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Review of Cracks In the Universe, Judith P. Saunders, Modern Language Studies 2007
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In this new book of poems by Charles Tomlinson, readers will observe a mature and unflagging talent at work. Tomlinson's career presently spans fifty years and shows no sign of falling off. His poems appear regularly in major British and American periodicals, and for his 2004 collection, Skywriting and Other Poems, he won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. Released in autumn of 2006, Cracks in the Universe amply illustrates the potency of his expression and the range of his interests as a poet. The volume includes poems highlighting the visual arts and music, place and travel, weather and seasons, perception and illusion. Readers who have followed Tomlinson's career closely will be especially pleased by the inclusion, too, of several poems detailing incidents in the poet's personal history; in a writer as reticent as Tomlinson, the emergence of autobiographical impulse merits special note.
Typically Tomlinson devotes several poems in each of his books to specific artists or works of art, highlighting a variety of media, and Cracks in the Universe is no exception. His abiding enthusiasm for painting and the plastic arts manifests itself in poems devoted to lesser figures as well as to those better known, e.g., David Smith, Pissarro, Rousseau, Monet. The poems move deftly from ekphrastic and technical comment ('a blaze / Cuts out the verticals of the poplar trees') to consideration of the relationship between artist and subject: 'the answering scrutiny of an eye / Fed by the fresh resilience of trees' ('Monet's Giverny'). Tomlinson marvels at how the sculptor David Smith has re-cast the 'bare boughs' of winter trees in a 'ballet of steel' ('Bolton Landing'). He wonders, too, about the effect of the working conditions on artistic creation, as when he speculates that 'the smallness of the pitch / mirrors the ever smaller studio / Rousseau must move into / each time he tried to retrench' ('Les Joueurs de Football'). Music makes a less conspicuous appearance as a subject, in the description of trees whose branches jostle against one another in 'a slow and comfortless / adagio scaling / higher and higher,' or in the 'high feminine voices' of fruit-sellers crying their wares, 'reaching their top C / with utmost ease' (Tree Talk', 'Mandarinas').
The cosmopolitan ease with which Tomlinson moves about the world is reflected in numerous poems set outside his native England, in, for example, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. Always his immediate impression of a place is thus infused with appreciation of its cultural legacy and natural resources, as when 'the whiteness of the city and its towers / recalls the trade in salt that made it rich' ('La Rochelle'). On another occasion he enjoys an anise-based drink, noting in the surrounding fields the 'yellowish-white small flowers' of the aniseed plant from which the beverage has been concocted ('Chinchón'). 'We are drinking the distillation/of Spain,' he exults: 'a certain pungency / which is not unsweet, like the heat / and tang in the Spanish aspirate.' Several poems set in the United States highlight the Hudson River Valley, where the poet takes readers 'across the orchards of abandoned farms' in the Adirondack region ('Apples'). He gleans and samples the unharvested fruit he finds there, paying homage to the lost varieties of cultivated trees: 'what we lack is an archaeology of apples,' he avers.
Other poems do shift their focus to the densely populated region around Manhattan, to 'the merging of cars, the chains of lights / Announcing bridges, intersections' ('New Jersey - New York'). Tomlinson offers an intriguingly literal bird's-eye view of the metropolis, imagining 'this city above a city' from a pigeon's perspective ('Above the City'). 'The details / are not delicate up here,' he acknowledges, 'among the pipes and stacks,' but 'each outcrop affords / a fresh vista' to the avian inhabitants. When a pigeon 'launches itself' from a cornice, it 'bursts into dowdy flower, / blossoms in feathery mid-air to become / all that we shall never be,' commanding 'airy acres / we shall never inherit.' This poignant poem is typical of Tomlinson's cityscapes (the volume contains several notable instances) in seeking ways to distance observers from urban clutter and commotion. Persistantly his poems draw attention to the interplay between light and shadow, between human architecture (those 'solid immovables') and open space (those 'airy acres'); they enlarge and invigorate our world by pointing toward alternative perceptual opportunities. The 'city itself' functions as 'another nature / Cutting into the density of spaces / With its stepped-back panoramas' ('New Jersey - New York').
The poem from which Cracks in the Universe takes its title presents an especially liberating portrait of 'a car-crammed vista,' a portrait based on optical illusion ('A View from the Shore'). Gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge through 'a fringe of vineleaves' (the vines presumably obscuring part of the view through his window), the poet delightedly announces that the bridge is 'festooned' with 'an aquatic ivy.' The vegetation appears to grow before his eyes, 'climbing toward the topmost cables.' He imagines drivers noticing 'the flicker of leaves / ascending past them' as they race their cars across this 'triumph of suspended steel.' Even as he reports enthusiastically that nature is reclaiming a place dominated by human artefacts, the poet remains aware that the phenomenon he describes is illusory; his eye simply fails for a moment to distinguish foreground from background. The experience of misperception remains miraculous, nonetheless, and points toward a future in which nature might reassert sovereignty:
overnight a crisis in the environment
had found its vent
and out of the hemmed-in cornucopia
that was nature once, had started
unstoppably to pour itself back
through this crack in the universe.
Here a perceptual mistake enables Tomlinson to voice ecological concerns from an unexpected angle, to celebrate the power of nature even as he rebukes destruction of its bounty.
Numerous other poems direct readers' attention to metamorphosis engendered by ordinary confrontations of sun and shade, to the repeated wonders occasioned by seasonal cycles or diurnal patterns. 'With the change of light,' for example, 'new forms of shade invade the house,' compelling inhabitants to rediscover 'surfaces' they 'had come / To take for granted' ('Seasons'). This 'renewal of the place,' repeated faithfully 'each year,' never fails to refresh; it is 'manna.' In a variation on this theme, the poet asserts in 'Returning' that he is transformed into 'a phantom giant' when the setting sun elongates his shadow. Feeling enormously tall, he perceives the home toward which he walks as contrastingly tiny: it 'shrinks.' As the sun moves ever lower in the sky, however, he sees darkness 'swallowing / the scale of [his] magnification,' the house in turn reverting to normal size just as he crosses its threshold:
entering its jewel to become
my own right size
by the habitable light
inside the domestic diamond,
a Gulliver gratified.
The allusion in the poem's final line helps to underline how a change in perspective can unsettle, perhaps realign, everyday relationships and understandings. Here, as elsewhere in the volume, Tomlinson demonstrates that we need not travel to exotic places to undergo experiences of salutary surprise: the 'alchemic sun,' working with ancillary elemental forces, regularly creates instances of 'the commonplace miraculous' ('La Rochell,' 'Bread and Stone').
Well known, always, for the care he devotes to presenting the world outside himself, and for his disinterest in anything approaching confessional self-indulgence, Tomlinson nevertheless provides readers of Cracks in the Universe with brief autobiographical vignettes. He offers recollections from his childhood, identifying episodes that influenced his future, and much of what he recalls bears directly or indirectly on his artistic development. In the sequence called 'Lessons,' for example, he depicts a number of individuals (ranging from instructors in the public schools to relatives and friends) who taught him - or who failed to teach him - how to draw. Lingering on his ambitions and frustrations working with 'lines and colours,' he indicates that the passion 'to see' underlies his preoccupations both as a graphic artist and as a poet ('The Fruits of Ignominy,' 'In Memory of Agnes Beverley Burton'). He also explains how more strenuous childhood activities helped to foster his imagination: 'praise to the bicycle, transport of the muse,' he exults in 'The Bicycle.' The childhood acquaintance that taught him to cycle after his father failed to do so ('you'll never ride a bike,' my father said) imparted a skill whose value transcended the merely pragmatic. The bicycle enabled him to leave behind 'the smoking confines' of Stoke-on-Trent and explore more culturally stimulating landscapes, including 'George Eliot's Staffordshire and Wordsworth's north.' More important, physical journeying stimulated mental journeying 'if you could not make it to the spot, / You could relocate the place it was not.' In recounting small but suggestive anecdotes from his early days, Tomlinson offers readers clues to the sources of his aesthetic energies. These nuggets of insight into the ever fascinating relationship between life and art, between private and public identities, are especially welcome because they concern one of the major poetic voices of our time.
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