Michael Tolkien

Herrick’s Women       (University of Salzburg)

(Publ in Ambit 147: 1997)


 This assured collection is prefaced sententiously by the author, looks like a large-print First Steps, and sounds as if it might be about philandering. But the title poem, aligning Caws with Seventeenth Century rhetorical lyricism, is a graceful portrait of satiety and disillusion coloured by dreamlike divisions of awareness:

                  ...he wondered still at their innocence,

                  At their unlacing in the mind's Eden,

                     And, hearing music from the dance,

                     Found it was harder to return

                  Each time, and loved from a further distance.


Read with 'Privacy', featuring Herrick's lost chalice, a subtle dialogue on the integrity of art and the artist, it anticipates several encounters with practical visionaries, often unlikely figures mediating between us and 'eternity'. Even 'The Last Ship' about Alfred Wallis, who 'painted death / and growled to himself in corners' of the workhouse, contributes to this poetry's multifarious hints at transfiguration.  You feel at home and perplexed in these rooms with views, shrines, gardens, sea-and-sky-scapes: they're specific, temporal and transcendental. What begins as a modest thought, or a longing for 'stasis' in a shifting world inhabited by figures with tentative voices and gestures, may end up by dissolving existential horizons.   The style is elegant, but colloquially alive. And the forms, with an ease that conceals their art, are at one with nuances of tone and movement, making for a sense of 'inevitability' and perhaps ‘memorableness’ lacking in much verse that's 'all out of shape from toe to top', irrespective of subject matter.

  The ego-centred Weltschmerz can grate, and mystical moments lose me when they lean on abstractions, as in 'Coltsfoot', when he longs

                                    ...to renew

                   A sense of easiness on holy ground,

                   Of love's infinity, precarious

                   though it seems, and an instinct, held in check,

                          That when looking, to find

                          The place from which to look.

 Most moving are the celebratory and empathetic insights into those who reach a crisis or precipice beyond which there is still redemption.



Ian Caws