Michael Tolkien

Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw  Carcanet (Oxford Poets)   

(Publ in Ambit 196, Spring 2009)


  This diverse collection from one of Australia’s outstanding poets brims with inventiveness of form, phrasing and image. Its title recalls Hamlet’s warning to treacherous friends that he is not duped by appearances. Significantly, many poems shimmer with apparently off-the-wall detail: superficially amusing but once sifted they have the effect of making us fathom, celebrate, even generously deplore the human condition. Wallace-Crabbe opens perspectives on history, the arts, dissipations of focus in contemporary life, eternal questions of motives and emotions. He also celebrates the texture, exuberance and influence in our lives of the natural world. He’s never pedantic or ‘knowing’: the unique energy of each poem fuelled by minute particulars carries its own conviction.   

  ‘Reading Smoke with Orpheus (after Poussin)’ typifies his combining reference and implication with a light touch. Poussin’s Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice is looked at to suggest how the refinements and stasis of art satisfy our need for order though we pay for its fragility and detachment.

Orpheus lolled in his deckchair, strumming the lute.

His wife screamed, but music does not hear

    the sound of lesser sounds

    and so the venom struck,

    the bud was plucked

before her flower so much as came to flower.

Distant towers are on fire but the landscape remains orderly and tranquil. Thinking of Orpheus’ terrible fate the poem concludes:

art for a while, after all,

keeps fingernails of maenads well away

and a head on your shoulders.


How still the waters,

unshaken those neoclassical trees.

Later on these contradictions are echoed in ‘Oh Yes, Then’, a disarmingly matter-of-fact yet elegaic speculation about his family’s lot when he is ‘rotting patiently’. Tender tribute to his partner is poignantly tempered by the impotence of art:

where will you be, the flamingly

joyous hearth of my heart?

I can’t get the answer, no matter how

I tune up the shawms of art.

  Discursive poems about formative experiences are entertaining, but the book’s electricity derives from its reined-in, sharper pieces with their range of focus. ‘The Alignments’ links lyrical, jocular, quasi-philosophical reflections on the line, revaluing its function in our perception. ‘Mozart on the Road’ captures the ghastly circumstances in which sheer genius expressed itself. In ‘A Summons in the Peak Period’ a phone rings insistently in a cemetery and there’s no response, setting the scene for ‘reluctant’ humour and understated pathos to play upon the almost unlikely finality of death. One of Wallace-Crabbe’s many disconcerting glances at mutability.




Chris Wallace-Crabbe