Michael Tolkien

 For the Moment  (Peterloo Poets)

Publ. in PROP magazine Autumn 2000


    Gifford's comment on Tolstoy applies to Mole: " His hold on common experience is so strong that he achieves simplicity without shallowness." This leads to a poignant sense of dreams and aspirations having their 'moment', a feeling seasoned with tenderness, compassion, and amusement at his own foibles.

     His childhood in the '40s and '50s comes alive in the random, piecemeal way it would have affected him. But there's a living world of bygone symbols and values.  Mole is a skilful narrator, engaging readers in the unfolding of events likely to exclude us. He also re-enacts the child's instinct for something untoward. In 'The War' he can't connect his aunt's crying and the silver-wrapped chewy substance she takes from her nightdress, saying: "You never met him. This/ is what you do..." Glimpses of the poses and fantasies of puberty are convincing but these are complemented by reflections on deep-seated attachments, as if he has 'grown' through experience without loss of responsive vigour. Speculative daydreams of "invisible beauty/ dancing on a quilted bed" or being "in Paris with the girl/who might have read/ your horoscope..." give way to specific images of what it feels like to love and to lose. Even more revealing than what unites and divides is Mole's impression of limbos in between. The sequence For Better or Worse zooms in on marriages ossified into formalities and unspoken repulsions, where the protagonist is as blameworthy as the partner. 'Going Native: 1918' shares such insights, but it is in a league of its own. A father's funeral signifies a defunct era. His son's farewell is a monologue of such dignified regret and firm resolve the pain and conflict are palpable. Quoting would sever its seemless fabric. More personal but equally moving is Mole's interweaving of positive memories and the harsh facts of age in tributes to his mother.

    Even in elegiac celebrations of 'performers' who retain their integrity there's a vein of lively humour echoed by formal jocularity. Compare his affectionately humorous memories of early visits to a characterful barber, Mr Harrison, with his later tribute to Fats Waller: the child absorbs vivid detail as in a repeated rite, but almost at random; the adult merges characteristics like a jazz piece improvising its way along over set measures. Two of many instances where metaphor springs from within the action and the poem is unobtrusively honed and 'finished.'




John Mole   The Other Day   (Peterloo Poets)

(Publ. in Ambit 192, Spring 2008)


Mole’s credentials consume more words on the back cover than I am allowed here. Unlike in For the Moment, which I once reviewed, I was not impressed with a comparable series of poems recalling formative childhood moments and friendships. Social history abounds but the narrative tends to be flat, sometimes compressed into an awkward form or laden with detail that reads like family archive. A well-made sonnet sequence closely observing his father is similarly disappointing. The more free-flowing title poem, The Other Day, is about Mole the schoolboy meeting Steinbeck. Amusing as historical anecdote but it meanders too much into personal speculation.

   Mole can also overdo his clogged philosophising. The Water Clock, almost entirely in this manner, ends: ‘….it might say that life/is only what goes on, that in the sum of all/it stops and starts the human animal/is measured by a passing gift for laughter/that in the end forgetfulness is water.’ On a Photograph of Air Raid Wardens begins with movingly responsive stanzas, then flounders into ‘didactics’ about contemporary significance. As TV watchers ‘This is what we witness, surrogate wardens/of remote streets, far enough removed/to keep watch from our homes and gardens/feeling our tender consciences reproved/by unknown victims of a different war…’

   The more cohesive poems generate an ‘atmosphere’ or half-awakened perceptions, taking life from potent images that prey on the mind. Voids open below the apparently ordinary, there’s a surprise round the corner, a precious something you might have missed. The Catch has visual energy and a breathlessly repressed urgency as it associates a fishing heron with the intense concentration required in any art:

                      …..Quick light

is dancing on the lake, its arabesque

a sequined measure, but even a slight

distracted glance would be the risk

no artist takes….             

Mole’s wry humour excels in From the Meditations of Henry James, capturing his precision and fastidiousness, and clothing them in a form like a tight-fitting suit.

In Song Without Words, with its gently humorous tone and conversational phrasing, he’s in a hotel listening to excited girls in the next room, ‘high on the narrative/of their own future’ after a wedding party, refuses his wife’s demand that he bang on the wall, reflects tolerantly on the gulf  between youth and experience.

    This facility for entering the skins of others colours the final poem, The White Rabbit Approaches Retirement. Exploiting hints from Carroll’s tale, it’s a compassionate portrait of an official drained and aged by routines and etiquettes he cannot quite recall or maintain. Mole at his best: unforced, lucid, troubling us with a surface that’s too calm.





John Mole