Charles Tomlinson’s poetry, including Collected Poems (rev. ed., 1987),The Return (1987), and Annunciations (1989), reveals his powers of natural observation, the transforming magic of his imagination, and the aesthetic shine of his sound. A painter and film writer in his youth, Tomlinson brings to his poetry a richness of visual and aural awareness that remains true to the “mutability” and “interdependency” of the human experience of nature without relinquishing the poet’s natural right to assert the shaping powers of his voice, imagery, and metaphoric wit.
Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens’ best interpreter, writes that for Stevens, like William Wordsworth, nature “was enough.” What Bloom means is that Stevens found sufficient stimulation and verification of his own philosophical flights in nature; it was unnecessary for him to go anywhere else. Tomlinson admits to a heavy influence by the great modern American poets, particularly Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Like Stevens, Tomlinson luxuriates in nature, and like Stevens he can transform the landscapes of nature into landscapes of the mind.
only a little snow
has chalked in everywhere,
as if a whole landscape might be unrolled
out of the atmosphere.
What becomes clear in The Door in the Wall is that Tomlinson is settling into a deeply felt but increasingly ordinary sense of the poet’s craft. To be sure, this is the ordinary in a sublime mode; nevertheless, again and again the reader is introduced to a conception of the making of poetry that is at home in the world as it is, that trusts the natural and the ordinary to inspire the mind and heart,to underwrite its capacities for joy and pain.
The opening poem, “The Operation,” is a detailed pastoral describing the aesthetic intuition of a tree trimmer as he lops and saws his way through the trees, “giving thought to the size and shape/ Of what he must do”; “Painting not pruning: he is as much/ Making a tree as taking a tree apart.” The tree trimmer is Tomlinson’s alter ego, the poet observing the vicissitudes of nature and through his imagination and craft giving nature form and identity. While celebrating the power of the tree- trimmer-poet, Tomlinson avoids hubris and is careful to maintain the autonomy of nature. Nature has the last “word” (in this case, an engraver’s mark) so that he can continue to spin his own in future poems. The detritus of the tree trimmer’s work, all those cut branches, must be piled up and burned. The haze of the fire alters “as it flows into the twilight,/ The million burin strokes of branches/ To soft charcoal lines, the incense/Leaving the senses open to the night.”
Should the senses close to the night, the imagination would cease to function—and function it must, as continually and prosaically as perception itself. Human beings cannot trust teleological or apocalyptic thinking to supply ideas or loyalties that justify life. Musing on the politics of their youth, Tomlinson reminds his lifelong friend the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, “What matters in the end (it never comes)/ Is what is seen along the way.” Like the New Zealand sheep shearers, cousins to the tree trimmer, who travel around the world with their “wild” women to shear sheep in Gloucestershire, Tomlinson travels in these poems from Germany to the Caribbean, from the Susquehanna to the coast of Ireland. “Shearsmen and poets travel far these days.”
To build support for his notion that the poet’s imagination is central to the needs of ordinary perception, Tomlinson pursues an interesting strategy of intertextual statement. By implication, echo, and sometimes explicit reference, he questions the Romantic fascination with the mysterious and unconscious in order to rediscover the ordinary at the heart of Romantic naturalism. Perhaps the key poem here is “The House on the Susquehanna.” A cat listens to the grass along the riverbank. The...
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