Michael Tolkien

John Fuller   


The Shell Hymn Book   (Shoestring Press (2009))

Publ. in Sphinx on-line pamphlet reviews 12. (2010)


Six substantial lyrics in a fine chapbook: typeface is discreet but clear and on quality paper inside an embossed cover. A pleasing way to sample Fuller’s mixture of mock-didactic, fantasy, and too-straight-to-be-serious but nevertheless informative observation. A sequence impressive both in its parts and total impact.

I’m glad to be reminded of this poet’s unerringly crafted ‘light’ verse: the lightness of an easy surface which is not superficial in intent. Its varieties of form and rhyme scheme always feel integral to a unique, complex purpose. I delight in Lear and Carroll but can’t stomach shellfish, an ambiguity resolved for me by the way the iridescent surface of this work celebrates, sometimes with hymnlike solemnity, edible maritime shelled creatures: crab, limpet, mussel, lobster, turtle, sea-urchin.  I can’t resist quoting an extended epic simile for the lobster’s lordly progress:

As chobdars obdurate in

Their noble masters’ cause

Take besoms of bright straws

In the prompt discipline

Of sweeping from the public street

Urchins assembling at their feet


So the lobster keeps

The sea bed clear before him:

The creatures can’t ignore him,

But lurch in panic heaps

Before the silent Fee-Faw-Fum

Of his serrated bulldog thumb.

 Each creature is approached with a specific angle, verse form and zany narrative context: the crab only comes in after lengthy innuendos about our defenceless anatomy; the turtle is the victim of hunters and cookery buffs; and each poem is distinctly flavoured with quizzical, jocular, whimsical comments on shell-beings’ relations with and contrasts to a greedy, gormandising, deluded humankind, which is: surprise, surprise… all part of far-sighted providence or remorseless fate.(More reasons for hymning!)

In ‘The Trumpet addresses the Limpet’ two objects whose assonance is all they have in common are looked at (as if it’s a natural process) to develop contrasts between an instrument that denotes action or physical endeavour and a creature of passive resistance, and only through one valve! But the final twist after mock-epic reflections on a ‘grim grandma’ and her grotesque appetite is that limpet and man also have much in common:

Each in our shelly wigwam hides,

Fast in our purpose, though contentious;

Daily are nourished by the tides

      That duly drench us.


Our one illusion is a sport,

That what we gain will somehow last,

Our little empire a mere thought

       Of what has passed.

Notice a tonal and rhythmic hint of hymnody in these stanzas !