Michael Tolkien

Billak’s Bones  (The Rialto)

(Publ. in Ambit 192, Spring 2008)


Billak is a primordial yet timeless nature genie reminiscent of personified forces in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Living by sensation, and fusing the visual and aural, he begins and ends the book, epitomising how it stirs the melting pot of imaginative experience. Poles apart from her rebuked boffin in Your Science (whose hat covers his head and lets in nothing) Guthrie’s remarkable first collection of verse cuts across accepted and expected boundaries and dimensions, directing us towards a physical world of overlooked riches. A staccato, urgent address to a child (or childlike presence) in a tree asks for its senses to respond to a network of living entities.

The web we weave holds us in between

the earth and sky. Climb now there are plenty of spaces. ( Greener II)

This poem is more accessible than several immersed in the imponderable atmosphere of a locale or a moment’s vision. The language and images are kaleidoscopic but the narrative thread can spiral out of control. So also with dream recollections that cut through time, space, substance and texture. It sometimes feels as if words are being used like paint or notes, and the page struggles with what might work on canvas or through instruments.  One admittedly out-of-context excerpt from what may be a ‘water-plus-sound’ poem, Singing Bowl, is illustrative:

‘…The core tugs until I point sharp end down/The soft bowl filters the breath of me/I push gasps from it/hums circle like bees_/human creature sounds, which drown quickly/in the green brine as/ah its lung inflates deflates with a sigh…’

Where there’s more focused subject matter in a tighter form Guthrie’s sharp phrasing and off-beat metaphors seem to admit more layers of resonance. There are compelling glimpses into subjects as far apart as the discovery of a centuries old child’s shoe up a chimney, the Nine Maidens ancient stones, an aerial attack on Basra, a startling nocturnal view of Bristol. Superficially less colourful but striking for understated empathy, range of emotion and apt handling of form, pace and diction are Days In, a sonnet length reflection on the interiorised rambling and unsteadiness of an elderly man requiring care, and For My Sister’s Eighteenth. This cleverly suggests what she had dreamed of saying, as if the close tie were too much to handle:

I wrote of your eyebrows, how their delicate

chocolate line has not changed since I first

encountered you, at twenty minutes old.

And of that fine green that flickers your eyelid:

how that vein tells the tale of you.   

Cover blurb praises Guthrie’s abandonment of the mundane in favour of mystery and metaphysics. How about the way she expresses her exceptional humanity?




Joanna Guthrie