The title of Charles Tomlinson’s latest volume of poetry, The Return, is apt, for in it the poet returns to the major meditative and formal concerns that have highlighted his career since the early 1950’s. Most characteristic are his meticulously detailed descriptions of the concrete, sensible world and the minute attention given over to shape, volume, color, texture, light, and shade. Again and again, Tomlinson takes as his subject his own keen perceptions of the external world—physical phenomenon embraced first by the senses and then by the active, questioning mind—for this is the single avenue through which he is able to reach for meaning within a vastly rich and fluid universe, to grasp “a static instance” that establishes “the fineness of relationship” between nature and himself.
Like Wallace Stevens, Tomlinson takes as his primary subject the mutability and interdependency of all natural things. Also like Stevens, he is a connoisseur of metamorphosis and transience, aware that, as Stevens says in “Connoisseur of Chaos,” “A violent order is disorder; and/ . . . A great disorder is an order.” As a result, Tomlinson has pursued a course strikingly different from that of the poets who have been fashionable throughout his career—from Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats to the American confessionals—who, in a variety of ways, have exalted the poetic “I.” He has similarly dissociated himself from the more concrete and formal stylists with whom he is most frequently discussed—Marianne Moore, Ivor Winters, Ezra Pound, the Objectivists (William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky), and the contemporary English Augustans such as Donald Davie. Tomlinson pursues a separate quest, searching for the spiritual exaltation inherent in the common experience of disunity and mutability.
What is also unique in Tomlinson’s poetry, and has earned for him the epithet “word painter” (he is an accomplished visual artist and an essayist, with titles such as “The Poet as Painter”), is his concrete, epistemological nature poetry, in the vein of the Impressionists/post-Impressionists Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. Tomlinson writes with a sculptor’s eye, as well, as he evokes the many-sidedness of objects in their shifting relationships in time and space, and he draws objects or events that simultaneously stimulate several senses. He evokes the reality of constant movement and eternal combination and recombination.
That he is concerned with the continuous transformations of reality—even of solids and liquids, and all they represent—is apparent from his earliest work. “Written on Water,” whose sprung rhythm approximates the fluidity of his subject, addresses the problem of capturing appearances and codifying morality; in his typical visual and aural imagery, it centers on rocks, water, air, time, and space:
But to speak of water is to entertain the imageOf its seamless momentum once again, To hear in its wash and grip on stoneA music of constancy behind The wide promiscuity of acquaintanceship,Links of water chiming on one another, Water-ways permeating the rock of time.
Tomlinson structures The Return, with its recurrent rocks, water, and air, in interesting interlocking patterns. Although most of the poems refer to foreign landscapes to which the poet has returned—Italy, Provence, the American Southwest, including Mexico (and some allude to his home in Gloucestershire)—repeated images or themes connect each poem to the one preceding or following it. Figures of trees, moors, churches, birds, paintings, seasons, wells, rain, climbing, and travel are woven into the rich tapestry of the volume. The most original poems read like verbal equivalents of Cezanne’s great stone quarries and majestic Mont Sainte-Victoire or Monet’s fluid cathedrals at Rouen and ponds at Giverny.
“The Unpainted Mountain” actually recalls Tomlinson’s visit to Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire in “a storm of wind and light,” and his rapture before the changing panorama: “Where was the mountain that the painter painted?” he begins, and continues: “What we were seeing was unpainted mountain.” He offers his own description of the changing light: “Two tones—between-tones, both—pink-grey, green-black,/ Flushed through the scene whenever sun came back;/ The whole place hovered, image upon image:/ A flank of marble or a crumpled page. . . .” “The Miracle of the Bottle and the Fishes,” about Georges Braque’s 1912 painting, atypically announces many of Tomlinson’s painterly concerns. Studying Braque’s canvas, he asks: “Which is space and which is substance,” and explains how objectivity (reality, autonomous unto itself) must blend with subjectivity (the separate mind)—“the eye must stitch/ each half-seen, separate/ identity together” in a world without intention or design, “in a mind delighted and disordered by/ a freshness of the world’s own weather.” Tomlinson’s artistic goals are sculptural, like Braque’s: “to enter space anew” so that
Touch must supplyspace with its substance and becomea material of the explorationas palpable as paint,in a reciprocation wherethings no longer standbounded by emptiness. . . .
For the artist-poet, reality is at best an approximation in space. Meanings and sensations can be described only through comparisons and metaphors, arbitrary images...
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