Changing places, Carl Tomlinson
Fair Acre Press, 2021 £7.50
There is no doubt these are poems about ‘fifty acres of gentle land / nudged between mill towns and millstone grit’ (‘Coming to grief’) but let the plough cut deeper and what gets turned up is:
[…] my father’s teenage need to leave that land
and make his life his own.
[…] my uncle’s trying to stay
where I was sure we all belonged.
[…] Grandad’s explaining
that even the hencotes would go.
On the whole, the poems reveal clearly what happened to the people but I also want to know what happened to the horse. Not the ponies in ‘New forest’ that nibble saplings while ‘Pannage fattened pigs devour / beeches you will never see’ but the horse needed for Carl Tomlinson’s grandfather to make a living:
Once you went round daily with a horse,
pouring milk from door to door and at Christmas,
as my Dad reminds me every Christmas,
a half was poured for you at every pub you served.
You’d take each one and hand the reins to him.
These are poems that are not easily spooked. They lean into their collar as they move steadily and willingly either door-to-door or up and down a field. They are poems with sturdy cannon bones, deep chests and a sheen of sweat on their glistening hides. The landscape is reflected in their patient eyes.
And, when I look again, listen again, I realise Carl Tomlinson answers my question about the horse, albeit obliquely, because the saddest poem about horses is the two-sentence, four-line poem where there is no horse in sight, just a bridleway at the tail-end of summer and an unidentified kind of rain harried by an unwelcome wind.
All along the bridleway
some kind of rain
is trying to shake off the wind.
The land feels thinned.
I’m not sure I can articulate what ‘thinned’ land looks like but I can feel it with every bone in my body.
Love of the land
Love of the land. A phrase so easy to say, almost a cliché. And yet it’s what Edward Thomas laid down his life for. There is a long, long tradition of poetry in English inspired by it, uplifted by it. Many of Carl Tomlinson’s poems are firmly in that tradition, and potently so.
Some of the time this land love is right in your face, like in the opening poem, ‘Baling’, where the poet remembers a childhood in which ‘We lived with the itching and the seeds in our hair / because that was the way we were made’. Or in ‘Coming to grief’ where
the breath of beasts on a winter day
and the sweetness of cowshit and hay
surprise that grief back into me.
The ‘grief’ in that poem is for loss of land, ‘fifty acres of gentle land’ sold by auction.
But it’s a grief that’s also a kind of joy. Because right now the poet is back farming land that is, in every sense, a rich source for him.
In ‘They moved our sky’, he celebrates ‘riches’ that are now
by will and trust and deed
in the fields that I tread every day
to check the sheep,
or to see what’s new
among the trees
Even when his feeling for this territory isn’t obvious, it slips in round the edges, bringing different elements together. In ‘New forest’ ‘seeds are flown and blown / beyond boundaries [ … ] / They land in gardens, they muscle into hedges.’
In ‘To David on your 50th birthday’ (which is about the author’s brother, long dead), the poet mentions how ‘This morning the air is chill in my lungs / as I check up on things in the field’.
And in ‘Cherwell Valley nightscape’, the air is what the land breathes out as a kind of gift:
I borrow a breath of this shining air.
The vastness swallows what I offer in return.
But that’s how it is when poetry is imbued with love, whatever that love is for.
Here it’s for the land. You can’t miss it. (I loved it.)