Michael Tolkien

My Father’s Pot and Other Poems  (Koo Press Poetry)  

Publ. in Sphinx on-line pamphlet reviews 12. (2010)


  This is a first collection (presented by Koo Press in classy, durable format) but much of the writing is clearly well gestated. At once and subsequently the voice and phrasing feel assured. The poet is selective over what really counts in a complex experience and holds back from being too definitive.

  Three quarters of the poems concern the central figure of a deceased father, just after his death and during his working life, seen from a child’s perspective and also from the viewpoint (in mature hindsight) of her mother. Making personal reminiscence  more than subjective recollection is never easy; and taken as a whole these sixteen poems form a well-rounded portrait that looks at every strength, weakness and imponderable contradiction in this influential character. There’s a range of standpoints and plenty of formal experiment. I like the way that a child’s recalled puzzlement over, and to us, surprising acceptance of adult behaviour is left to take its course with no ‘knowing’ explanation.  I was particularly intrigued by ‘Jungle’ where she seems to recall seeing a white leopard attacking her cat, and the beast turns out to be her father:

When he saw me he slunk to his corner.

The cat ran away. I never saw it again.

But I saw the carpet’s tell-tale sign of red.

So I went into the world and tried to understand

the blood of stones and the way the moon hid

behind the house. Then suddenly reappeared again.

Typical of how Torr suggests, in symbolic terms, that the fearfully inexplicable can generate a step forward in development. Childhood for her was instructive, never recalled with bitterness.

   However, for me the most arresting poems have a straight, unflinching grasp of a memory, expressed in a spare style, and focused in content and imagery, as in ‘Jack in a Box’ where she looks at her father in his coffin:

I thought of the big paws delving into big pockets

to bring out tiny sweets wrapped up like diamonds.

Or shaping a wooden doll with hinges for limbs.
I see him now amid the glistening sawdust peaks;


a giant, wrestling his saw in the sunlight,

standing back now and then, for our small approval,

and the tail-proud cat wrapping itself around his legs;

A back-log of memory for a backyard scene.

Torr can make metaphor surprising and apt. At the funeral

….Mother wore a black hat

like a submarine coming to surface out of all that pain..

In city streets, fear of which, like touching her dead father, she must overcome

…people waltzed with roses in their eyes

on extinction’s edge…

  Sometimes, though, she accumulates too much figurative language which fragments our attention and the poem’s integrity.

  The book’s last quarter felt more abstracted and ‘engineered’, though I liked the mysterious piecing together of a lost cotton industry in ‘Not a Loch, not a Lake, but a Millpond’.




Harriet Torr