Caught in the Champagne-sleet of Living

Last year Poetry London invited me to write a personal response to Rosemary Tonks’s collection poems, Bedouin of the London Evening, published by Bloodaxe. The response appeared in Poetry London’s Spring 2015 issue and is reproduced in full here.

Caught in the Champagne-sleet of Living: Amy Key’s personal response to Rosemary Tonks’s rediscovered poetry.

Sometimes when I read poems, they wash over me as if they were hardly there, a culinary foam, all air. ‘Can I taste this yet?’ I ask. Others I munch through like a bucket of popcorn, feeling dissatisfied and guilty afterwards. I can’t absent-mindedly munch Rosemary Tonks’s poems. Like a night spent downing shots of absinthe, I first binge-read The Iliad of Broken Sentences, the second of the long out-of-print collections she published in the 1960s, some six years ago and got terribly drunk. I loved her work but felt somehow overwhelmed as if the poems had layered me in a scent I couldn’t wash away. Reading Bedouin of the London Evening helps me understand why I felt this way.

In ‘Love Territory’, Tonks has layers of ‘bronze-brown dusk’, ‘bronze nights’, ‘brown nights’ and ‘deep bronze’ interspersed with ‘half-lit’, ‘half-dark’ and ‘half-light’. Repetition of certain words and ideas is a hallmark of her work. I’d probably ask for more variation if someone brought me this poem for feedback. But over the whole book it’s ‘savage’ and hideous – the accumulation of her Collected Poems’ sludgy colours becomes obsessive, creating menace. For me, these sepia poems provide a counter-balance to the dominant trope of Swinging London: all Union Jacks and Pop Art mini-skirts.

Tonks’s personal iconography extends to fabrics, cafes, meat and London, like particular colours these too, are recurring motifs. Two that struck me most – cabbages and diamonds – frequently appear in both her books. They seem to signify the queasy meld of the dreary and casual with the exotic and sensual. ‘Sentenced to cabbages’, Tonks notes ‘cabbage-light’, ‘cabbage-shade’ – and the more workaday cabbage stumps and banknotes. Diamonds are ‘spat… drunkenly’ or conversely ‘heavy drinking’, she wants to ‘take a diamond’ to scratch ‘your junkie’s green-glass skin’. I did wonder if Tonks had an awareness of this prevalence, in the same way you might collect ‘special’ pebbles from different beaches and find yourself unable to distinguish between them later. In another poet’s work, the overwhelmingly opulent layering of images and iconography might turn me off, but it’s precisely this excess that is so compelling to me in Tonks. 

Reading Tonks has brought to mind lots of contemporary poets’ work. I can hear the pizzazz of Heather Phillipson, the disquiet of Emily Berry, Annie Freud’s elegant luxuriance, Fran Lock’s gothic tenderness. In re-reading her work, I’ve come to notice how influential Tonks was for me. Her exclamations and fondness for contrasting glitz with grime mark my own work. Most surprisingly I find myself thinking of the US poet Chelsey Minnis. To me, Tonks is a poet revulsed and intrigued by her own desires. Likewise Minnis’s poetry exposes the grubby, seedy and outrageous. It does this through an overlay of indulgent glamour, ‘like buttery sweetbreads spilled down the front of your dress’. Though more permissive than Tonks, Minnis is fascinated with her self-disgust: ‘Because I like both pleasure and revulsion… I have a great desire to enjoy my own disgust’.

I almost imagine it is to Tonks that Minnis addresses:

If you deny yourself pleasure, then what does it do for the people around you?

Are you trying to please god with right-seeming behaviour?

This is a dark dark error…  (from ‘Poemland’)

In ‘Bedouin of the London Morning’ Tonks writes: ‘if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me… If you knew my (half erotic) convulsion of loathing’. She seems terrified we might turn our backs on her, but dares us to. Her poems are full of foreboding, as though she’s warning us off a terrible calamity. Sometimes this is very direct, as in the brilliant ‘Done for!’:

Take care whom you mix with in life, irresponsible one,

For if you mix with the wrong people

– And you yourself may be one of the wrong people –

If you make love to the wrong person,

                          (…)

They will do you ferocious, indelible harm!

If Tonks were writing today, I’d assume her work to be self-aware melodrama, a send-up – all those exclamation marks, that self-berating tone; it’s hard not to read with a millennial raised eyebrow. Yet I found it refreshing to read poems that are so gorged on their own feeling its impossible not to take them absolutely seriously. That’s not to say the poems are without their humour. How’s this for a one-liner? – in her take-down of the ‘Students in Bertorelli’s’:

Nothing holds upright but some cold green diction, banknotes, a penis.

And she can find herself ridiculous, for her ‘irresistibly amusing’ thoughts, her ‘fierce hot-blooded sulkiness’, for writing poetry – poets being ‘disreputable pets!’. I fiercely love this from ‘The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas’:

Make them drink their own poetry!

Let them eat their gross novel, full of mud.

In perhaps Tonks’s best known poem, ‘Badly Chosen Lover’, Tonks addresses the poem’s subject: ‘My spirit broke its fast on you’. That poem – the first of hers I read, when it was anthologised by Bloodaxe – has taken on the quality of an anthem for me. I’m reminded of reading Anaïs Nin’s diaries at nineteen, swept up in ecstatic, grubby romanticism. These are ‘drug strong enough’ poems. I often had to steady myself when reading them, to close the book for fear of falling out of my own senses.

Amy Key’s first collection, Luxe (Salt, 2013), was reviewed in PL 87.

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