Michael Tolkien

Raiding the Borders    (Bloodaxe)

(Publ. in Ambit 145:1996)


     Billed as a book about divisive tensions in many eras and places, this collection is primarily solipsistic in its concern with diffidence over relating to those who should be close or others severed by time, place or social circumstances. But the 'triptych' scheme of the poems, with its range of modes, even a Buddhist lyric on the unquiet soul's need for honour, suggests scope and vision. 'Borders' explores historical and geographical barriers, 'Amor Diving' those between the living child and deceased parents, expanding the border metaphor. 'Difficult Times' attempts to come to terms with today's confusing world.     There's apt use of dramatic monologue in 'Borders'  where the persona struggles to probe ancestral experience with hard-won imaginative leaps rooted in tangible objects and images that unify and intensify, as in Sealing and First Lessons, both about losing touch with an elemental world. ‘Gruoch’, too, gives voice to Macbeth's believably passionate wife.  In other quasi-legendary recreations the 'I' (whether a statue, Lot's daughter, or Pandora) can lapse into a didactic poet/observer.

    Many other poems about contemporary issues or personal reminiscences draw various kinds of attention to their contrivances, or sacrifice the eloquence of hiatus to 'rounding off', or another dab of domestic detail. Raiding the Borders falls flat when it moves awkwardly from a dynamic picture of reivers to apply it to close relationships. In Somewhere Else,

                I staunch the sense of a severed self

violates the hazy enactment of how little we can see on the telephone. Difficult Times suggests well how dull lives desensitise us but we could have been left to conclude that:

                                     In a minute

               someone anywhere might be blown to pieces:

               it's all either cowardice or courage.

   Yet there's a memorably tough inevitability in The Boatman's Dream about a deserted fisherman's daughter begging for mackerel:

               ..........she sits to pack them

               slithering into her wide, blue knickers.

               Some are gasping when she starts to run

               home, past men watching another tide turn.

I felt oppressed by the weight of time and the hunger for news in Gulf; and July is a skilfully constructed narrative that links bereavement, a cliff top murder and a mother's qualities, and its understated reflections feel integral.

Achievements that tempt me to wonder if a too cerebral approach may be another border/barrier the poet has yet to deal with.



Marion Lomax