No Time For Roses (2009)
The poet who reviews perhaps approaches this volume by thinking of the author’s skill
and technical ability, but a non-
…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
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-
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-
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.
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-
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-
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
I like it when Tolkien goes for full form, rhyme and all, though it's rare.
'New season lamb chops, please.' Here we are,
Patsy.' (Bone and grease with a sliver of meat!)
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,
Roof them away from rain, wind and shine.
I won't be made a monument like some fine
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
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-
The title poem,
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-
Now is a row of bottles with gold-
tops, opening the way to another night
that waits, dependable as cling-
That's a superb image-
In other poems, phrases break to make a point, but the point is too obvious by half. Here's a stanza from '
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 of alder.
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-
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-
Leave were it not for a brisk
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
Soon I follow her along the lime grove
past the closed priory.
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-
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 to.
Now there is a wholly Tolkien thought-
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
© Helena Nelson