Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1889
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 effects. The second poem, “The Blade,” follows the thrust of “a single blade/between the shadows” until it fades and withdraws “as visibly as the sand/down the throat of an hour-glass.” As the light withdraws, Tomlinson tells the reader: “you could see time/trickle out, a grainy/lesion, and the green/filter back to fill/the crack in creation.” Even in light’s apparent extinction and dissolution reside images of resolution.
The third poem, “Variation,” restates in memorable ways earlier themes. An epigraph from Antony and Cleopatra (act 4, scene 7) reads: “And there is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon.” Tomlinson flatly denies such a claim: “What is left remarkable beneath the visiting moon,” his first line says, “Is the way the horizon discovers itself to be/ The frontier of a country unseen till this.” As one might by now expect of Tomlinson, the horizon is capable of discovering something about itself, that it is a beginning, a frontier, not an end at all. The poem follows the progress of moonlight, and moonlight carries with it the memory of all it has ignited behind it and, before that, “of the aeons across which it has shown till now/ From the beginning.” Moonlight’s illumination “pours/ Into the shadows and the watcher’s mind.” The moon has lighted countless objects “it could not foresee/shaping and sharing its light when it set out/ In a rain of disintegrating comets, of space creating.”
Everything here is truly remarkable, for objects both shape and share the moon’s light, and the “rain of disintegrating comets” is also a rain “of space creating.” The human element is nowhere stated except in the phrase “the watcher’s mind,” but everything depends upon the moonlight pouring into that mind. From that pouring grows the poem.
To describe Annunciations as a collection of “traveler’s poems” is to be misled by a table of contents in which place-names proliferate. Some of the poems which do not name places in their titles or subtitles name them within a few lines. The single word Oaxaca at the end of “The Plaza” localizes the scene; a short note after “In the Emperor’s Garden” places the garden in Cuernavaca and specifies Maximilian as the emperor. Brief identification of two painters as being from Canada fixes the locales for the poems “In the Steps of Emily Carr” and “North with Lawren Harris.” In a poem called “The Garden,” Tomlinson expresses disapproval of the “crass reading” which enabled some critic to dismiss gardens as the expressions of a class “masterful enough to enamel away/ all signs of the labour that produced them.” The guidebook to a garden in Gloucestershire forgets that imagination “Outgoes itself, outgrows aim/ and origins.” Imagination, not really the garden at all, is the poet’s subject; the poem ends with the claim that the garden’s design grew to include not only its Oriental and American plants but the very people examining the garden.
Just as Tomlinson unifies and clarifies his meanings in “The Garden” by repeating the all-important word imagination several times, so he repeats other words and images in several of the poems. Both “In New Mexico” and “Above the Rio Grande” render landscapes mysterious and mystical through the interaction of sky, cloud, and rock. The light in “Above the Rio Grande” shows the “cloudshadows how to transform/the very stones by opening over them.” The shadows become “Dark wings” that “cradle and crease” the rocks’ solidity. The poet calls to “dark wings to be bearers of light,” and, in their wake, the clouds “leave this brightening snowfall/That melts and is renewed.” Again, a transformation and, finally, everything, even the mind, has undergone a transformation and the mountain ranges of the opening lines become “cloud-rock ranges of the evening sky.”
The richness of Tomlinson’s inventions shows absences, too, and gaps. In “The Blade,” for example, light creates, or shows, a “crack in creation,” but even as Tomlinson points it out, green is filtering back to fill it. In “Hudson River School,” both fishers and fish are missing, but the poem points to the hopeful signs that “plenitude could not be long” in reaching the valley. “The Labyrinth” concludes with the image of a workman carrying a single brick, “the one piece missing” that will perhaps “answer to the picture in his mind.” That brick Tomlinson calls “a provisional offering to the god of limits.” “Felix Randal” concludes bluntly, “Felix is gone.” In “Music and the Poet’s Cat,” Tomlinson expresses his—and his cat’s—resentment of modern music, specifically Jean Sibelius’ Tapiola (a symphonic poem), which, he says, diminishes “centuries of chorales and firm persuasions,” leaving time “rent.” These and other poems invite attention to emptiness and silences. Not until the sixth poem in the collection (”The Santa Fe Railroad”) does Tomlinson permit sound, other than the words spoken by Gabriel. The next to last poem, “The Headland,” opens with mention both of silence and of death and speaks of the sea “breathing” as if it could not “articulate/ The word it wanted to deliver.” The poem says the sea “rehearses an after-life” and then, parenthetically, comments “The only one certainly there.” These abstract concerns though tied firm to the poem’s subject come as a surprise. The afterlife “certainly there,” Tomlinson continues is “like that of verse/ That holds its shell to the ear of a living man,/ Reminding him that he will be outlasted.” The poem concludes with images of waves, “beating a shore,” and the shore itself is “the beginning of the voyage out.” From this seeming finality, or end, Tomlinson again suggests beginnings.
“For a Godchild,” the final poem, differs formally and substantively from the other poems, and it seems an answer to the opening “Annunciation,” or at least to the traditional subject of Lotto’s painting. Although several poems in Ann unciations are first-personal, the “I” of the final poem is speaking of his experience as a private man. In lines shorter than those in other poems and in a flat discursive tone, the speaker says that now he has a godchild he must seek a “god worthy of her.” Thus, he reverses the usual idea of the person being worthy of a god. He then tells of Dante’s refusal “in courtesy/(he said) to the god/ he venerated” to ease the suffering of a sinner in Hell. The poet intends to tell that fact to his godchild and make sure that she knows that a god “who harbors” such anger “is either of her own/or others’ making.”
Tomlinson’s book concludes on a tersely cautionary note, a warning of the implications of creating (or accepting) imaginary constructs, but, taken as a lot, the poems in Annunciations celebrate the world of things and the perceiver’s power to create and to realize relationships with the alien.
Sources for Further Study
London Review of Books. XII, January 25, 1990, p. 15. The Times Literary Supplement. December 22, 1989, p.1417.
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