1. It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:

    TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”

    [p.110-111, extracts from ‘Interview with Peter Orr’, 1963]

    As to Tonks’ poems, I can speak as someone who has read them for the first time only recently. Astley points out Tonks’ kinship with French Literature, of flâneuring and Baudelaire, who was one of her particular heroes. While I sense this nostalgie de la boue in her poems about cafes, mouldy bedsits, gutters, and starving artists, I was also struck by how a number of the poems reminded me more of the New Apocalyptic movement, which would have been coming to an end in the mid-1940s as Tonks was setting out as a precocious talent in London. Take, for example, the strongly bardic tones of ‘Poet as Gambler’:

    Now like a gambler on an errand
    Of my wasted youth, when gutter and heavens
    Were my lottery, and my estate
    A shirt of water-lotus that the night wind

    Loved to rock as I went to do my gambling
    Alone at dusk in that dark city
    To out-bid Eternity (…)

    In interview, Tonks cited the importance of influences on her work, saying that “the best thing about an influence is to realise it and to swallow it, and never to throw it away” (p.113). While I am struck by the at times dazzlingly individual nature of Tonks’ poetic aesthetic, I can also detect many intertexts in her work, which for me give it more power and connection/belonging. I can hear Larkin (who incidentally was a friend and supporter of Tonks) in her phrase “toad-winner” in ‘The Ice-Cream Boom Towns’ which in itself has the seaside decrepitude of Larkin’s ‘Sunny Prestatyn’. Tonks also writes about April as an “old greengrocer” which for me comes close to Eliot’s “cruellest month”. There are elements that mark Tonks’ work out as ahead of its time, such as the candour of certain bedroom scenes:

    Very well then, in the gloom
    We set about acquiring one another
    Urgently! But on a temporary basis
    Only as guests – just guests of one another’s senses.

    [‘Story of a Hotel Room’]

    Tonks paints London as both a cultural nodal point and the end-point of a decadent, Imperialist civilisation in a way that is striking and original, with poems full of dispossessed people wandering as nomads and Bedouin in their dressing gowns or with broken suitcases full of books. We see Tonks as one of the last bohemians, her contempt made clear for careerism and wage-slavery in the recurrent use of “cabbage” almost as a synonym/metonym for blandness. In a highly positive review of Tonks’ poems by Kathryn Gray in The Dark Horse 33 Gray nonetheless concedes that “Tonks’ predilection for the dramatic can irritate” (p.90) and poems such as ‘Song of the October Wind’ show this with lines such as “My sofa wrote her creaking, narcoleptic’s Iliad. / My bathroom drank the Styx”. It is at times hard to tell when Tonks is being ironic or mock heroic for effect. However, this can all be traced back to her urgent call for passion and higher emotions to be re-injected into a dry poetic climate, dominated at that time by ‘The Movement’.

    The poem ‘Orpheus in Soho’ perhaps best showcases Tonks’ ability to operate within historical frames of reference but make glowingly modern statements. The poem is all about the struggle of the search for something, and Tonks suggests that our most decadent and direful parts of cities are based on the Orpheus myth “and how well they know it”. The poem dramatizes Tonks’ twin desires for privacy and exhibition and show a poet always driving purposefully towards the centre of the action, and taking all the risks that entails:

    He plunges into Hades, for his search is desperate!
    And there is so little risk… down there,
    That is the benefit of searching frenziedly
    Among the dust-shops and blind-alleys
    …there is so little risk of finding her
    In Europe’s old blue Kasbah, and he knows it.

    Richie McCaffery
    Richie McCaffery’s first full collection, Cairn, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2014.

    tonks collected

    Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems by Rosemary Tonks is published by Bloodaxe, 2014, £12

    (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  2. There are four pamphlets in 2014’s Faber New Poets series: 9: Rachael Allen 10: Will Burns 11: Zaffar Kunial 12: Declan Ryan

    Sixteen pages is quite a slender space in which to make your mark, but Rachael Allen gives us, in effect, two separate sequences, as her pamphlet interleaves found language/trash-culture prose poems with a set of childhood memory/Cornish landscapes. All offer quite static images; no movement is attempted, and the relationship between the two sequences isn’t clear, as they bleed at times into each other, leaving a giddy, slightly seasick, sugar-rush feeling in the mind. But she has a rich vocabulary, and in the tightest of the poems (‘Kingdomland’ and ‘Old Fears Are Still Valid’ stand out) strong, compelling imagery.

  3. Here are the names of some of the flowers of Carrigskeewaun – sandwort, saxifrage, asphodel; and here are some of its songbirds – red bunting, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, a wren, “its tumultuous/ Aria in C or/ Whatever the key/ In which God exists”.

    In Longley country, the small forms of the world spread and grow from book to book. His poems are miniatures with big dimensions, nests of small ephemera with long shadows and persistent themes, though they can also be decorative, lovely to hear and to look at, and even if slight, riveted with perfectly placed detail. Longley’s art and craft is an exact science with tangible effects.

  4. Kei Miller’s wonderful new book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion combines uniformly strong writing with a mythic unifying theme, and even a few ventures into the realm of form. The collection comprises a spiritual/philosophical journey undertaken by a divided Self. This Self speaks in two voices, The Cartographer and The Rastaman, cleaved by contrasting cultural influences and perceptions of the point and purpose of the universe.

    The Rasta position, that the world is a work-in-perpetual-progress, a seemingly relaxed (in reality very intricate) art rattled off by Jah presents itself in the second poem, ‘The Shrug of Jah’. Its construction is calculatedly loose. The poem sprawls across the page so that the readers must take their time with it:

  5. Reading Amira Thoron’s For My Father is like trespassing someone’s dream. Through the retelling of childhood memories and family past, she brings the reader on a journey into her private world, a world with hidden fears and recurring questions. Her spare, lyrical language unites the poems, making each image evocative and symbolic, from the screech of a red-tail hawk circling the sky, to the touch of letters engraved on her father’s tombstone. The book opens with a powerful couplet:

    Water seeks its own level; there is a leak I cannot find.

  6. I’d only read one poem by Tom Duddy but its simple grace stayed with me. There was a mysteriousness and sweetness to it, a gut feeling that this was a real poem by a real poet (much as I felt when first reading John Glenday’s Grain). It was ‘The Touch’, and, like many of the poems in this posthumous collection, dealt with a rural Irish childhood memory of going running to fetch the doctor and being met on the doorstep by his wife “…whose briskly gentle hands/once fixed my collar as I stood in the rain”. I wanted to discover if Duddy’s other poems had that magic and having now read The Years I can say that they do.

    The circumstances of this collection – Tom Duddy’s unexpected illness, failed treatment and death aged 62 – would make reading some of the poems almost unbearable if not for the poet’s ability to marvel at the world, to encompass both anguish at approaching death and a heightened tenderness for life. The thought of autumn induces both: “A frisson runs me through, half-/grief, half thrill.” (Urban Calendar p.43) In circumstances such as these, poetry itself in thought and act assumes deeper significance, as the dust-jacket says: “Faced with mortality, the ‘exactitude’ of poetic writing provided discipline, illumination and hope”. In this “exactitude” lie layers of a quiet, dry humour, an acutely self-aware nostalgic inclination and a formidable intelligence. Duddy’s publisher Nell Nelson wrote in a HappenStance blog shortly after his death in 2012 that Duddy “writes as though…each moment contains the secret of life. We should all write like this – if only we could”.

  7. Before I opened this book, I liked the cover’s atmosphere — sedges against a hazy grey-blue background. Imagine fenland, mist and water. The title Lowland stands pale and eerie across the top, as ‘there’ and ‘not-there’ as a vapour trail. The 80 pages are full of fenny atmospheres and remind us how vast landscapes dwarf human desires and aspirations.

    Lowland, Kemp’s second collection, is a sequence on love and unfulfilment, set against the lonely opennesses of East Anglia and the polders of coastal Holland. The North Sea stands as a great, chill, opaque-blue mirror refracting sameness and difference across the regions. The two opening poems, ‘Holland’ (about the Netherlands) and ‘Holland Fen’ (a village in Lincolnshire), begin to explore the hazy distinctions. Though Kemp has (or deserves) a stake in both places, his connections prove unequal to the restrictive effects of borders. And though the physical places are distinctly different, they are similar at least in their sharing of the same skies, to which Kemp frequently refers. The colour blue is a recurrent motif too. Nothing is as solid as one might hope it to be.

  8. Believing that ‘creativity and play are symbiotic’, Lit from Below, Terence Winch’s sixth collection, grew from an invitation in the early 90’s from poet and visual artist Ray di Palma, often associated with the Language poetry movement, to contribute a chapbook to a series he was publishing. Winch responded by writing ten-line poems, ‘foreshortened sonnets’ he describes as ‘little word-houses’.

    An Irish-American poet, writer and musician, Winch grew up in the Bronx, New York, but moved to Washington DC to play music where he became involved in the ‘Mass Transit Readings’ and the poems in Lit from Below are plotted in time and place with cultural references.

  9. There are not many books of poetry that can be classified as genuinely original and large in scope; even among the disputed ground of ‘innovative writing’ there is little that is truly groundbreaking. Reading The Last Wolf of Scotland, however, I feel that I may have found just that sort of book. First of all, though, nothing is completely original. This sequence of poems, centring around the story of Robert MacGee’s scalping but ranging over both the American and Scottish landscape, and spanning both 19th century and contemporary time-zones, bears some comparison with Edwin Morgan’s early work and that of Barry MacSweeney in its scope. Basil Bunting and WS Graham are behind this work too. It mixes Scots words with English, with glossaries at the end of each poem that almost read as part of the work, and drags a lot of symbolism in its wake. The language itself, for all its deep Scottishness, has echoes of Scandanavian epic in its sound-world of consonance and alliteration; and its sound world is less tame than a lot of English poetry. Its image of the wolf as representative of the wilderness is not in itself so original, but reading these poems, even quietly to oneself, the music sends echoes of more ancient tunes through one’s head:                      This long night and the angels are dying.                   In droves from the west they have walked,                             carrying fractured plumes                      spitting scintillant blood from cut mouths                          stepping plant life into health                        abortive deer now heavy with fawn                         death-throes spring now burbling.                                             [‘Painting Imagined by John Duncan’] The centring of the poems throughout the book also has a curious effect on the reader, so that you almost read them as song not simply poems. Sometimes the English and the Scots version of the same poem are side by side. This gives the sense of two worlds colliding, sometimes merging, sometimes conflicting: like the ever-troubled relationship between Scotland and England. As an Englishman reviewing a very Scottish book, I can’t say I’m always familiar with the music of this book, or the subject matter; but I’ve never thought familiarity a necessary feature of poetry. This is one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in quite a while, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in expanding their word-hoard and sound-world into new places. Though I say ‘new’ with some trepidation because there is a feel for the ancient here that is evident throughout. A poem like ‘Body Field’, which refers to the forensic study of decomposition, takes in everything from Mary Queen of Scots to drunks fighting on the streets, and lots more in between, has a deep sense of how history affects the present. Again, I’m reminded of Bunting, whose ‘Briggflatts’ is full of echoes of the past. Hugh MacDiarmid is also there; but this is very much an original voice. No doubt Scottish readers will pick up further echoes. This book should be read as widely as possible, and it should probably win awards. It probably won’t but that says more about the arbiters of taste in British poetry than the wonderful poetry within this book. Steven Waling Steven Waling is the author of ‘Travelator’ (Salt) and ‘Captured Yes’ (Knives Forks & Spoons.) ‘Hello GCHQ’ is forthcoming from Department Press. He runs a blog called Brando’s Hat, some of the time.

    The Last Wolf of Scotland by MacGillivray is published by Pighog Press, £9.99 (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  10. Angela Cleland’s second collection shows up that ever-present, subtle gap between the way a book is marketed and the different pleasure it yields. The publisher’s blurb for Room of Thieves flags up the poetry’s quirkiness: ‘a six toed cat skeleton, a lesson in boxing technique and a poem in the shape of a phallus’. But the poems that draw most attention to themselves in this book are the poems least worthy of attention. ‘Jab’, the instructive opening of Cleland’s boxing sequence, is a piece where the scaffolding intrudes on the execution. As for the phallus poem, the less said about its concretism the better, but form does little for content. The strength of Cleland’s supple, deft writing lies in more understated poems, moments when she acknowledges the ambiguity of her enterprise: how – to follow the boxing metaphors that run through the collection – with every hit “your blow could absorb like melt water/ into the padding of your opponent’s gloves.” (from ‘Cross’).

    In ‘Brinacory’, a wistful excavation of a place that is ‘pure island’, Cleland describes the “glamorous/ shadow” of a crag. This is a book full of glamorous shadows, the poems dense with powerfully reimagined histories, conveyed with a subtle and precise wit. Cleland is a shrewd observer of threat, from the “panic-plated” train carriage of ‘Abduction’ to the disassembled and reassembled neighbourhood of ‘The Suburbs’ (“how could I never have realised / we owned so many ticking things?”). Cleland mines the imaginative possibilities of every subject, whether she’s describing routes to immortality or a glimpse of two young bucks.