Michael Tolkien

Revenant    (Cape)

(Publ. in Ambit 145:1996)


  Landscapes are highrise and freeway, the cast multicultural; and there's a heady North American diet of swaggering linguistic eclecticism, images that oscillate (with intended chiaroscuro) from intellectual to fundamental, and a tonality that affects extremes of blasé aloofness or apocalyptic despair. Riskily opulent stuff like the feast his future father-in-law lays on in Lime Pickle: ' the dishes' were 'sprinkled with edible gold'. Their mouths watered at


             your father's extravagance


             (It broke him later)

             Shoaling in salvers on the table

             Under the tabla's gulp and throb,

             And the moan of a sitar...

Lasdun's repast sizzles with zany, dense or dancing rhetoric in verse forms that usually assist the momentum. It's not for those who go queasy or giddy unless their notions and prejudices are served back on decorous platters. But such unflagging vigour is intriguing, and much of it passes the 24 hour 'repeat' test, a renewed appetite to look and listen again, to salivate after what's easily missed in this often Dantesque world of violent shadows and surreal spectres, from the suffocating and exhilarating mutations of Woman Police Officer In Elevator, to the pot plants in Eden that become three primordial figures.  Yet all that glisters isn't quite gold. Satirical lyrics tend to flounder in abstractions and recondite verbiage typified in the opening of Song:


                    Spoooling like a depression,

                    Blinder with every block to the littered green,

                    The High Street stitiches a psychic

                    Winter out of your footsteps'

                    Proserpinal return.

    Terser poems are leaden caskets that hold enduring freight. Direct responses to things and people, with engaging asides and evasions, in Powder Compact, Curator, and General McClellan, substantiate what the title poem dramatises in a post-jetlag urge to make coherence out of disparate images: our habit of assuming permanent states or identities that constantly evade us. A significant link with The Metamorphoses; for brief Ovidian poems like Narcissus and Olive Tree have sensuous immediacy and manifold implications; and there's a compelling version of The Plague at Aegina episode from book VII. But when Lasdun recasts the myth of Erysichthon (punished with indiscriminate hunger for violating Ceres' sacred tree) into a long, green-theme tale about environmental excoriation, he overindulges in the mock-epic melodrama and dissonances that Ovid mastered for parodic and reductive purposes, and seldom achieves the true satirist's detached fascination for the excesses he lampoons.



James Lasdun