's like an underground
spring trying to get through. In 'Grounded', a flirtacious little skirmish, three
of the short lines in the opening stanza end with perfect rhymes- 'loo', 'to' and
'queue', while the concluding couplet matches 'eyes' with 'fly'. And although Tolkien
is mainly writing outside traditional forms, there's a sense that they're not that
far away. The verse is sometimes shaped, visually, on the page and the lines tend
to have regular lengths, with a stress pattern underpinning the breaks (though it
doesn't have the drive of 'sprung' rhythm). 'Blank Pages, Open Minds', for example
(which addresses Shelley and is topped by a quotation from 'Ode to the West Wind'),
uses an indented pattern (à la Shelley)-short line, long line, short line, long line.
But no rhyme this time, not even for the arch-rhymer himself. I like it when Tolkien
goes for full form, rhyme and all, though it's rare. 'Butcher's Ghazal' in the opening
section is a lovely example of the poet at his most playful. It's a vignette of butcher
Bob, a 'chancer' of the first order. The ghazal couplets necessarily repeat one word
in the second line of every stanza. In this case, it's 'meat'. But Tolkien reinforces
that, not only with perfect rhyme in one couplet (feet/meat) but ubiquitous assonance
'New season lamb chops, please.' Here we are, Patsy.' (Bone and grease with a sliver
I've been at this game for twenty years and more. Doubt if anyone's better
at cheating with meat.
He goes formal again (how could he not) with three poems grouped under the title
'Under Thomas Hardy's Skin'. The last of these is particularly good. It focuses on
Hardy's last wishes, and the irony of what actually happened to his body after his
death (it was not what he wanted). The poem is constructed in the spirit of Hardy,
a lovely testament of shape, sound and tone:
Let them not burn this heap of flesh and bone, Urn-incarcerate its cinders under
flag stone, Roof them away from rain, wind and shine. I won't be made a monument
like some fine Contrite knight Paying for heaven's light In a cavernous vault
of his own design.
In experimental spirit, Tolkien adopts other personae too: he is the golden mask
of a long dead Mycenaean King; a starfish sculpture; even the woman taken in adultery
from St John's Gospel. He likes the first person. Sometimes it is even himself. Occasionally,
though, he goes for the more evasive unnamed 'he'. Is it personal? Isn't it? In 'Proportions',
a startlingly dark piece, it's hard to believe that the "tourist", leaning against
"a bronze equine leg" doesn't represent at least one aspect of his maker:
All that vision and design: backdrop for one who fears a need to love, whose mouth's
allowed to play its own tricks, who slams the lid tight on what screams to be heard
until it dwindles to an echo from far down some long-forgotten corridor.
This intense fear is startling, a reminder that overt emotion is rare in Tolkien's
work. Sometimes that's all to the good, of course. That which is omitted can be powerful,
and this poet is often preoccupied with just that-what is not said. The title poem,
'No Time for Roses', for example, has the poet and his daughter visiting Castle Howard
in July. It's a sweltering day: "We sweat / in a blazing queue of leisure wear".
Poet and daughter opt for "Grounds Only". Tolkien can't resist mentioning what they
choose not to see: "pilfered / art, red rooms of state, glass-locked porcelain",
but as he goes looking for fabled rose gardens (in vain), other absences impinge.
Words engraved on an urn remind him not only of "the Roses of Paestum" but also of
the long-dead poets Virgil and Ovid who celebrated those blooms. Then there's a stone
commemorating "a lost son of the house". The poem culminates with a scenic view of
the south front of the castle-and again the poet draws our attention to what is not
there: "Its fifty steps once fell to four-season / gardens, patterned like a Persian
carpet." The lyric conclusion is elegiac:
Where are the gardens of roses that burst their buds again?
It is apparently the current owners of the house who have 'no time for roses', not
the poet or his daughter. Tolkien himself cherishes that which is noteworthy by its
absence. As he says (of quite another matter) in 'Full Coverage':
No tracks mark our discoveries. As ever we arrive without a chart.
Nevertheless, although I admire Tolkien's enviable lyric impulse, I think he often
resists it, to his cost. A tendency to break natural phrases to fit roughly regular
lines can sound as mannered in its own way as the Georgian excesses of a century
ago. (The net is too slack-no challenge to a real tennis player.) In 'Unfolding',
a landscape piece which has much to commend it, Tolkien breaks almost every line
mid-phrase, interrupting the natural idiomatic cadence. Perhaps there's justification
for it in this instance, where the broken lines are 'unfolding' the scene (I am not
wholly convinced), but in some cases it seems to me a poeticism that mars excellent
phrasing. Here is the end of section 6 of 'Package', for example:
Now is a row of bottles with gold-foiled tops, opening the way to another night that
waits, dependable as cling-film.
That's a superb image-funny, effective, memorable. I love the phrase " a row of bottles
with gold-foiled tops". There's neat eye-rhyme between "now" and "row", and lovely
assonance in "gold", while "dependable as cling-film" is a masterly simile. But why
the break between 'gold-foiled' and "tops"? What is it doing, other than making the
line roughly similar in length to the one that follows? In other poems, phrases break
to make a point, but the point is too obvious by half. Here's a stanza from 'Belong',
a poem that records a walk:
Faint paths merge. One bites hard to reach old railway gates. Two gnarled, uprooted
hawthorns cling together, flowing pink and white over weathered rock. Its russet
water spills into a stream that spreads a crackling ford, then tunnels under leaves
To my mind, two separate instincts are at work here. There's a formal yearning, which
goes some way to explain why "bites" is at the end of a line, matching "gates". Similarly
"over", "water" and "alder" have echoing sounds and accent (but it's not a rhyming
poem). So the break after "over" mirrors the water running over the rock; and breaking
after "water" mirrors the idea of spilling over. Okay. It's a convention of modern
verse to do this: poets do it all the time. But Tolkien is too good for that kind
of thing, and the poem wants to get away-it's bursting to get into something more
interesting. Look what happens at the end-I'm going to quote the final three stanzas
to illustrate how a formal sound pattern establishes itself six lines from the end.
The phrase "winds honed" signals the start of it:
Eastwards, open fields sink to sedge, narrow to a copse that blunts winds honed on
bare hills beyond.
Surely a hollow to settle or defend, a place to begin or end,
and yet we find no ruins, feel no ghost.
Perhaps like cattle we're more at rest where
nothing's been planned or lost.
It's not just rhyme at work in the shaping here; it's the rhythm and cadence of the
lines, a musical lyricism conspicuously absent in the opening of the poem. Bearing
in mind how good his endings are, it occurs to me that sometimes Tolkien finds it
difficult to get into a poem. This is certainly true, in my view, of 'Elegy at Pantasaph',
dedicated to the poet's parents and recording a visit to a graveyard. The opening
is prose, not prosody: "I pass yew groves and blackened angels / presiding over Victorian
tombs". Any poem that opens "I pass" would alienate me, and the plodding prose rhythm
would finish me off. And yet the last four stanzas of this poem are excellent. Suddenly
the verbs drop their subjects; the over-used contemporary 'I' disappears:
Leave were it not for a brisk close-cropped little figure swathed in fawn. Darts
at a headless grave, crosses herself, mouths a prayer, and scuttles off like a leaf.
That is delicate, unforced and distinctive. There's a poet for you! The end of this
selfsame poem-an added point of interest-starts to rhyme in two lines of the penultimate
verse, before committing itself to a fully-fashioned, (Larkin eat your heart out)
para-rhyme scheme in the final five-line stanza:
Soon I follow her along the lime grove past the closed priory. Every go-slow hump
is someone's grave, and voices from the rookery tell me what it's like to survive.
Note the bleakness, the wealth of what is not said here. At his best then, Tolkien
blends the complex tradition of English verse forms into something wholly his own.
He does this in 'Heat of the Moment', almost a modern 'remake' of Harold Monro's
'Tea for the Cat'. An even more interesting example is to be found in 'From a Bench
at Interlaken'. This curious and beautiful piece captures the unusual (but poignantly
real) experience of mistaking one woman for another. At first, the poet loops the
unrhymed lines through a complex syntax, the line-breaks successfully underpinning
the way recognition falters:
and suddenly you that can't be you with your easy unhurried walk, head leant forward,
hair spreading in the breeze, each leg's backward thrust too lovely to be flung away,
cool in loosely undulating stripes and flowers, your carrier hot from streets ablaze
with summer fashion.
The poet is enchanted by the resemblance, knows it will dissolve to create an absence
even more moving:
This you who should be you holds me. Shimmering vaguely through a gauze of pathside
shrubs, lost behind a boat house, splashed by shadows. If only to turn across the
last bridge and being near become less than you and all the more to look forward
Now there is a wholly Tolkien thought-the focus on absence as a precursor to presence.
And there is emotion here too, plain as punch. But look what's happening in the verse
form. The line lengths look roughly similar (in fact they're more or less four-foot
lines, though they aren't metrical). My first quotation (from "and suddenly" to "summer
fashion") illustrates the free-form uncertainty: is it/ isn't it she? Then the last
five lines (from "Shimmering" to "forward to") start to attract end-rhyme or half-rhyme
at least, as though the sound is accentuating the anticipation: "gauze", "house",
"across", "less". At "less", the word that signals the reality-the woman is not her-the
rhymes stop, and yet there is a neat internal chime in the final line, connecting
"you" with "look forward to". It works beautifully. Michael Tolkien has joined the
hall of English Poetry: he is a worthy knight and his finest poems proclaim that.
His coat of arms should be hung on the wall, a place set for him at the banquet.
He has the gift, and craft to go with it. I see his resistance to musical phrasing
as a direct result of contemporary moeurs in English poetry: it's an influence that's
hard to resist and has much to answer for. His best poems break free of that. They
do something both original and informed by the tradition he loves: they are visually
and aurally satisfying. Surely Tolkien's next volume should be a Selected. This would
allow the finest of his work (and there are unmissable poems in each of his collections)
to be showcased. But for the moment, here is No Time for Roses, a book that uniquely
celebrates absences, a book for which good readers-hundreds of them-should make time.