Michael Tolkien

Gloria: Selected Poems  (Bloodaxe)

(Publ in Ambit 194, Autumn 2008)


329 pages is a substantial profile of this chameleon-like, prolific poet. Perhaps a kind of cut-down ‘collected’ was felt to be necessary, since few of these poems are, in the conventional sense, ‘focused’. A large, generous splash of this peculiarly zany colour is perhaps needed to highlight its unique appeal. You certainly need to become immersed in an uncompromising manner and parlance, to let go of any expectations of time, place and coordinated references.

The internationally prize-winning Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness (1989), featured here as a complete sequence, seems central to Hill’s achievement. In graphic first-person terms, the rambling, fragmented, bizarre and yet strangely perceptive accounts of a mentally-disturbed persona waltz through accumulating frenzy to becalmed after-shock. Its underlying premise is implicit in the poetry of subsequent collections: find your own way, your own bearings. Allow the imagination to roam for clues. There are only insights, no conclusions. The later hospital sequence, Lou-Lou (2004), though often full of austere pathos, lacks the disturbing vitality of the earlier verse. And this defect mars selections from more recent collections. Poems are less colourful, often rely on laconic statements. Portrait of My Lover as a Horse (2002), 32 pages of portraits of ‘my lover’ as everything from Angel to Zebra, may be a spoof that escapes me, but the amusing or touching parts feel lost in the welter of a list sequence, where the titles can be more entertaining than the contents.

In the pre-2000 work I enjoyed the fertile culling of myths and legends from diverse cultures, anecdotal narratives deflating the pretensions of half-realised, multi-faced figures. Small movements and gestures are written large so that human behaviour appears like a grotesque, dramatic procession of antics. Often there’s a thin line between childish make-believe and contempt for delusion and frailty. Plants, animals, birds, insects masquerade as human or vice-versa, or there’s a surreal middle ground. These characteristics perhaps reach their peak in Violet (1997). Its principal sequences, My Sister’s Sister and My Husband’s Wife, are haunting, funny poems in a shifting mix of moods and tones with a feast of colours and images about two intimate relationships and their fallout for the narrator and peripheral characters.

Arguably writers should arrive or hint at truths that lurk within our muddled existence, not add to its confusion. I admire a demolition expert with the tenacity and skill to exploit and dissect our capacity for illusion.







Selima Hill