Michael Tolkien


The Red Zone   ( Peterloo Poets )

(Publ. in Ambit 192, Spring 2008)


An initial series of short pieces about domestic events and moments of hectic leisure suggests a writer who’s puzzled and even alienated by human contrariness. In similar vein we go on an Italian journey that interweaves direct experience with memories. The Red Zone, where he imagines returning to an apartment full of ill-assorted objects, defines the essence of this trail. Once abroad the reader is whirled through mood-swinging snapshots, often blurred and surrealistically tinted, making up a personalised album of characters, views, interiors, journeys. Apparent flippancy and nonchalance blend with a vivid impression of the seamier side of Italia La Bella. (Or, as the narrator remarks after a disgusting train journey, ‘The Divine Comedy’s worst kept secret.’)

 More integrated poems somehow intensify and give credence to the disparate hints of the fragments. Stannard has a gift for dramatic monologue, though he rarely subsumes his own agenda or adopts a persona. In Vivario he and his wife endure a failed ‘escape’ to primitive, central Corsica. It’s a racy account of local eccentricities, momentary insights, threats, enervating frustration. The austere verse adds to his desperate need to keep control.

This nightmarish mode merges the real and the near-implausible. It’s carried further in Sampierdarena 1990. His son is delivered by Rosalba, a smoker gynaecologist with a twitchy eye. While his wife recovers, he pockets the baby and escapes to a bar. Even more bizarre is a well handled allegory, The Poetic Revolution Begins Here. A subversive poet is imagined strafing Venice and Genoa from a helicopter:

All the alleyways of the old quarter are laced

with poems

that wind their unchallengeable way back

to Walt Whitman.

You can see Ferlinghetti quite clearly now

dapper in his blue shirt.

He’s caressing

the sexual organs of the city.

This zest for breaking restrictions is also celebrated in Rina’s Last Stand in the Piazza where she’s provided with a fantasy escape from lying exposed in her coffin to pacing through familiar haunts.

Reading poems like these or his dazzling or sultry little vignettes about a whoring, drinking, greasy-palmed yet colourfully enticing world, I’m glad I need not encounter such people and places. And this is a compliment.



Julian Stannard