Michael Tolkien

Exposures (2003)


....I came to a stop at 'Skull Gap':

Till today I've picked it up to take
home, but wondering why, set it back
under the hedge, and kept the name.
It's where a ewe had poked through square
mesh after thorn shoots, pulled back,
and stuck fast on her winter ruff.

Muzzle's green and flaked, nape's
millstone, brain box and eye holes good
as new. On a garage shelf it'll do
for Mortality, though not too much.
Or just for those teeth, still perfect
for clipping close. Like the sheep
I carry them past, who have the nerve
to go on shaving March to its roots.

Tolkien's somewhat Jacobean evocation is appealing in its pared-down style and its starkness...also
'Patchwork' is a butterfly poem that unpretentiously gives allusive depth, marrying 'embroidered blaze...inner fire' and 'a shawl' connectedly, beautifully. 'Steps' by contrast, propels the reader headlong onto London's Picadilly line and gives Tolkien the chance to demonstrate how the overwhelming experience of the City with its riot of sense impressions can be caught in seven selective quatrains. Elsewhere in 'Techniques' the poet also makes very good use of subtle and cross-cultural rhymes: 'Blaenau' and 'fly' or alliterative and assonantal effects that used properly, can bring British poetry alive as at the start of this same poem:

Caravanning at Ael-y-Bryn, the brow
of the hill, I rock to the wind

'Bedtime Story' and 'Remote Baroque' are other examples of Tolkien's tightly crafted and word-sparkling style...

(Chris J.P. Smith: Acumen 49 (May 2004))

...Though the words may be everyday even commonplace, this is dense, grown-up, meaty poetry that expects the reader to think as well as feel, to be prepared to read and re-read. The first section, Out of Eden, deals in relationships, mostly not very happy ones; the small subtle currencies of love, the accidental nature of it all, the

need to please, reluctance to
offend, dread of being called to
account when you can't afford it. (
Tightrope Triptych)

The lover is no heroic figure, though behind the 'leathery forehead and strands/of grey stuck round a knitted hat' he 'longs to please and be pleased.' (Out of Eden); nor, though strangers see his wisdom, is he sure of anything but mockery at home, where he's their 'in-house crackpot, airing outmoded views.' (Home Synagogue) But none of this is maudlin, just exact: it's the combination of love and failure and hope and absurdity that makes these poems work so well. She 'has more than enough to do'; they've both reached the age when 'nights begin to remind us of our joints'. But that's not all they are about.
....Half Light, the second section, takes us into a different world, where things are seen by a gentler illumination. Not that this conceals what's there: Rites of Passage is a pretty merciless glance at (among other things) tourist behaviour on holiday:

Droves of them fly out to discover less and less
about more and more. Scheduled to keep moving,

they'll never be able to hold up their heads
if they miss what others flock so far to see.

Life after Sid
depicts a genuinely no-nonsense successful relationship between a farming couple. He 'kept a roof over their heads and a wife/to see to the rest...' And they did throw a set of dinner-service plates at each other, and she'd had '....thoughts about/his heart and what the place might fetch...' But she's furiously sad when he dies.

He died in the fields fixing his pre-war
Ferguson. And when the vicar called
to do his bit she asked him: 'Why
no resurrection for a man who'd gone
unprepared, on Easter morning too ? '
Not that she hadn't had thoughts about
his heart, or what the place might fetch.

The inspector at the enquiry soft-soaped
her with Anything he could do. 'Hurl
a brick at the East Window just where
Magdalen's so damned sure the gardener's
Christ,' she said. 'Or turn a blind eye
if I do.' Well, he knew how she felt
but he really wouldn't recommend it.

There's plenty of comedy in Tolkien: that it's wry, quiet, very low-key makes it the more successful. The letter poem
Dear Muriel is both terrible and funny:

It's as if I've been trying not to scream,
and it's still dark. The kind of dream
you think you're making up but don't want to.

Love here has decayed into a parody of itself:

On dry days our things hang out together;
I'm pecked goodbye; and though it seems a bother,
he likes me on Sundays before breakfast and golf.

Tolkien's is very disciplined, spare writing. Imagery is exact; there'snot a word or a line that has not earned its keep. All the suppressed violence of the London Underground ( in all senses ) in Steps - the smell, taste, sound and sights of it - eddies round the escalators and stairs. There's a short, tightly-rhymed poem for Edward Thomas's birthday, about spring (March the Third), the syntax, shape, and the laconic movement echoing ET effortlessly.

Mirrors, the third section, inevitably includes strange perspectives or distortions- the mysterious, the vanishing, dramatic roles, the doppelganger etc. It also includes ventures into the territory of dream...(and) there are winners here: the multiple layers within the twenty lines of
One Act Play; the sharply differing stresses in Holding Tight where a taxi driver who is imagined 'hurling' a wife and child along the motorway is after all just:

One brain signalling to eyes, ears,
limbs that trust a contrivance other
brains fine-tune to eat up time and space...

Light, the final section, includes some sombre material, including ‘Leaving Limbo’, a delicate, tentative view of death. There are dream poems...tacked uncompromisingly to reality, in the case of ‘Sai Baba's flying Visit’ by detail and humour, and in ‘Dream Surgery’ by the merciless accuracy of the presentation of the patients:

Here patients are patient, grey
faceless smiles waiting to listen to
a great weariness. Not that words
have currency. It's more like chords
vibrating low pitch to the flicker
of an eye whose shadows are too pronounced.

Memorable, assured, elegant, searching: Exposures is all this and more...

(R.V. Bailey: Envoi 138 (2004) )