rosemary-tonks

The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas

I have lived it, and lived it,
My nervous, luxury civilisation,
My sugar-loving nerves have battered me to pieces.

…Their idea of literature is hopeless.
Make them drink their own poetry!
Let them eat their gross novel, full of mud.

It’s quiet; just the fresh, chilly weather…and he
Gets up from his dead bedroom, and comes in here
And digs himself into the sofa.
He stays there up to two hours in the hole − and talks
− Straight into the large subjects, he faces up to everything
It’s…damnably depressing.
(That great lavatory coat…the cigarillo burning
In the little dish…And when he calls out: ‘Ha!’
Madness − you no longer possess your own furniture.)

On my bad days (and I’m being broken
At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions…and he
Becomes intensely gloomy, with the look of something jugged,
Morose, sour, mouldering away, with lockjaw…

I grow coarser; and more modern (I, who am driven mad
By my ideas; who go nowhere;
Who dare not leave my frontdoor, lest an idea…)
All right. I admit everything, everything!

Oh yes, the opera (Ah, but the cinema)
He particularly enjoys it, enjoys it horribly, when someone’s ill
At the last minute; and they fly in
A new, gigantic, Dutch soprano.  He wants to help her
With her arias.            Old goat!  Blasphemer!
He wants to help her with her arias!

No, I…go to the cinema,
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum,
…the fogs! the fogs!  The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,
The screen is spread out like a thundercloud − that bangs
And splashes you with acid…or lies derelict, with lighted waters in it,
And in the silence, drips and crackles − taciturn, luxurious.
…The drugged and battered Philistines
Are all around you in the auditorium…

And he…is somewhere else, in his dead bedroom clothes,
He wants to make me think his thoughts
And they will be enormous, dull − (just the sort
To keep away from).
…when I see that  cigarillo, when I see it…smoking
And he wants to face the international situation…
Lunatic rages! Blackness! Suffocation!

− All this sitting about in cafés to calm down
Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature!
The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.

I have lived it, and I know too much.
My café-nerves are breaking me
With black, exhausting information.

 

Rosemary Tonks, from Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2014)

With kind permission of Bloodaxe Books

 

I first came across this poem via one of those Facebook games. You know the kind of thing: reach for the volume of poetry closest to your left hand, open the page at random, close your eyes, stab the page with your finger and type the lines you find as your status update. I got: ‘ − All this sitting about in cafés to calm down/ Simply wears me out.’ I distinctly remember my friends saying ‘So what’s new?’ I don’t think any of them believed it was a poem.

Since Rosemary Tonks’s death just over a year ago we have the sumptuous Bedouin of the London Evening to enjoy.

Nothing in the book has disproved what I found in that fatuous Facebook game, an exhilarating compression of the tough, the tender and the self-absorbed, undercut with a streetwise self-awareness. We are all slowly catching up with what I fancy she long-ago understood, that she was extraordinary.

There is so much to enjoy here, to relish-murmur under one’s breath: ‘sugar-loving nerves’, ‘dead bedroom’, ‘the idiotic cut of the stanzas’, the street ‘like a hole in an old coat’.

And the wild control of that passage about the cinema:

Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,

The screen is spread out like a thundercloud − that bangs

And splashes you with acid…or lies derelict, with lighted waters in it,

And in the silence, drips and crackles − taciturn, luxurious.

 

I wonder what she would have made of the internet. Or Twitter. It would have been fun finding out. For her references to the silver screen and self-reflexive interruptions (‘On my bad days (and I’m being broken/ At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions’) the poet she calls to my mind most immediately is Frank O’Hara. She certainly has his throwaway, waspish humour off pat:

Oh yes, the opera (Ah, but the cinema)

He particularly enjoys it, enjoys it horribly, when someone’s ill

At the last minute; and they fly in

A new, gigantic, Dutch soprano.  He wants to help her

With her arias.

For all its effort to portray ‘luxury civilization’ the speaker begins the poem ‘battered’ and closes it broken ‘with black, exhausting information’. I think O’Hara would also have understood its unstoppable undercurrent of sadness. I can think of no higher praise.