Michael Tolkien


No Time For Roses (2009)


The poet who reviews perhaps approaches this volume by thinking of the author’s skill and technical ability, but a non-poet like myself often thinks first: What does the author write about, what are his concerns?...As was the case when I came across ‘John’s Exclusives’, a section, as I see it, central to the book: three poems each prefaced with a text from the Gospel of St John. This Christian theme seems to run throughout the book (as in a poem observing with envy and admiration an artist at work)

…Tomorrow I’ll fix a word

for shaping out of dross, a god word

for making stillness come alive.


And then from ‘Easter Vigil’:


…More than ever

side by side we kiss in peace

as Light scours a way ahead.


Note the capital ‘L’ on light, a special sort of light and for an old humanist like me it is difficult to find meaning in such a way ahead. It’s like reading George Herbert (with Auden’s hugely laudatory preface), recognising these are ‘great’ poems but finding it hard to feel the emotions others have for them.

  There is much else in Tolkien’s poetry for me to admire more easily. In ‘Proportions’ he looks at other histories:sculptures of the Ancien Regime: and he has difficulty finding interest and sympathy for them: they merge into ‘…an echo/ from far down some/ long-forgotten corridor.’ He also has a broad range of subjects from ‘Yardley Road Public Library, 1950’,his first experience of reading, ‘Butcher’s Ghazal’ (a monologue from a butcher who patronises and cheats), ‘Grounded’ (an ambiguous romance in an airliner), ‘Spree’ (a comic episode set in a local gent’s outfitters). He has an adroit eye/ and ear for descriptions of place. The collection’s title poem illustrates his range when he recalls a visit to Castle Howard:

Round the Palladian gable triumphal

chariots, banners, plumed helmets moulder

behind moss and scaffold taped red for danger


Much for me to ponder, enjoy and remember from the collection.


(Adapted from a review by Martin Bax in Ambit 199: winter 2010)

HELENA NELSON   A reading of: No Time for Roses

Poetry Salzburg Review No.17 (Spring 2010)

Michael Tolkien was a late starter. Born in 1943, he first made it into the public (poetry) eye when he was runner-up in the Redbeck Press competition in 1996. A booklet resulted from this in 1998, followed by another slender publication from Shoestring in 1999. Then there were full Redbeck collections,
Outstripping Gravity (2000), Exposures (2003) and Taking Cover (2005). Finally, No Time for Roses (2009) from Poetry Salzburg, marks just over a decade of service to poetry-in-print.

Of course, there was a long preparation before that. Tolkien is an educated writer, a lover of literature, a former teacher. His work springs from the centre of the (latterly somewhat troubled) tradition of English verse, and though he has chosen to share his work in public relatively late in life, he has been writing all along. He is a reviewer, a thinker, a lover of the lyric line. And thus it is that certain words are applied to his way of writing: modest, assured, careful, precise, laconic, wry-finished. Such adjectives adhere as naturally as iron filings to a magnet.
This is a man who likes structure. Each of his full collections subdivides the poems into sections, and inside the sections there are often sequences.
No Time for Roses invites its readers in with the opening (and longest) set, 'Inheritance'. Here there are vivid vignettes of personalities from the poet's past-Mrs Ricks, for example, in 'Wayside Stores', who "kept us alive on bargains":


The door clanger
drags her smile and swollen ankles
to the counter.


Then there's Grandma in 'Inheritance' (title poem for this section), whose piano playing accomplishes a kind of metamorphosis, "turning staves loaded with heavy black / to rampaging Beethoven who rattled / the metronome and all her fine-bone china". The contrast between the "petite and elegant" pianist and the "rampaging" is a delight, while well-placed detail (just a passing mention of that metronome) evokes a world of piano practice, a world that's in 'Music Lesson' too, with the scary Mrs Birkbeck driving the fear:

As for my piano hour, one creak of her corset
turns keys to pitfalls, baits every bar with poison.
Now she stops my breath, turns my legs to jelly,
makes Bach pitch simplicity beyond reach
while slimy Parnell steals my playground girl.

Oh for those creaking corsets-at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them! But the stanza I have quoted (the final lines of the poem) also serves to illustrate another facet of Tolkien's writing, his tendency to conclude with a peculiarly lyric phrase or cadence. Here we have the laconic tone, the wry self-mockery, but also the grace of the nearly iambic line, the aural intensity of the numerous 'l' sounds, the assonance between 'Parnell' and 'girl', the alliteration of 'p'. This, too, is Tolkien's inheritance: the full armoury of English verse. All that's lacking is rhyme.
Rhyme, however, does keep bubbling up, inside the lines and at line endings, even when he's working in irregular verse. It's like an underground spring trying to get through. In
'Grounded', a flirtacious little skirmish, three of the short lines in the opening stanza end with perfect rhymes- 'loo', 'to' and 'queue', while the concluding couplet matches 'eyes' with 'fly'. And although Tolkien is mainly writing outside traditional forms, there's a sense that they're not that far away. The verse is sometimes shaped, visually, on the page and the lines tend to have regular lengths, with a stress pattern underpinning the breaks (though it doesn't have the drive of 'sprung' rhythm). 'Blank Pages, Open Minds', for example (which addresses Shelley and is topped by a quotation from 'Ode to the West Wind'), uses an indented pattern (à la Shelley)-short line, long line, short line, long line. But no rhyme this time, not even for the arch-rhymer himself.
I like it when Tolkien goes for full form, rhyme and all, though it's rare.
'Butcher's Ghazal' in the opening section is a lovely example of the poet at his most playful. It's a vignette of butcher Bob, a 'chancer' of the first order. The ghazal couplets necessarily repeat one word in the second line of every stanza. In this case, it's 'meat'. But Tolkien reinforces that, not only with perfect rhyme in one couplet (feet/meat) but ubiquitous assonance and half-rhyme:

'New season lamb chops, please.' Here we are,
Patsy.' (Bone and grease with a sliver of meat!)

I've been at this game for twenty years and more.
Doubt if anyone's better at cheating with meat.

He goes formal again (how could he not) with three poems grouped under the title 'Under Thomas Hardy's Skin'. The last of these is particularly good. It focuses on Hardy's last wishes, and the irony of what actually happened to his body after his death (it was not what he wanted). The poem is constructed in the spirit of Hardy, a lovely testament of shape, sound and tone:

Let them not burn this heap of flesh and bone,
Urn-incarcerate its cinders under flag stone,
Roof them away from rain, wind and shine.
I won't be made a monument like some fine
    Contrite knight
    Paying for heaven's light
In a cavernous vault of his own design.

In experimental spirit, Tolkien adopts other personae too: he is the golden mask of a long dead Mycenaean King; a starfish sculpture; even the woman taken in adultery from St John's Gospel. He likes the first person. Sometimes it is even himself.
Occasionally, though, he goes for the more evasive unnamed 'he'. Is it personal? Isn't it? In '
Proportions', a startlingly dark piece, it's hard to believe that the "tourist", leaning against "a bronze equine leg" doesn't represent at least one aspect of his maker:

All that vision and design:
backdrop for one who fears
a need to love, whose mouth's allowed
to play its own tricks,
who slams the lid tight
on what screams to be heard until
it dwindles to an echo
from far down some
long-forgotten corridor.

This intense fear is startling, a reminder that overt emotion is rare in Tolkien's work. Sometimes that's all to the good, of course. That which is omitted can be powerful, and this poet is often preoccupied with just that-what is not said.
The title poem,
'No Time for Roses', for example, has the poet and his daughter visiting Castle Howard in July. It's a sweltering day: "We sweat / in a blazing queue of leisure wear". Poet and daughter opt for "Grounds Only". Tolkien can't resist mentioning what they choose not to see: "pilfered / art, red rooms of state, glass-locked porcelain", but as he goes looking for fabled rose gardens (in vain), other absences impinge. Words engraved on an urn remind him not only of "the Roses of Paestum" but also of the long-dead poets Virgil and Ovid who celebrated those blooms. Then there's a stone commemorating "a lost son of the house". The poem culminates with a scenic view of the south front of the castle-and again the poet draws our attention to what is not there: "Its fifty steps once fell to four-season / gardens, patterned like a Persian carpet." The lyric conclusion is elegiac:

Where are the gardens of roses
that burst their buds again?

It is apparently the current owners of the house who have 'no time for roses', not the poet or his daughter. Tolkien himself cherishes that which is noteworthy by its absence. As he says (of quite another matter) in 'Full Coverage':

No tracks mark our discoveries. As ever we arrive without a chart.

Nevertheless, although I admire Tolkien's enviable lyric impulse, I think he often resists it, to his cost. A tendency to break natural phrases to fit roughly regular lines can sound as mannered in its own way as the Georgian excesses of a century ago. (The net is too slack-no challenge to a real tennis player.)
'Unfolding', a landscape piece which has much to commend it, Tolkien breaks almost every line mid-phrase, interrupting the natural idiomatic cadence. Perhaps there's justification for it in this instance, where the broken lines are 'unfolding' the scene (I am not wholly convinced), but in some cases it seems to me a poeticism that mars excellent phrasing. Here is the end of section 6 of 'Package', for example:

Now is a row of bottles with gold-foiled
tops, opening the way to another night
that waits, dependable as cling-film.

That's a superb image-funny, effective, memorable. I love the phrase " a row of bottles with gold-foiled tops". There's neat eye-rhyme between "now" and "row", and lovely assonance in "gold", while "dependable as cling-film" is a masterly simile. But why the break between 'gold-foiled' and "tops"? What is it doing, other than making the line roughly similar in length to the one that follows?
In other poems, phrases break to make a point, but the point is too obvious by half. Here's a stanza from '
Belong', a poem that records a walk:

Faint paths merge. One bites hard to reach old railway gates. Two gnarled, uprooted hawthorns cling together, flowing pink and white over weathered rock. Its russet water spills into a stream that spreads a crackling ford, then tunnels under leaves of alder.

To my mind, two separate instincts are at work here. There's a formal yearning, which goes some way to explain why "bites" is at the end of a line, matching "gates". Similarly "over", "water" and "alder" have echoing sounds and accent (but it's not a rhyming poem). So the break after "over" mirrors the water running over the rock; and breaking after "water" mirrors the idea of spilling over. Okay. It's a convention of modern verse to do this: poets do it all the time. But Tolkien is too good for that kind of thing, and the poem wants to get away-it's bursting to get into something more interesting. Look what happens at the end-I'm going to quote the final three stanzas to illustrate how a formal sound pattern establishes itself six lines from the end. The phrase "winds honed" signals the start of it:

Eastwards, open fields sink to sedge,
narrow to a copse that blunts
winds honed on bare hills beyond.

Surely a hollow to settle or defend,
a place to begin or end,
and yet we find no ruins, feel no ghost.

Perhaps like cattle we're more at rest
where nothing's been planned or lost.


It's not just rhyme at work in the shaping here; it's the rhythm and cadence of the lines, a musical lyricism conspicuously absent in the opening of the poem.
Bearing in mind how good his endings are, it occurs to me that sometimes Tolkien finds it difficult to get into a poem. This is certainly true, in my view, of
'Elegy at Pantasaph', dedicated to the poet's parents and recording a visit to a graveyard. The opening is prose, not prosody: "I pass yew groves and blackened angels / presiding over Victorian tombs". Any poem that opens "I pass" would alienate me, and the plodding prose rhythm would finish me off. And yet the last four stanzas of this poem are excellent. Suddenly the verbs drop their subjects; the over-used contemporary 'I' disappears:

Leave were it not for a brisk
close-cropped little figure
swathed in fawn. Darts at a headless
grave, crosses herself, mouths
a prayer, and scuttles off like a leaf.

That is delicate, unforced and distinctive. There's a poet for you! The end of this selfsame poem-an added point of interest-starts to rhyme in two lines of the penultimate verse, before committing itself to a fully-fashioned, (Larkin eat your heart out) para-rhyme scheme in the final five-line stanza:

Soon I follow her along the lime grove
past the closed priory.
Every go-slow hump is someone's grave,
and voices from the rookery
tell me what it's like to survive.

Note the bleakness, the wealth of what is not said here.
At his best then, Tolkien blends the complex tradition of English verse forms into something wholly his own. He does this in
'Heat of the Moment', almost a modern 'remake' of Harold Monro's 'Tea for the Cat'. An even more interesting example is to be found in 'From a Bench at Interlaken'. This curious and beautiful piece captures the unusual (but poignantly real) experience of mistaking one woman for another. At first, the poet loops the unrhymed lines through a complex syntax, the line-breaks successfully underpinning the way recognition falters:

and suddenly
you that can't be you with your easy
unhurried walk, head leant forward,
hair spreading in the breeze, each leg's
backward thrust too lovely to be flung
away, cool in loosely undulating
stripes and flowers, your carrier hot
from streets ablaze with summer fashion.

The poet is enchanted by the resemblance, knows it will dissolve to create an absence even more moving:

This you who should be you holds me.
Shimmering vaguely through a gauze
of pathside shrubs, lost behind a boat house,
splashed by shadows. If only to turn across
the last bridge and being near become less
than you and all the more to look forward to.

Now there is a wholly Tolkien thought-the focus on absence as a precursor to presence. And there is emotion here too, plain as punch. But look what's happening in the verse form. The line lengths look roughly similar (in fact they're more or less four-foot lines, though they aren't metrical). My first quotation (from "and suddenly" to "summer fashion") illustrates the free-form uncertainty: is it/ isn't it she? Then the last five lines (from "Shimmering" to "forward to") start to attract end-rhyme or half-rhyme at least, as though the sound is accentuating the anticipation: "gauze", "house", "across", "less". At "less", the word that signals the reality-the woman is not her-the rhymes stop, and yet there is a neat internal chime in the final line, connecting "you" with "look forward to". It works beautifully.
Michael Tolkien has joined the hall of English Poetry: he is a worthy knight and his finest poems proclaim that. His coat of arms should be hung on the wall, a place set for him at the banquet. He has the gift, and craft to go with it. I see his resistance to musical phrasing as a direct result of contemporary moeurs in English poetry: it's an influence that's hard to resist and has much to answer for. His best poems break free of that. They do something both original and informed by the tradition he loves: they are visually and aurally satisfying.
Surely Tolkien's next volume should be a Selected. This would allow the finest of his work (and there are unmissable poems in each of his collections) to be showcased. But for the moment, here is
No Time for Roses, a book that uniquely celebrates absences, a book for which good readers-hundreds of them-should make time.


 © Helena Nelson