D A Prince observes that Michael Tolkien’s latest collection asks some quiet but important questions
Here and Now Michael Tolkien www.michaeltolkien.com Severn Press (34 Severn Avenue, Weston super Mare, BS23 4DQ) ISBN 978-0-9927935-4-8 76 pp. £8.95
Michael Tolkien’s sixth full-length collection is a reflection on how the present engages with the past, and how their connections continue to resonate within the poet’s memory and imagination. The tone, appropriately, is quiet. This is no place for the clatter of experimentation but for the slow accumulation of detail, a comfortable and readily accessible syntax, and the familiar language of everyday. It makes for a coherent collection in which the lack of surprise is compensated for by the recurring motifs. The apparently -simple Here and Now of the title appears in several poems, reminding the reader of the poet’s underlying concerns along with his deep enjoyment of location and its hold on memory.
These poems, drawn from a sustained writing life (his last significant collection, from Salzburg Press, appeared in 2009) are grouped in four separate sections even though the poems share the common theme. The opening section, ‘Small horizons’, take its name from a self-deprecating poem about that familiar collect or auto-return to source which requires a dog-eared card and i/d. It’s something we’re all reduced to, hunting out an unfamiliar drop-off address in the hope that the parcel will be waiting. Tolkien ends in a level of uncertainty – I’m dimly aware that staying put/ is not being still among cross-currents. This recognition recalls a similar probing of existence from ‘New Moon’, the second poem in the collection –
Unsheathed again, it prods me into asking what if anything’s changed course since I craned to see it a month ago.
But Tolkien’s Rutland home by the willow-lined olive Welland offers him a range of material: the birds, landscapes, trees, neighbours, weather, the background whispering from his favourite lyric poets, as well how to balance the past against the present. In ‘Light and Shade: A dialogue’ he lets Light ask Where is your here and now? while Shade clings to … where opposed/ poles and undercurrents plague/ every detail like flitting shadows.
The second section. ‘Another life’, draws together poems relating to religion and the spiritual life – the … vistas of before/ and beyond .. as Tolkien describes it in ‘Constructs of the Spirit’. In many ways I found this the least assured section, partly because a rooted continuity of belief was absent, and the resulting poems skirted the larger questions in favour of circumstantial detail. Even so, in ‘The Word’ he is aware of the shape of such questions –
At offbeat moments a presence beyond yet deep inside will prod: a sudden awareness of leaf tongues riddling, the layered pith of a lemon pip cracked open as you slice with no thought beyond juice.
– although whether this is spiritual or closer to the nudge a new poem can give, I’m not sure.
Poems gathered together in the third section, ‘Vantage Point’, have a lighter tone; they are observations about others (often on holidays abroad) or celebrations of family occasions. Here his eye for detail works well: we have a French couple making elegant work/ of tiny coffees … (‘Off-Duty Tableau’); Centuries of gilt-framed squires line/ the old stables, now a café and museum (‘Ancestral Hall’); He looks young for a father, shy of what/ a camera reveals, putting on a photo smile/ of grim pleasure…(‘Random Flashback’).
Finally, the section titled ‘Here and Now (Especially for Rosemary)’ brings the different themes together in a sequence of poems written for his wife. These are a personal shift between the ‘now’ and ‘then’, using the overlay of visual memory to reveal the enduring strength of their relationship. Tolkien recalls past holidays, and how one photograph can be taken in the same place as an earlier image, and how even coincidence can play its part –
our first picnic spot chosen without knowing mum and dad snapped this view and each other forty years before.
Inevitably these are poems about ageing but it is age that continues a range of activity. The aptly-titled ‘Unbroken Circle’, almost the final poem, brings the central theme back to the surface –
Strange that I should turn to you while we bask in midsummer morning sun, just when our tea and coffee drops below a third full, and ask: ‘So ... what now?’ Isn’t this all the ‘now’ we need?
The connection between these poems gives a quiet satisfaction, and the carefully-modulated voice supports the balance between question and resolution. Perhaps we should all ask ourselves how much ‘now’ we need.
Should you wish to buy this collection you will have to contact the poet at his web address given at the head of this review or else write to Severn Press which has no online presence at the time of writing.