Charles Tomlinson, Skywriting, Carcanet
“Miguel es un gran conversador” ends the poem “A Visit to Don Miguel” in Charles Tomlinson’s new collection. The Mexican of the poem’s title had been relating one or two tales that perhaps stretch the laws of the plausible. With these words, his friend Roberto has to quietly correct the news of five presidential bodyguards being shot dead, unreported in any newspaper and, a re-reading of the poem makes clear, palpably a fantasy. Perhaps such a re-reading involves the reader checking themself, as I did, to rid any trace of Latin American stereotype (the United States and Britain have each had assassination attempts on heads of states in the last thirty years, after all). Nevertheless, as if everything had now been said that needed to be said about the alleged murders, Miguel quickly moves on to a tale of a cigar-smoking ghost still inhabiting his house. The reader knows then, I think, that this is not about Mexico, but about exaggeration and hallucination and creative invention.
Miguel is a vigorous character and Roberto defends his friend with “almost pride” as he and the poet leave this interesting if exhausting babbler. The word “conversador”, to English ears and eyes at least, has an ambiguous hint of conquistador. Perhaps it even suggests conversation raised to a triumphant professionalism – I’m thinking here of the jabbing, strutting muscularity of the matador - with the added figure, perhaps, of Don Quixote flickering behind Miguel as a deluded anti-hero. “Perhaps discretion… is not his strong suit”, Tomlinson remarks to Roberto, but he has enjoyed the tales enough to record and dramatise them. Does Tomlinson in some way identify with the man who claims to have been “temporarily retired / for political indiscretions.”?
Yes, and no. Tomlinson’s Collected Poems bear witness to a lifelong fascination with travel, especially with Latin America - the poet is also a translator of César Vallejo - and part of the draw of other countries is in any case this foregrounding of people’s tales or, if the visitor is no linguist, the heightened sense of responding to personality and resonant image. There is certainly a resonant image in the new poem “Farewell to Europa”. Here the classical figure of the Europa astride Zeus-as-a-bull is transformed in the modern world into a motorcycle rider, rendered headless through an unsettling optical illusion. There is none of the relatively affectionate tone of a “Visit to Don Miguel” –
Speed has cancelled her out and she
is pleased to be no more
than this faceless rhyme in space
which cannot even see
the landscape of her future
rolling towards her
through the sodium glow
of dismantled towns.
It is a farewell to Europa because unlike the Greek myth, in which Europa is associated with the founding and naming of a continent (the beautiful daughter of a goddess tricked away from Asia by Zeus, to become the name for the new landmass), there is a sense that Europe (and its high classical values?) is at stake, and at stake because the modern world and its motorway alienations have implications which are as certainly unknown as they are certainly threatening.
Such a fear of change and even of modernity is common to all but the most unreconstructed futurist, but the reader has to ask themself if, in another light, Tomlinson’s pessimism is not rather similar to Miguel’s excitement at the prospect of a multiple murder close to the president. Grim if lyrical warnings of apocalypse and near-gleeful reportage of catastrophe are closely related psychologically and can come from all political directions; the reader may recognise the truth of such newsy anxieties but wish to pause before trusting them.
Because of this, Tomlinson to my mind does not work best in these outward-looking poems. Rather, in his much quieter pieces, where larger worries are not forced nor made pillion to an absorbing image, the poet becomes more complex, richer. For me, it’s the walking texts of Wordsworth and Edward Thomas with which Tomlinson is in good company, for example in “Track”, where the pathway made by fox or badger is a source of marvel. These animals come from “a world not shaped by introspection” where lives are “lived-out beside our own / Nocturnal and unseen,” and the poem reaches out to that world by following by eye and sound the pathway itself –
Through tunnelled tussocks, out beneath a fence
And down once more, a slither across marl,
To vertically reach the brink and bank
Where water, telling a story of its own,
Quarrelling with the debris in its course,
Flashed with the light of early afternoon
That message, to be scented while we slept,
Of satisfaction to the ones who drink by night.
This poem-as-animal-track has what I like best in Tomlinson’s work: openness, mystery, rhythmic litheness and an attentive sense of the beautiful.
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