Joseph Conrad wrote that any work which “aspires to the condition of art” must justify itself in every line and must seek to render the highest possible justice to the “visible universe.” Every poem in Charles Tomlinson’s Annunciations justifies itself as Conrad demanded, and the collection as a whole meets the great fiction writer’s criteria. The title poem suggests that it is but one annunciation, or announcement, and that perhaps the other forty-five are no less portentous than the first. The poet’s persistent ways of seeing and hearing, combined with repeated words and images, unify the various subjects and locales.
Annunciations is a book of beginnings, and sometimes of endings, a book of plenitude, and sometimes of emptinesses. End-words or phrases call attention to beginnings, rebeginnings, making, or creating. Three poems end with the word creating, one with the word made, another with making, and yet another with origin. These recurrences remind the reader that a poem is a made thing, and the poems call attention to other makers, painters, musicians, brick masons, landscape gardeners. In all the poems, creation itself is ongoing.
Tomlinson, who began as a painter and film writer, has published more than twenty books of poems and translations since 1951. He lives in England but has traveled widely. The poems in Annunciations deepen and extend his preoccupation with human perception. Regardless of his subject—painters and paintings, landscapes and experiences in Mexico, the United States and Canada, England, and Italy—Tomlinson nearly always treats alien phenomena, notably light and water. Experiencing the created world in all its “otherness,” Tomlinson believes, may help us to achieve “awareness of that which we are not, yet of relationship with it.” The things of the world call to Tomlinson, and, as he demonstrates, those things enable the perceiver to learn something important about the mystery of self
Annunciations opens with a lesson in how to look at a painting, and from a whimsical yet dead-serious meditation on Lorenzo Lotto’s depiction of Gabriel’s visitation to the Virgin Mary proceed the other forty-five annunciations.
The Oxford Poets paperback renders Lotto’s Annunciation in its sumptuous detailing of furnishings and utensils as well as the principal figures. A cat, caught in surprise, enjoys compositional prominence with the Virgin, Gabriel (who casts a very corporeal shadow), and the Deity hovering in clouds. Lotto (1480-1556) brings to bear great skill, a Renaissance spirit, and the influence of both Raphael and Titian. HisAnnunciation is not one to—file away under “religious” or “biblical.”
To the painting, Tomlinson brings to bear equally great skill in composing both the scene and lines metrically stunning and at once precise and suggestive. He uses traditional devices to achieve his very particular emphases within a personal, even witty, structure. “The cat took fright,” he begins, “at the flashing wing of sunlight/as the thing/entered the kitchen, angel of appearances,/and lingered there.” Tomlinson’s identification of the angel with appearances, with a “wing of sunlight,” and with a “solvent ray” announces his poem and book’s thematic assumption and one of their dominant images. After asking what the sun had sent its ray to say, the poet returns attention to the cat, for the ray has “charged and changed” everything, “narrowing even the eye of a cat.”
The angel, now called “this invasion/from outer space,” has lent a shine to the kitchen ware, which transcends mere utility. The action portrayed is “this gratuitous occasion/of unchaptered gospel,” and it tells its own good news, or gospel, for the “appearance” promises to return not on the last day, but every day. It foretells “’the unaccountable birth’” which will occur every time “’my lord the light, a cat and you/share this domestic miracle.’” The birth- miracle of the painting and poem demand the naming anew of each thing rendered in the painting, even the “’solidity/these windows and these walls surround.’”
The cup, dish, hook, and nail in the painting, the angel says, gather and guard “’the sheen/drop by drop/still spilling-over/out of the grail of Origin.’” Light is the active agent in the painting’s miracle, and the “grail of origin” suggests a source of all light, from which emanates the daily miracle of seeing.
The remaining poems return often to light and its...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)