REVIEW by Amy McCauley NWR Issue 107
Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems
by Rosemary Tonks
Caustic, hysterical, charged. Rosemary Tonks is something of an anomaly in British poetry. Perhaps this is due to the unabashed exuberance of her diction and syntax; yet the idea owes something to the mysteries surrounding her life and her eventual rejection of writing. This rejection seems to have cemented her status as a difficult figure; but her rejection also seems entirely in keeping with the rebellious extravagance of her work.
Tonks’s literary forebears are distinctively European: Baudelaire, Cavafy and Rimbaud are cited as her greatest influences, and she transposes all the intensity, laconic resignation and passion of such writers into a unique, idiomatic English. Her voices are bracing, elegiac and neurotic, and her lines so energetic that even when she reaches the limits of sayability the impetus of feeling carries on, held by the echoes of her noisy rhythms. Though she consistently finds the world disappointing, her language rises up to meet it with so much force that disappointment becomes a pure cry of protest.
For me, the best way of reading Tonks is dramatically. Her worlds are stage-sets opening to the eye and the ear – but her idiom gestures to the larger world beyond those sets, inviting a dialogue between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ realms. Tonks heckles, harangues and seduces; but she always takes care to do so within the carefully constructed parameters of heightened theatrical personae. There are no measured or meditative moments here; she is lyrical in the ancient Greek tradition: excessive, self-exaggerating, dramatic, and utterly focused on the delivery of a performing self.
The impact of this poetic artifice is exhilarating. The dynamic pacing of her lines, for example – the way they fly off, powered by syncopated sprung rhythms only to slow down unexpectedly – shows a poet utterly in control of her diction, syntax and sound devices. ‘And the half-lit territories of street and bed and heart / Are savage and full of risk’ she writes in ‘Love Territory’; and in ‘Apprentice’, ‘Surgeon and robber learn their touch in the great city, / But I am after heavenly spoil, and it is / As a gloveless trespasser that I desire supremacy.’ The sheer material joy she takes in language – the combinations of words, the shifts in register from stanza to stanza, and the dramatic, self-sustaining voices – is startling. And her energy travels across the lines, leaping from poem to poem like an electric current.
Her stage-sets are few – some might say limited – but within this narrow vista of cafes, city streets and hotel bedrooms, Tonks maps the desires and anxieties of the metropolis on a scale that is larger-than-lifesize. She catalogues her love affairs, her disasters, her sense of metropolitan squalor with wit, hubris and a deeply nihilistic joy which is as painful as it is ecstatic. And that is what you should go to Rosemary Tonks for: the overwhelming sense of life as being both too much and not enough.
Tonks is to poetry what Jean-Luc Godard is to film: philosophical, outrageous and acutely self-aware. As such, she is arguably an acquired taste. But at all times, you feel she faced the world both squarely and realistically, with the result that the language is made to bear an awful great deal. The weight of feeling she throws upon her lines is staggering, and her handling of pairs of seemingly dichotomous and competing energies – despair and delight; disgust and desire; chaos and order; exhaustion and passion – in a manner which keeps them constantly in tension and dialogue yields an electric pressure consistently across her work.
On top of this, she is one of the messiest poets I know, and embraces the enormous grandeur and petty disappointments of life with equal relish. But overall, it’s her bravery I admire the most. This bravery is typified by her single-minded approach to diction, subject matter and emotional truth. And she always dug deeper and pushed harder, writing with a fiercely ambitious integrity which had nothing to do with fame or her ‘career’, and everything to do with the demands of the language and the poem.
Tonks already has so-called ‘cult status’ among contemporary poets, while her influence can be felt in the work of many writers just starting to publish. Heather Phillipson, Amy Key and Emily Berry all seem to draw on the Tonksian mode, and she certainly means a lot to me. With this edition
, which brings together work that has been out of print for over thirty years, Bloodaxe have given us the complete feast of Tonks. And it has truly, truly been worth the wait.
is Poetry Submissions Editor for New Welsh Review
previous review: When Young Dodos Meet Young Dragons
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