Michael Tolkien

The Secret Frontiers   (Enitharmon)

(Publ in Ambit 197, Summer 2009)


Cultural, geographical and political divisions include subtle, disturbing barriers between ways of perceiving people, objects and places. ‘Secret’ alienation because it’s denied or sensed inarticulately. Journeying through familiar, remote or hybrid landscapes these diverse, haunting poems explore divisions yet look for unity in diversity. They confront a shrinking world whose turmoil touches us all and a contemporary psyche overloaded with self-conscious analysis.

Uprooted peoples with their unique cultural features seem to live in their own land  though set against the mundane background of exile. Gahagan’s knowledge of dress and customs burgeons in colourful, moving imagery; but why the abstractions like ‘they bring their portable mysteries/to this full frontal place’? And reading further I wondered why a collection which persuades us that rational knowledge merely provides terms of reference, so often needs to digest cerebrally what is so richly enacted.

The onrush of broken or parenthetic syntax mirrors confused impressions and responses but sometimes leaves me gasping, and in the stark or kaleidoscopic verse depicting urban or natural landscapes with their protean buildings, icons and trees, the imagery can fragment poems by becoming too ingenious.  In ‘Condition of the Heart’ the emblematic trees are graphically stunted, then viewed as ‘fame-game’ infant ‘prodigies of alienation’ and imagined in winter as ‘…anorexic tots grey under strip lighting/ the only possible grief mimetic.’

The best poems develop complex and diverse reflections ‘organically’. In ‘Uneasy Listening’ Chopin’s ‘raindrop’ prelude fills a car travelling through a mountainous vista to evoke understated images of the composer’s Majorcan winter and its symbolic role in his creative life. The fine Wordsworthian amalgam of well-rooted narrative and visionary insight in ‘Meeting Up At Fingal’s Bridge’ fuses features of river, tricks of light in trees and a convivial reunion of siblings into an ‘easy timelessness’: you feel the frontiers dissolve.

 Gahagan often counterpoints perspectives with pathos and irony. In ‘My Thought Not His’ a painter grieves over turgid work ruined by ‘messing’. Has he responded to her wider views?

‘………..how a newborn’s

body cells are crystal-new as the water


In the water jar had been…..


……how the earth seen from the moon

is a dazzling blue-white marble but


from close-up scarred zones of metabolic waste

how barbed wire frontiers mar its heartlands?’


He returns to ‘boat, man, sun, kite/ the frontiers of sea, coast, sky, made fast.’ Sinewy writing that asks if art is craft or vision.




Judy Gahagan