Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630
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 river itself “flows with no more show of movement/ Than the swamps that feed it—yet/ Can take possession of house and town/ In one rising sweep.” This poem is in ironic dialogue with one of the most sensational poems in all of English Romanticism: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision In a Dream.” Tomlinson writes:
You can tell
The current by the slight swell at the tips
Of the reflected trees—it scarcely ruffles
Their riding image. The gleam on the surface
Might almost rekindle that dream
Of pantisocracy in this spacious place
The dreamers never saw.
He adds a footnote (the only one in this collection) to make sure that readers understand the obscure allusion to Coleridge: “Pantisocracy: this utopian community on the Susquehanna, where all should rule equally, was the dream of Coleridge and Southey.” This was Coleridge’s political dream, somewhat analogous to the dream of “Paris in Sixty-nine” which Tomlinson shared with Paz but which ultimately deferred to the more personal dreams of their lives and work: “Do you, too, work when walking?”
In Coleridge’s case the dream of social deliverance gave way to the chimerical and fantastic pursuit of abstruse ideas and subconscious mysteries, both of which are powerfully but, in a sense, self-destructively displayed in “Kubla Khan”:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
In Tomlinson’s poem the “woman wailing for her demon lover” has become the “cat treading/ From tie to tie of the railroad track”; at poem’s end, the cat “has its mouse.” Coleridge’s “forced” and “flung” river has become that “silent immensity of still water/ That flows with no more show of movement/ Than the swamps that feed it.” Coleridge’s eerie shadow floating “midway on the waves” is now the “riding is image” of reflected treetops. This the only utopia humankind can experience: nature’s gradual passing. The floods of tragedy—“one rising sweep”—are inevitable and cannot be oversimplified to “ancestral voices prophesying war.” Finally, Kubla’s palace is not “five miles of fertile ground” With walls and towers…girdled round” but a simple house “on the shore…foursquare and of brick.” Coleridge has his prophet- poet build “that dome in air.” Tomlinson is committed to building his poems on the ground. In “Hacienda” he celebrates the channeling of a river into three streams: one to drive a turbine, the next a grist mill, and the last to fill the planter’s “open-air Jacuzzi.” All three streams eventually rejoin the natural river in the valley floor. No “caverns measure’less to man” here—and, even more to the point, no severe distinction between worldly and poetic power. A pacific Kubla Khan and a demystified poet are joined in the practical planter and river of “Hacienda.”
The tragic reminder of “the rising sweep”—nature is no beneficent Witch of the North—is reflected throughout these poems. Observing the social tensions in a New York restaurant, where recent immigrants from all over the world constitute “a sweating ballet of waiters and waitresses,” Tomlinson sees that in their affectation and acting these insecure young people are coping creatively with their condition (“At Hanratty’s”). Their floundering is sweaty, but a thing of grace (ballet); they are “working” while “walking”; their “end” is unclear, but they are “seeing along the way.” The subtext is Walt Whitman. Tomlinson has grown American roots. “Ode to San Francisco” is a dark poem about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS): “The city/ has an air of medieval fatality,” while those who are dying come up with euphemistic explanations: “a caring relationship… a tropical infection.” This human frailty and deception is primarily the result of the union between Venus and Eros (“Hesiod/ calls him the son of Chaos”), a marriage defined by nature but certainly not made in heaven.
Poets cannot be expected to defer to nature’s sense of itself; indeed, they are empowered by imagination to go beyond nature’s performance when that performance is wanting. In “On a Dutch Picture” (Tomlinson commiserates with the realist painter who could not remain content with the flat skies of his flat land and “preferred” To fill his upper air with shapes/ Wholly imaginary, that scale the canvas space/ Like his tentative painter’s mind.” This would seem an embrace, after all, of Coleridge’s poet as a builder of domes in air. Not quite. The painter remains rooted in landscape; his imagination is directed toward trimming the tree, shearing the sheep, bringing out what is under the surface in nature as a whole and not only in his own mind. The poet who fails to take nature along when he puts his imagination to work runs the risk of confusing mind with end, life with death, and the serene and tumultuous rivers of experience with dammed-up reservoirs of closed-off memory.
Tomlinson muses of Thomas Hardy (“On a Passage from Hardy’s Life):
You were a poet who put on the manners of ghosts,
Thinking of life not as passing away but past…
One Stygian current buoying up gravestone on gravestone.
Hardy’s mistake was to drown in abstractions of fate and cosmic indifference. His was another version of Coleridge’s error.
Tomlinson has learned from John Keats the wisdom of “negative capability,” the capacity to refrain from seeking absolutes and rational explanations to deal with all life’s questions. There are simply too many questions, too many things to notice.
But let be the garden, too,
as you tread and travel
this broken pathway
where the sun does not dazzle
but claims company with
all these half-hidden things
and raising their gaze
does not ask of them wings.
Poetry Review. LXXXII, Winter, 1993, p.63.
Stand Magazine. XXXIV, Spring, 1993, p.69.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 18, 1992, p.19.
World Literature Today. LXVII, Autumn, 1993, p.829.