Michael Tolkien

 The Black and White Days    (Robson Books)

(Publ. in Ambit 145:1996)


   It's invidious to scrutinise a new collection by a poet with a well-founded reputation by mere deference to or comparison with his previous output. This is a well-constructed book one can journey through at a variety of speeds, all effortless thanks to its lucidity and fluency, but jolted by an awareness of how contrasting experiences and moods illuminate each other. The effect of ageing on attitudes and preoccupations is frequently implicit but never lapses into listless introspection; and there's much wry humour and easy-going hilarity. Scannell explores this predominant but not exclusive subject matter, among other means, by reconstructing formative memories, puzzling over his own apparent contradictions of outlook and fears of encountering other threatening dimensions of self, looking at contemporary concerns like terrorism and refugees in a philosophical mode, even by dwelling on the finer details that age can pause to reconsider: a dog's tail, an ice bucket, shop window junk. Ironic glances at his own doubts and assumptions add gusto.

  I have a suspicion, though, that the energy of some poems, particularly those depending on narrative or shifts of focus, is dissipated by a too relaxed or periphrastic exposure that can turn a crucial resolution to anticlimax. His quizzical philosophising, as in Climacterics or Makers and Creatures, tends to sound like well-crafted chat rather than wit or wisdom. There are also frequent mannerisms: abstract personified subjects, clusters of epithets, optional metaphors, aloof aphorisms, materials reappearing in pellucid guises. Whether all this is concomitant with a facility for mellifluous rhyming metrics, or that gravity and whimsy are insecure partners, formal dexterity cannot compensate for lapses of precision, even of tone, leaving only a paradigm of experience. The penultimate part of Farewell Performance is illustrative. The old pianist has crawled on in a fairly moving saraband:

                 Then apprehension melts and pity dies.


                 We hear the Liszt Sonata in B minor

                 Flow and ripple through compliant space

                 To work sly sorcery along the spine

                 And pierce the heart with that familiar grace

                 Of truth and love that brook no compromise.  

 I  returned with  unmixed pleasure to Lies and Questions in Terza Rima, where tone and form match a mounting scepticism, also to Fictions, the voices and antics of lonely, caricature figures that blend comedy and pathos, and to Bath-times, in which the observation of nakedness becomes an inventively doomed struggle against the vulnerable sense of ageing,

                 To face a bare and gaunt old man who stares

                 With still astonished, briefly youthful eyes.




Vernon Scannell