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Tom Leonard, Access to the Silence: Poems and Posters 1984-2004, Etruscan Books

Political, formal, intellectual, phonic, visual, musical, (post?) religious, humanist, translating, angry, tender, minimalist, exploratory, campaigning, personal – Tom Leonard’s poetry is all these and more. Perhaps Leonard’s greatest sequence is nora’s place, collected here, and which displays most of these qualities. The eponymous heroine is a hardworking mother who is dramatised largely through her own words. Her loneliness is almost unbearable but nowhere melodramatic.

In one poem the supermarket’s zoning of consumables is wryly enumerated: structurally speaking, the long list separates the Nora going in to the shop from the Nora found, finally, “leaning on the trolley / waiting”. Nora has almost got lost in there, her own time frustrated by the grim list of would-be necessaries so that she is almost cut in two by the poem itself. Elsewhere, Nora worries that “the dinner school portions [are] too wee it / must be the cutbacks that’ll mean / they’d better come home at // the back of twelve every / day. The disjunctive syncopation of those line-endings formally underwrite the quandary Nora is in: the arhythmic hearbeats are heartbreaking.

The sequence, as with Leonard’s poetry in general, is as tough as it is tender. The directness of “I don’t know what we share exclusively now / other than the children” has its prosodic strength not least because Leonard has used off-the-beat line-endings so effectively before. With enjambement gone there is a kind of pulsing power equal to Nora’s sense of aging and isolation within her marriage. Nora recognises that the home that her family come home to, for them, is “the place that has not existed / these past hours”. Her “place” is fragile, contingent on others out at school or payed work. If Nora does venture out she takes on the extreme self-consciousness of those more used to living wholly on their own –

where do you put your eyes
when you’re

    just talking?

people can tell when you’re

    not good at it, look

surprised and a bit hurt

These hesitations and contemplations are as beautifully cadenced as they are moving.

Perhaps it is Leonard’s evocation of the intellectually and emotionally sensitive working class that makes him, in a way that has affinities with D. H. Lawrence’s later poetry, a sharp critic of self-appointed authority. In the aphorisms of “Against Cormorants”, dedicated to Anne Stevenson, academe is particularly well-pilloried: “Make a witty and provocative case for Adolf Hitler as a neglected German colourist”, “They write about poetry as if it had nothing to do with music”, and (in bold”), “Trust the poets – not the clerisy. Trust the poems – not the popes.”

The posters that punctuate this beautifully printed collection extend this criticism to the management of language. Note the indefinite articles of “AN / OXFORD / DICTIONARY/ OF / AN / ENGLISH / LANGUAGE” and the angry play in “MISSILES / LAUNCHED / FROM/ MORAL/ HIGH GROUND”. The body politic itself is the subject of the poster which reads: “a / parasite that / survives by / defining the host / in ways that / maintain its own / habitat // the / institution / of the / state.”

It is far from being all satire. One poster reads affectionately: “hawfa pakora / is better than / nay samosa”. But you are never far from a fundamentally serious poetry, light on its feet and measuring each of its near-miraculous breaths. As Leonard says in another set of proverbs: “if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose”.

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