Michael Tolkien

Taking Cover (2005)


…Tolkien’s poetry is fluent, crafted, easy on the eye…His range is wide: several love poems, poems about dear ones present and past, many poems in the first part about growing up, a few travel poems, and poems about places- anchored in a believable reality presented in detail which is allowed to speak for itself. Here the speaker has taken his partner ( and her ubiquitous handbag, which features in several poems as an identity symbol) for medical examination and advice:

But it’s a verdict we expect: the full works

in hospital miles north, or jabs to see you through.

One look from you and I take the easy option,

though inside I’m screaming up corridors

past uniforms and charts into terminal darkness,

knowing there’s no way out of loving

another body as much as my own.                          (Salus)

The sane emotional restraint is evident elsewhere: standing beside mother’s grave in Remains evokes a dignified series of statements that create their own restrained response in the reader:

No Dies Irae, no robed procession.

The rigmarole’s matter-of-fact.

Dad braves a pared-down lesson.                                                  Purify her


She’s shouldered through a sea of graves.

We follow into a chill wind, heads bowed,

watching one another’s spattered shoes.

                     And she shall be whiter than snow

The priestly rigmarole makes a commentary on events and the watcher observes in his own way details which counterpoint it. The stance here, as elsewhere, has a detachment which is not indifference, but certainly and commendably without sentimentality. The speaker hears in passing the news of the death of a dear friend whom he did not visit in hospital:


Clichés steadied me till I saw

your amused, brown eyes that missed

nothing, and I kicked my way out

of a terminal ward I’d never visited…


Your Forget-me-nots had nothing to say:

I’d known for years, though losing a breast

seemed clean, hopeful; and there’s still

no strain at the corners of your smile.                        



I guess facing the music of life whether in its major or minor keys is what this volume amounts to: a small, hard-won conclusion; but maybe it’s enough to be getting on with…

(Eddie Wainwright: Envoi 144  (June 2006) )

Much of the poetry in this collection is strongly personal…he is always candid, direct, honest. The majority of poems consists of description of experience, and at its best this is expressed in language that is both imaginative and evocative. Sentences like ‘marzipan fungi furred rotting trunks’, ‘thirst for the unquenchable draws you/to this sliver of light’ and ‘April tasted of exhaust’ helps us to look at the world afresh and make what is described come alive. However, these moments of striking originality of language are…fairly rare…meticulously observed anecdotes retold with great precision and truth are somehow more like miniature short stories than poems. Their emotional weight, which is often considerable, tends to come more from content than form.

…When Tolkien moves away from the personal I feel his poetry really takes flight. Some poems imaginatively recreate scenes from the Gospels, or engage in theological speculation in a manner reminiscent of the late R.S.Thomas. The opening of Redemption, for example: ‘this tree you are cowering behind,/wrapped in the deceiver’s guilt…/I’ll be nailed to it…’: combines immediacy of description with dense but unobtrusive abstract thought. And the collection ends with a series of nature poems which leave the reader almost breathless with a sense of the transcendent. Soundings which opens thus:

Sunday blazing through mist

is the peacock butterfly

on stone; wrens casual as leaves

falling; a glimpse through chestnuts

past swans preening, to hills

that peak and haze

into probabilities,

is a stunningly beautiful poem, and excited me with the possibilities of language.

      I came way from this collection feeling that Tolkien is a sensitive and exact observer of his own life and others’, but that he is at his best when he is at his boldest.


(Julian Bell: Ambit 182 (autumn 2005))



© Michael Tolkien