Michael Tolkien

Emblems    (Shoestring Press (2009))

Publ. in Sphinx on-line pamphlet reviews 11. (2010)       


The initial quiet, measured three incantatory variations (called ‘Mandinka Song’, significantly derived from another culture)  invite us to shun interiorised fear and gloom for a world of light, open spaces, and fertility. These are best read both first and after the last poem (or emblem) where we are hurtled along on a tube journey with its lost, jittery passengers, illusory sense of destiny and return to light:

…we flow through the earth like words in a wire, the blood in a vein,

will rise among gleaming escalators into the sunlight of the ticket halls.

Fourteen poems earlier in the first ‘emblem’ poem you are plunged into a seductively repellent, lurid, unsettling urban landscape, imperceptibly blending nightmare with the credible mundane, a journey in the tradition of trips through Hades. All along there are recurrent ironic resonances of that first gently persuasive song with its uncluttered, confident aspirations that imply what lies at the heart of the ‘diseased’ lives and scenes we experience. Though there is parallel redemption.  ‘The Headlines’ (because they are inconsequential and such careers won’t be noticed!) is a one-way dialogue with someone who’s rejected corporate greed and its dreams for the skills of carpentry. Work that’s precisely described yet feels like actions of true substance and meaning. And here, along with many of his less fortunate characters, Burrows leaves room for empathy.

     No one should dismiss the poems’ relationships with the epigrammatic emblems of the mid-17th century poet Francis Quarles, the frontispiece of whose Emblemes adorns the book’s front cover. He imagises a world and society rich with potential so easily ruined. His finely-honed aphorisms assume we’ll supply details from our experience, whereas Burrows makes innumerable emblems hit us from all angles: we flounder among them either trying to make sense and find illumination, or becoming no-hopers. In ‘A Trick of Light’ the epigraph from Quarles reads:

“See how these fruitful kernels, being cast

Upon the earth, how thick they spring!”

The poem plunges us into the illusions of advertising, sterile and delusive, as seen from the viewpoint of exhausted and excluded people waiting for a bus to nowhere desirable.

Overhead, on billboards flashed bright with floods

and florescent strips, the smiling, quietly

confident face of the woman who knows

her needs are met, the man whose

chiselled, sun-warmed limbs

frame a six-pack of airbrushed skin.

In these pacey narratives that include with apparent inevitability eloquent objects, gestures and half-finished statements, our senses are out on stalks along with the poet’s. Much contemporary sniping at urban malaise, itself a cliché, plays to the gallery. Burrows is the genuine article, makes us laugh and despair at once and touches on unlikely sources of renewal.                       

     Congratulations also to Shoestring for yet another perfect marriage of content with presentation and format.




Wayne Burrows