On Rosemary Tonks

Patrick McGuinness

In The Waste Land, a ‘young man carbuncular’ makes a play for ‘the typist home at teatime’:

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.

Anyone who wants the typist’s side of this brief, bleak encounter might find a version of it in Rosemary Tonks’s poems, with their undertow of sexual menace and carnal scavenging. ‘Love Territory’, the opening poem of Bedouin of the London Evening, her new Collected (Bloodaxe, £12), starts:

He’s timid with women, and the dusk is excruciating
The bronze-brown autumn dusk!
And the half-lit territories of street and bed and heart
Are savage and full of risk.

On bronze nights
When the territory is half-lit by casual glances
He sweats, each step is hideous!
Once he knows his strength of course he will be ruthless.

It’s Eliot’s ‘violet hour’, but 1950s streetlamps make it a grimy off-gold. Tonks prowls through bohemian London like a feral Laforgue, the poet she most resembles in her mix of rawness and over-cultivation.

Though she died last year at the age of 85, Rosemary Tonks had vanished long before. The author of two collections of poems – Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963) and Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967) – and six novels, she stopped writing in the early 1980s, after a conversion to fundamentalist Christianity which itself came on the back of a series of medical disasters, personal misfortunes and punishing forays into spiritualism. Her first book was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and among those who admired her work were Cyril Connolly and Al Alvarez. Edward Lucie-Smith included her in British Poetry since 1945 (1970) and Larkin put her in his Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse (1973). The living afterlife of her next forty years uncannily resembles that of Lynette Roberts, who published two completely original books with Eliot at Faber, lived through the bohemian London of the 1930s and 1940s, became a Jehovah’s Witness, and died in a West Wales nursing home in 1995. Like Roberts, people only discovered that Tonks had been alive all this time when they read that she had died. As Ed Dorn put it: ‘You don’t disappear. You reappear, dead.’

Tonks burned her last manuscript, a novel she considered to be her best work, in 1981, and destroyed a collection of precious Oriental figures left to her by an aunt. ‘What are books? They are minds, Satan’s minds,’ she wrote in a notebook in 1999. As for the figures, they were ‘graven images’. After incinerating them in her garden, she set about smashing them with a hammer until they were ‘dog biscuit size’ (the dog biscuit as a unit of measurement has a certain fastidious, crazed precision). After that her only reading was the Bible: Tyndale’s for preference, or the King James, since all subsequent versions were travesties of the Word. Tonks refused to republish her poetry and fiction, and became, like Roberts, a rumoured presence, a missing link. Her reappearance in this important and well-documented book, which includes two penetrating reviews, a short story and an interview, is the best sort of rediscovery: one that disrupts our sense of poetic continuity even as it restores it. Valuable too are the back-cover blurbs and the wording of the Poetry Book Society commendation for her first book, which reveal the baffled admiration, which may or may not be the same as praise, that her poetry provoked in a climate we think of as polarised between the sensible formalism of the Movement and Alvarez’s New Poetry, with its call to go beyond ‘the gentility principle’.

Tonks was born in Kent in 1928. Her father, an engineer, died of blackwater fever in Africa before she was born. Mother and daughter moved house 14 times during the war ‘to avoid bombs and people’, and Tonks was sent from an early age to boarding school in Bournemouth. Her mother turned to religion, and to healers and mediums, something Tonks alludes to in ‘Running Away’. The title is sharply ironic when we recall that it was her mother’s death, in what Neil Astley calls a ‘freak accident’ in 1968, that precipitated Tonks’s own turn towards spiritualism. The poem echoes, to different and clearly parodic effect, the Dylan Thomas of ‘Fern Hill’: ‘In the green rags of the Bible I tore up/The straight silk of childhood on my head.’ It is, for Tonks, unusually dense and incrusted with the Dylanesque verbal impasto of the 1940s poets, the ‘new romantics’ she would have read in her teens and twenties. She describes herself, in an extraordinary sequence of images, as ‘forfeit to the crepe hoods/Of my mother’s eyes; the iron door of her oven/And her church’. ‘Running Away’ draws on themes and images that haunt her poems: the imagined East through which she poetically processes, the bohemian bedouinhood of London life, and a hungry escapism that is as much sexual (the ‘soul turn[ing] blandly/On a sirloin mattress to smile at the next meal’) as spiritual.

There’s a lot of meat in this book, and there are many mattresses. The mattresses are dirty and the meat is turning. Everything is tainted, marbled with decay, but this is precisely what gives it taste. Tonks claimed Baudelaire and Rimbaud as her inspirations. While this is true in obvious ways – the allure of city life, the exoticisation of its underside (what she calls, in a line that evokes Patrick Hamilton, ‘the flavour beneath the flagstones’ of London), the push-pull of fascination and disgust – what emerges most strongly from reading her is that she shares their fascination with decay; or, more exactly, the cusp of decay. It’s what the French call le faisandé, ‘gameyness’: when the meat is about to turn, when it is most richly textured and darkly flavoursome. Gameyness is a rich metaphor: for a literary style and a way of feeling, but also for a decadent civilisation, reaching its peak just as – and just because – ripeness segues into rot. Baudelaire’s preference is for the in-between, and for the time of day, neither daylight nor darkness, known in French as ‘entre chien et loup’: between dog and wolf. The phrase turns up in Tonks, where she archly writes in ‘April and the Ideas-Merchant’ that ‘I was in the chien-loup/Of the Latin Quarter of my brain.’ She relishes the cliché of the French poète maudit, even as she mocks its pretentiousness, and her own for invoking it. In ‘Black Kief and the Intellectual’, the irony is self-lacerating: ‘Ah, miserable at last! Felicity.’ Even her youth is decaying: ‘I have been young too long, and in a dressing-gown/My private modern life has gone to waste’ (‘Bedouin of the London Evening’). Her poetry is ecstatic and unhappy, feverish, crepuscular, idealistic and jaded, choking on sophistication but driven by instinct.

‘I was a guest at my own youth,’ she writes in ‘Running Away’. However unmistakeable her voice, she seems to pass through her own experience like a transient through the bedsits and hotel rooms of her poems. ‘The Desert Wind Elite’ begins: ‘I am outside life, and pour the sand/For my own desert, recklessly.’ Her alienation is constantly shocked by moments of immersion in a life that is both hers and not hers. In ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’, she writes:

No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
Obsessed first by one person, and then
(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;

Like Laforgue’s, Tonks’s poetic persona is as merciless as it is vulnerable. She sees through the things she cannot get beyond, describing the addict’s mix of self-knowledge and compulsion, the realisation that the real addiction is to addiction itself, to its pain and endlessly renewed disappointments, as well as its vitality. ‘My sofa wrote her creaking, narcoleptic’s Iliad. My bathroom drank the Styx,’ she writes in ‘Song of the October Wind’: hers is a world of painkillers, sleeping tablets, alcohol, hashish and coffee. There is also some analgesic product placement, for Veganin and the Laforguian ‘Novocain of my horizon’. ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’ takes us on a journey of disgust, before returning to its starting-point:

Meanwhile … I live on … powerful, disobedient,
Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,
With these people … who are going to obsess me,
Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
For this is not my life
But theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.

Wolfing, bolting, gulping – her poems are full of metaphors of consuming and being consumed. She lives on her ‘Sugar-nerves’, and ‘gorge[s] to death/On ideologies’. In ‘Students in Bertorelli’s’ ‘Each man stuffs himself with ideas’ and ‘eats his pork newspaper’. Meanwhile, the ‘bins and dormitories of cities’ are where ‘one goes to gormandise upon escape’ (‘Escape!’). Most disturbing is ‘Badly-chosen Lover’ (her titles are ingenious), where the affair is imagined as carnivorous and predatory. ‘Criminal, you took a great piece of my life,’ it begins:

Your heart, greedy and tepid, brothel-meat,
Gulped it, like a flunkey with erotica.
And very softly, Criminal, I damn you for it.

In ‘The Drinkers of Coffee’ the speaker tracks the rituals of seduction: ‘You know the deadly dull excitement; the champagne sleet/Of living; you know all the kitchen details of my ego’s thinking.’ The word ‘know’ here conveys both tiredness and anticipation: the escape from a predictable marriage is a predictable affair, and vice versa, endlessly. Her inner life is perpetually short-circuiting. While bohemia is dissected, she is scornful of the world of office hours and overdone Sunday roasts. The husband’s pyjamas are ‘dead bedroom-clothes’, the career man is a Larkinesque ‘toad-winner’.

Like the French writers she admired, Tonks writes a poetry of failed departures. ‘Farewell to Kurdistan’ has as its refrain, ‘Well, I’m leaving; nothing can hold me,’ and describes the trains ‘com[ing] in, boiling, caked!/The station half tames them.’ ‘I’m already sticking out my elbows for a piece of territory,/I occupy my place as though I can’t get enough of it,’ she writes: ‘I shall go to the centre of Europe.’ But the train stays in the station and so does she: ‘I shall live off your loaf of shadows, London;/I admit it, at the last.’

In ‘Epoch of the Hotel Corridor’ she apostrophises her period with a revealing metaphor: ‘I know that to get through to you, my epoch,/I must take a diamond and scratch/On your junkie’s green glass skin.’ That sense of speaking to a time that has heard and seen it all before, that is double-glazed, inured, impermeable and beyond amazement, makes her poetry at once desperate and blasé (yet another of her choice words). She is like her epoch, and part of it; to use her own food imagery: hungry and sated, starved and stuffed.

When he abandoned literature, Rimbaud went to Abyssinia. Tonks chose Bournemouth, where, after travelling to Jerusalem to be baptised in 1981 (her ‘second birth’ she called it), she lived under her married name, Rosemary Lightband, until her death. The poet died into the proselytiser: when she returned to London, it was as a missionary and not a bedouin, giving out bibles at Speakers’ Corner. There is something powerful and sad about imagining her in Hyde Park – Rosemary Lightband visiting the city of Rosemary Tonks – but it fits with the savage, damaged and brilliant thwartedness of her poetry. As Rimbaud wrote in A Season in Hell, ‘On ne part pas.’ Rosemary Tonks shows how far a poet can go without ever leaving.