Ornaments, Dennis Tomlinson

The jacket is pale green and features an engraving in the centre of the top two thirds, looks like a Roman goddess, maybe a wood nymph, in black. Above this the title in black italics, below it, the author's name in small lower case. The name of the press (like all text) is centred very small near the foot of the jacket.Illustrated by Lauren Catling

Letterpress printed at the Paekakariki Press, 2022    £12.50


Every poem in this pamphlet consists of three couplets. There is little variation in line length and punctuation is conventional. So does the ear soon tire of these ornaments, on display two to a page, the exhibition only interrupted by five illustrations by Lauren Catling?

No. Because these poems are not ornamental and they are not ornaments. Each poem is a flame, lit to give thanks for a person or for time spent somewhere, or perhaps coins minted to commemorate pleasure and/or happiness.

Acting as gentle reminders, there is the dragon bought in ‘Carmarthenshire, / our first foreign venture after your stroke.’ (‘Dragon’) and the craftwork flower bought ‘in Cape Town market, / back in the days when we roamed the world.’ (‘Craftwork Flower’).

Lauren Catling’s illustrations are beautifully understated. I especially liked the drawing of the statue of Mahavira (a preacher of Jainism in India and an older contemporary of Gautama Buddha) sitting calmly next to the poem ‘Mahavira’, which contains the lines:

A Jain, a Jain, I want a Jain

you told the guide on that hectic trip,
our last before you were condemned to calm.

Whether it’s the dragon with ‘weeds growing round her scaly tail’ (‘Dragon’) or the garden waiting ‘for the languid goddess / to strike her tambourine’ (‘Nymph’), the illustrations are neither incidental nor merely ornamental but stand side-by-side with poems that express thanks even for life’s hardest truths:

The fate of our Buddha candle shows
Everything flows and nothing stays.
     [‘Melting Buddha’]

Having said these poems are not ornaments, I do want to nudge one or two off their shelf — not out of malice, but to see if they will split open to reveal more about the ‘you’ for whom this whole collection gives thanks. I find ‘you’ most poignantly in the poem ‘Triceratops’ where, scratched on the creature’s back, are the letters LF:

the mark that sets in beyond price,
your grandson’s artist signature.

Sue Butler