Michael Tolkien

Edge to Edge: New & Selected Poems 1968-96 ( Anvil )


(Accepted but not published by London Magazine: 1996-7)


         Anvil's substantial exposé of over thirty years' work makes up for Dale's small-press appearances. If technical virtuosity and preoccupation with the unstable bases of relationships have marginalised him as a poet's poet, it's now easier to appreciate his diverse standpoints and the tensions between romantic nostalgia and vernacular obtuseness.

         ‘Thrush' from 1968 anticipates his capacity to share rather than impose surprising connections: a fluttering womb, a shadow that might be a tile falling, vanishing wings, presented with detachment that belies wonder. But in the early work he is mostly an acute, sometimes anguished poet-observer, shifting ground to inspect others' values, and assumptions. Contiguous, contrasting poems avoid draining one occasion with too many angles, unlike the more extensive, insistently formal attempts in MORTAL FIRE (1976) to fuse complex thought with ‘off the cuff' confessionalism. ‘Damages' poignantly divides adult and child over a maimed butterfly, but turns to his own childhood, even insecticide, and loses itself in a welter of toy mending. ‘Full Circle' is a reading to pupils that swamps the ironic prefiguring of their futures with his and their antics. It feels as if there were probably several poems gestating.

     Concurrently, in ‘THE GOING', the short poem sheds its haikuesque chrysalis for lyricism that links the gestures and physique of the loved one with  plants, trees, birds, effects of light and sky-scapes. When images have their say I am reminded of Ian Hamilton's elliptical suggestiveness, as in ‘Silver Birch':

My hands could span the trunk

arched into darkness

like your throat

thrown back in love...'

But the explicit ‘gather an inkling/ my angle of you,/ your head thrown back.' typifies a tendency to dilute. Cryptic intimacies or patronising digests are worse. ‘Returns' retraces familiar paths and ends with: ‘We cover the same ground./ Your life fits into mine'.

    In the foreword to ONE ANOTHER (1978), Dale admits his work suffers from ‘solepsism of experience', but these 58 rhymed sonnets depicting the changes and conflicts of profound love, transmute the particular through subtle elaboration and illuminating contrasts of dual voices. Moments of tenderness, sensual directness, sureally imagised tension, remind us that artifice and feeling are compatible, though there are wrenched significances, patches of aureate diction and fussy imperatives like:

            Move, love; finger the fallen petal there

            (Your palate's curvature, its touch to me)

             Now feel the micro-hesitance and know

             The sense my hands have of your skin…

Yet this is countered by the woman's inscrutability: ‘...He'd like/ to crack my codes, edge deep into the skull.' She is incisive, even caustic; he seeks patterns and is tortured by incompleteness. After her death his elegiac and ghostly reminiscences draw on the consistent ‘world' of associative objects that unify the sequence.

    Further recollections of ‘the beloved' add little to these haunting sonnets. In comparison those of ‘Mirrors, Windows' (from EARTH LIGHT, 1991), a grimly humorous dialogue of middle-aged man and dead father, are packed with ingenious ‘conceits’ in monotonously curt syntax, though the sense of scores being settled makes the impasse less than moving. In contrast I welcomed the light and airy spaces of Dale's expansive landscape, ‘Like a Vow', celebrated with the ‘eye' and elegance of Edward Thomas.

    Much of Dale’s verse from this decade is ‘occasional', though the latest grapples with tortured emotions. Taut lyrical measures adapt verbal and rhythmic patterns to quirks and paradoxes, shared moments, observed idiosyncrasies. But elaborate ploys can fall flat for lack of substance. A cleverly donned mask lost at the wrong moment, exposes a voice out of synch with its role. But Dale's well-integrated poems have the grace of Horace's slighter odes, or Martial's tongue-in-cheek confidings. Unfashionable qualities: light-heartedness without gaucherie, cool anger, or an unaffected gravity, instanced in ‘Homage to Robinson Jeffers', imagising the seaview room he died in, and ending: ‘You whose words live on / have given me, unlike the Christ /a place to die.'




Peter Dale