Michael Tolkien

Nantucket and the Angel (Bloodaxe)

(Publ. in PN Review:1997)


     Allnutt explores a succession of mostly ageing figures that reflect aspects of her own search for an old age of rooted spirituality, where ' Silence is not an angel. It has legs.' The scheme is not whimsical. A fork must dig for her grandmother's remnants because the poet has 'invented dragons/ to guard' them 'from my own finding'.

            'The house is full of visions, Gran,

             Of what we are, were, always might have been.'


It follows that her images and symbols should cut through divisions of time, space and consciousness and that figures from legend, history, and pictorial art fragment into Nantucket, an alter ego of ninety and 'clobbered with annunciation'. The 'sketches' depicting her manic tussle with a reprobate Angel, associate objects by sound/sense in the broken syntax of prophecy and incantation. Once she's vanquished this wayward side of her soul 'she'll do with all the dignity of widowhood'.

    Freed from projection into diverse selves, the crone speaks with gnomic authority. Annunciation now includes what Yeats' Mother of God sacrificed: 'the shows/ Every common woman knows'. Epiphany is not crossing 'the abyss of sudden understanding' but an awareness of relative values. She comments: '...You were in love with the splendid/rosewood of the Word./ And now the word rose weeps for you.' A rebuke that unfortunately applies to the book's earlier excesses, such as the exaggerated sprung rhythms and fulsome diction meant to suggest her callowness when her grandmother dies:


         'Where was I, called for, ever again, being gone?

         I was gadding about in foreign

         boats. Still, more or less, unbitten, blue-eyed

         and rowed

         among reeds, I gazed for the first time on Russia, land-

         fall of longing, forbidden, beyond.'


Elsewhere clusters of end-stopped lines dramatise the inarticulate but amass too many scraps of information. Poems that cohere grapple best with the book's theme of mutability: 'Fenlight' about a mediaeval official coming to terms with the collapse of Ely Cathedral that stood for his life;  'My Heart Unsettled' fuses seventeenth century lyrical grace and modern austerity in the narrator's naming of relics that unite her with and divide her from the dead. The best Nantucket poems combine pathos with humour as in 'Eggs' where the Angel longs for a bird's clutch 'mottled brown like Nantucket's skin', and is scorned by his jealous mentor.

 Like her fellow Bloodaxe poet, Lauris Edmond, Allnutt may well  move many of all ages to consider where they stand between the agnostic or transcendental perspectives generated by old age.



Gillian Allnutt