Michael Tolkien

Arson    ( HappenStance  2012)

   Publ. in Ambit 209, summer 2012


  A well-presented 22 poem booklet, with an impressive range of subject matter and emotive stances. Butler explores unbridgeable voids that divide us both internally and from others, and exposes imagination as a two-edged weapon apt to complicate and play tricks.

   Most poems draw me back and seem to grow in stature, some feel engineered and don’t combine surprise with a sense of inevitable unfolding, at which Butler is usually adept. They’re like exercises asking for elaborations on an unlikely likeness or occasion. Though there’s verbal wit as in the ‘naked’ exposure of lecturing in ‘Resignation(i)’ where:


…the men-of-letters with their jewel-laden wives

are so stunned at your wit and originality

you inhale their envy.


Disturbing moments, too. In a self-constructed igloo of isolation (‘Resignation(ii)’) singing to stay awake builds up obstructive crystals across the deliberately narrow entrance, impressing the need, after all, for sociable contact.

  While coming over as a voluble conversationalist you’d like to meet and listen to, Butler wastes few words, lets you breathe and take stock of contradictory responses. And I like the way she undermines a seemingly impassioned or unassailable standpoint. ‘Baby’ amuses as an irritated encounter with a preoccupied mother, but what is the narrator hiding?


She says she wants two more before she runs out of time.

I look at my watch but the hint is lost.


Now the children get fractious. I help her with her coat,

slip a note in her pocket: Dear friend


never call gain. It’s like showing a starving woman thick soup

and expecting her not to get dangerous.

   In ‘Emergency’, tightly laconic like its repressed frustration, she longs to adopt an obese, autistic boy. Demonstrating his objection her partner is more childishly disruptive than any child could be. ‘Hunger’ is another divisive scenario where Butler gives small items a barbed rôle.  A partner collects his property, and as he loads the car in wind and sleet


Two shirts escape, ghosts

in a fight. One flies down the lane.

One waves.


  Butler’s understated dramatisation of the courage and privations of her Russian forbears is memorable.  ‘Germination’ shows how those who are locked away need to grow something. Doing so cost her grandfather three extra years in the Gulag. When he dies digging turnips, the poet comforts her distraught grandmother beside a half-frozen leaking tap. Movingly the need for creative growth persists:


                                       For days

she won’t speak, just carves the ice

into a frieze of sunflowers and life-size trees.



Sue Butler