my speech from the uea ‘reading matters’ conference 2018. performed whilst pacing around the auditorium in a dressing-gown & a faceful of fake diamonds.
rosemary tonks’ poems take place within a kind of highly extravagant dreamscape. she’s generally regarded as a quintessential poet of the sixties, but i’m not sure that’s really true. time is unstable in this dreamscape of hers- it’s decaying, like the rotting boards of the parisian waterfronts in blouson noir, like the velvet nights that her poems often take place within, as they swoon towards daybreak & the dream is over.
her poems are filled with anonymous hotel liasons and electric lights. they are poems of blood-caked traffic, of dust and narcotics, of modern life. but they also flicker with a half-lost past. the yellow fogs of victoriana are everywhere, and she has the romantic preoccupation with the divine dreamers and somnolents of classical mythology. soho is orpheus’s dark and tangled underworld; ‘hypnos follows me all day in a silk dressing-gown,’ says her narrator.
then there’s the opium-smoke that is the dark breath of her world. in sofas, fogs and cinemas, ‘the light is brown as laudanum’. then europe is suffocated by ‘hot fogs and poppies’. the victorian obsession with the idea of the east as the faraway magical “orient” is all over her writing. the result of these collisions of modern and victorian attitudes is a kind of wooziness, a decay of time. when tonks lived alone in paris, she swore that she met baudelaire one night on an empty street. here, in her dreamscape, she peels up the pavements to let out the ghosts.
and the resulting decay is voluptuous. tonks constantly manipulates our wonder and our disgust. there’s passages of overripe fleshy grotesquerie- for instance, ‘could i not read as well the tradesman’s hand/ with its magenta creases- whose soul turns blandly/ on a sirloin mattress to smile at the next meal?’ images of meat, of flies on meat, are everywhere.
but then there’s passages of luminous, synaesthetic loveliness, often to do with dreams- so long as they’re distant. in ace of hooligans: ‘the dream in fluent opal swam against his eyes/its waters sumptuously baited as the sea’. in ‘running away’- ‘i was a hunter whose animal/ is that dark hour when the hemisphere moves/ in deep blue blaze of dews/ and you, brunette of the birdmusic tree,/ spatter in spat diamonds/ drunkenly.’ aside from the sheer sensuous beauty of those lines, i think ‘birdmusic tree’ references the arabian nights’ tale ‘the talking bird, the singing tree, and the golden water’- again mingling the geography of this dreamscape of hers. it isn’t quite london or europe or the vague scheherazadian east, but a fantasy-place where they all meet and fragment.
her imagery of rotting flesh and turning meat- of erotic mortality- makes sense in this context; wonder and disgust are both valid reactions because her dreamscapes- her dark cities- are in a constant state of bloom and breakdown. there’s the ‘shabby thrilling twilight of the street’; the ‘rank elegance’ of rome; and, ultimately, in her poem ‘escape’, she acknowledges this- ‘and your soul knows half the flavour/ lies underfoot in dirty flagstones’. the beauty of decay is their enchantment. it’s what makes her dreamscapes so strange and so wonderful.