Michael Tolkien

Selected Poems (1977-1992)  (Sinclair-Stevenson)

(Publ. in Agenda, Vol.35 No.1, spring 1997)


      The poem 'home' begins this substantial collection with a

crucial question: whether to travel or be contemplative, act or scrutinise:

          there was no permission needed. I

          could have jumped ship, seen

          all the continents.

Later poems reflect this dilemma: For my Daughter's tenderly jocular hesitancy  about her leap into the future, At Home voiced by an incarcerated geriatric, the Sussex Lady trapped in her picturesque routines, The Neighbours in Florida, whose air-conditioned ostracism suffocates us. But like her own Io the Wanderer, Kazantzis combines observation with odyssey, compelling us through the realms of the psyche, sexual ambiguities, myth and many regions of terra firma from the exotic to the squalid.

        She is ruthless with complacency and short-sightedness, even

her own ( as in the disturbing  'And my son slept...' that divulges a mother's lasciviousness), with ignorant public attitudes, anything that might dehumanise or demean. But she's compassionate with victims and wittily convivial with eccentrics like The Earl of Modern Ireland , Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The most convincing work links disparate and remote materials to reveal that explosive contradictions lurk under every surface. Scorpions in a Tuscan Farmhouse probes a fraying relationship through extraordinary associations:

              we are both of us devil, both sunk, both have lost,

              we search intensely: neither can

              bear to be cause; rid it,

              spray it out of our tails backward

              over our shoulders.....

    Rather than 'developing' in style or subject matter, she experiments continually with technique in a relentless search for the elusive. Aware of the grey areas between knowing and perceiving, her lyrical utterance often breaks down to hover dissonantly short of resolution; she tantalises us with agonisingly approximate words and phrases; surprising references collide with the progress of a poem, threatening to disintegrate it; sometimes we're not sure where pieces really begin or end. Such 'impressionism' often coupled with the raw and repellent, is  a means to an end defined retrospectively in Seeing Everything, a struggle with conflicting images, and reminiscent of Yeats' Among School Children. A butterfly's casualness, a resigned Indian woman and Rembrant's 'baggy eyes' and 'kind face' among the finished artefacts of a Gallery and Sculpture Garden, oblige her to dismiss nothing but be open to the wholeness of experience.

    Critics who grumble that too much poetry contemplates its own viscera should evaluate Kazantzis' energetic responses to events lost to selective media coverage. In the fine poem on Plath's grave, she says:

              She governs me

              with her still furious flowering.


But the fury and the flowering are not always synthesised in her 'committed' poems; suggestion gives way to statement, or worse to vatic harangue. Less persuasive than the later, more restrained lament for Nicaragua, the long 1988 Poem for Guatemala digests appalling abuses and pillories ambiguous American policy in rhetoric I'd sacrifice for the stark images of the struggling finca owner and the despairing monologue of the woman whose baby has been 'clinically' removed.  For Example Owen is a lament over the senseless waste of young lives in war. The blunt narrative of Owen's death carries a gruesome message but when later figures are introduced there's overt comment, repeated imagery, even high-flown outrage of Blakean proportions in:

              You golden fleecy flock, why run

              before the brokers, the farmers of blood?

              They buy and sell in tender carcases

              on war's slab, and in between

              in peace__ they speculate on futures.

Protest poetry assumes a like-minded following; but the legislation of poets on public issues perhaps only takes root if it achieves the detached, choric intensity of, say, Marvell's Horatian Ode. The poem for Hiroshima Day, 1983, 'The ending we are projected', has something of this austere, muted quality:

               It demeans all who are old

               and break breath like stones

               to keep breath till breath breaks.

               Draw curtain or not,

               it means the blackening of the room.

But the grotesqueness of the allegorical TV Preview of the Budget repells us into forgetting what it represents. So, too, the image of the Kurdish child in Smart:

               red on her mouth

                              chin, neck

               as if she's been dipping into jam

               and her hand will be smacked for it.

Sometimes tacked-on politicising dilutes engaging imagery: the indignity of

Dolphins as strategic employees in Flipper at Key West, anti-development perorations that jar with the lyrical Florida Swamps or the colourful narrative of Louis Agassiz's Amazonian expedition, where future rapacity already menaces in the dissecting attitudes.

    The quieter satirical poems held together by related and contrasting images, attack more subtly the sham that debilitates public action. Look Up, Look Out personifies the perplexity of the Statue of Liberty. At the National Gallery regales us by playing on double standards as the keeper molests a young woman for breast-feeding her baby in front of the Madonna of the Cherry. In The Pope at Dublin Airport cant flavours public and pietistic images to suggest how little our institutions serve the real us.

    Poems about place tend to drown perspective with too much colour, like squeezing the eyes after a day's travel. Alien cultural objects, even familiar urban landscapes become feverish lists of impressions. Better descriptions derive from a persona's 'timbre' and bias: Vieux Carré that evokes New Orleans ennui, Slovakia's dark tensions and uncertainties, Railroad Station where details blend into and enhance the demoralising farewell.

  But when they are not flippant or obscurely fragmented, it's the mythical and fairy story recreations ( now almost a 'genre')that convey most universally how people are trapped in their own experience, sense ways out but cannot make the leap. Queen Clytaemnestra balances an account of Agamemnon's murder with a monologue that shows how the femme fatale of Greek tragedians felt about the absurd sacrifice of her daughter, and was forced into political responsibility when men were souled on dubious heroics. Eurydice develops the legend by suggesting that Orpheus is the dead one, raising questions about 'death' as a state of mind. In Ruminations of Red Riding Hood the imagery differentiates make-believe scenes and the actualities and meanings of the wolf's violence that

            filled granny's squeaky little bedroom

                                         and the glass animals

            fell flat on the bookcase and the Doulton ladies'

            heads and fluted petticoats rolled here, there

                                         and everywhere...

making ' the matchless excruciating teeth / the appetite unhindered' an inevitable part of human experience.

     A reminder of Kazantzis' power to reveal how little we grasp until it's too late, and the way she marries content and form in dramatic proportions.  



Judith Kazantzis  Swimming Through The Grand Hotel (Enitharmon)

(Publ. in Agenda vol.37 No.1 Summer 1999)        


Judith Kazantzis' Selected Poems (1995) is an insufficiently acclaimed testimony to the scope and individuality of more than two decades' work. This first collection since 1992 distils and reassesses in new modes many preoccupations: the power of plastic and graphic art, myth as insight into the human predicament, the elusiveness of time, the joys and snares of passion, devotion, and hedonism, and the unlikely redemption of the persecuted and dispossessed.

    Her 'poetic' expresses a conviction that experience and its perception elude rational boundaries. The persona often appears to be oracular, synthesising a multiplicity of voices and images into what Rilke termed the 'Innerlichkeit der Dinge', the quintessence of what or whom is scrutinised. Convincing in A Photograph seen when I was Twelve. It enacts the hounding of naked Jewish women hounded by soldiers; she is an observer cowering within the action that explodes her passive acceptance of 'history'. But several poems that attempt this kind of fusion lose focus in a mass of fragments, twists and turns and inappropriate lapses into colloquialism. So it is important to grasp the book's pattern to avoid this kind of distraction and appreciate its Janus-like perspective.

     After isolated uprootedness generated yet transmuted by holidaying in a N.American urbanised coastal landscape, we regress in time without putting the clock back, to cross-currents of formative scenes and personal encounters from childhood to maturity. The questioning purpose of this is indicated in the tactical contrast between two sequences: the idyllic monthly associations of A Sussex Calendar with Questions on Return where disparate areas of thought and emotion fused in the manner of Woolf's To The Lighthouse suggest the traumas and ecstasies of growing up. Developments indispensible yet inadequate for a view of the 'real' world as indicated in Bird Rapunzel that plays upon a benevolent version of the witch/princess motif by means of well-observed bird imagery to celebrate her daughter's pursuit of a legal career and their distinct kinds of creativity.

    Generous realism in her personal life is complemented by quasi-legendary and contemporary portraits of suffering and deprivation, themes woven into poems on the art of Jaqueline Morreau. The House in the Holy Land, though, presents a subtle interior anguish, timelessly yet pointedly imagised in the architecture and barbed bougainvillaea, ruminations of any mother who feels 'Prophecies gang up like wolves.' The socio-political implications of this series are echoed and reinforced in New Fountains, pretty and pointless gushings of water through which multilingual exclamations of the busy and prosperous spern the vagabond refugees of forgotten conflicts. Most summary, though, is The Named Land, a lyrical blend of threnody and adventism that burgeons from the rocks, waters and blood of the beleaguered land of Israel-Palestine. The range of technique and material compressed into this sequence surpasses previous, more expansive depictions of civic tragedy, like the Poem For Guatemala (1988). Via the tyranny of Herod we're pitched into a melting pot of ineradicable history. Voices and images become the polarities and concessions of either side, revealing how we live by opposition and how poetry 'substantiates' what the media and the conferences cannot 'fix' in our hearts: the muddle of hope and despair instanced in the tale the Bedouin woman incarcerated for humanity over a border incident.

    Such writing arises from freedom of movement and expression unavailable to the Albanian poetess, Natasha Lako of To the Island. She communicates in broken English from no fixed address while the 'free' poet oscillates uncomfortably between withdrawal into an intimate landscape and frustration over her plight. But to assert the importance of artistic integrity there follows a cyclical return to N. America. A fog-enveloped glimpse of Long Island beach-bronzed lotus eaters, shows angels that lounge 'in the ripples', fossilised reminders of the four angels of the book's first poem, Freight Song, where surreal embodiments of arc lamps in a dream of travelling pointed the way to unlikely transcendence. No fanciful path to heaven but a comprehensive vision achieved only by a closer identity with unbridled natural forces and uncompromising terrains, the literal and metaphorical settings woven into the sequence Uncle Goes West. He does so only in disapproval at her failure to be a parochial poet; but these new horizons enable her to review and renew her emotional and artistic pilgrimage; and the penultimate dreamlike Lovers' War set in afforested wilderness suggests a parallel need to found relationships on personal integrity whatever the odds.



A letter to the editor of ORBIS magazine (now sadly defunct for some years) concerning an unconstructive review of Judith Kazantzis’s Swimming Through the Grand Hotel


Dear Mike Shields,


         Before reading the book but on grounds of critical integrity, my respect for the reviewer and the quality of his comments on other poets, I was surprised and disappointed by W. Oxley's treatment of Judith Kazantzis' Swimming Through The Grand Hotel in ORBIS 108/9. (1999)

         After worthless generalisations about the poet's entire output dating back to 1977 (eccentric, precious, fey, whimsical...) the 'substance' of the review or  'notice' is a series of quotations that purport to verify each charge, but lack any sense of the context or overall purpose of the poems or indeed the book. I know there is little room for manoeuvre within your compressed format, but this is no excuse for substituting whim and superficiality for what the readers might like to know: what is the poet attempting to do and how far does he or she succeed ? Equally unhelpful is the mannered facetiousness: parenthetic backchat like '( Really ?)' after one excerpt and an out-of-context clip, 'dropped like a stone' used as a cheap dismissal. Are reviewers in danger of becoming like teachers who lose the art of hearing how they come across, or, more simply, of 'tone' ?

         While Oxley is too acute to miss  Kazantzis' often ungainly juxtaposition of the fanciful with the colloquial and her creative surrealism, he dismisses the latter with an obscure qualification and without the detail lavished on his prejudices. Worse, he alludes twice to her success as a politically committed poet but does not trouble to substantiate this from the collection. Which puzzles me even more now I have read the book's disturbing sequence on Israel and several poems that unearth with moving austerity issues like minority persecutions and refugee scandals that the media and therefore most of us choose to leave buried beneath our very noses. Less posturing might allow room for such positive features which the reader is entitled to be told about.

         The comparison may appear absurd but I was reminded uncomfortably of Leavis's lofty dismissal of Shelley in Revaluation (1936) where thinly-disguised preconceptions are exacerbated by pedantry, and the critic is, without compunction, so sure he's hit the fleshy gaps between the dragon's scales. There are in fact critical problems and rich rewards in common to Shelley and Kazantzis, who both risk 'enacting' a heartfelt distrust of merely rational apprehension. Both, too, like the butterfly of the adage will elude you visually and tonally if you attempt to break them on a wheel. Oxley's aim, though, seems to be to swot rather than dissect.

         Both you as editor and your team of reviewers will no doubt argue that the piece has served its function in stirring me up or that I am overreacting. Yes and no. Just as respectable questions like 'is History an art or a science ?' won't go away, nor should the less often asked but equally important ones like 'is a Review about the reviewer or the work under review ?'


         With all good wishes and thanks for the stimulus ORBIS provides:


MICHAEL TOLKIEN ( Rutland, U.K.)        



Judith Kazantzis