Exeter Poetry Festival, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Marcia Menter, Robin Vaughan-Williams and Karin Koller
I blame the typeface for making these poems tougher than they ought to have been on first reading: a rounded, serif-ed font (Bookman Old Style or similar) that makes the letters clump together and call attention to themselves, as though a bardic voice were intoning the vowels and biting the consonants. This, I suspect, is no accident. Tamplin keeps a formal distance from his subjects, gravitating to syllabics, haiku and other forms that work against the accentual stresses of an English line. According to an endnote, he seeks to create “a layered sense of figures in a landscape, historic, sometimes legendary, always present.” Well, yes. He does this, and very well. But I find it slow going.
There’s no doubt that Tamplin really sees his landscapes, or that he has the descriptive powers to convey them to the reader. He tends to build them of nouns and gerunds, with few verbs and fewer adjectives, as in the opening lines of ‘Arrival’:
In the valley, a twist of stream, drawing
To it the straight, white-barked aspens, each leaf
A shield trembling before its spiral drop,
Detached and yellowed, to layer the earth.
Eight more lines of tight-packed description follow before something happens: the poet sees a donkey, points at it, and is addressed by a man guarding cattle—who is then described in the same language as the landscape.
[. . .] He seems
To have shaved with a broken bottle, or
Obsidian maybe, so permanent:
His teeth, protruding, stained like a trekking
We’re in modern Turkey, ancient Phrygia, under a wall of huge Hittite figures carved into the rock. Tamplin does indeed create a strong sense of the place. But I am left, as with most of the poems here, feeling that multilayered description is all he really wants to do. He refrains from comment, and his rare attempts at synthesis seem flat or incomplete. In ‘Frame and Picture: Ortahisar’, he describes (at marvelous and ornate length) a framed print of St. George and the dragon, encountered in a Turkish shop (“A dive-bombing/ angel tips a bowl and pours a gold-dust halo round his head . . . ”). He imagines the print’s previous owners, and ventures to wonder whether the saint on his prancing horse can have a real presence in a world threatened by such terrors as dragons. His three-word conclusion: “Time/ will tell.” I read this and thought: Then why are you telling me all this?
There are beautiful, lapidary descriptions in these poems, as in this haiku stanza from ‘To the Phrygian Heights’:
The mountain line stark
Against yellow evening, foot
Mist-soft and town-light.
So to shamelessly paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is a there there. But little else.
This collection takes its title from its opening poem, ‘Checkpoint’, which describes a night-time border crossing in the Middle East. The poem is immediately gripping and sustains a sense of drama throughout. The closing lines sum up both the artificiality of the border and its profound psychological effects: “We are all criminals”, the poet is told, “There is no border and we cross it all the time”.
Later on in the collection, ‘Village’ returns to the geography of ‘Checkpoint’. Both poems succeed in conjuring up a sultry, slightly feverish atmosphere, where the poet is not simply an observer in a foreign land, but appears unsettled by its pull on his own life. There’s an uncertainty in ‘Village’ between observation and fantasy, where the poet “imagines” guerillas popping up anywhere, in any country, while at the same time creating the impression this human violence is specifically rooted in the landscape depicted in the poem:
Rocks, trucks shot up and burning, and the men
With blackened faces, mission completed,
Disappearing, melting as the papers
Say, into a country of denuded
Intersecting spurs, a land of gouges
I was puzzled, however, as to why the few poems related to ‘Checkpoint’ weren’t grouped together. As the initial and title poem, it feels like it’s there to set the scene. But the following pages feature ‘Debussy: In a Breton Church’, ‘Seven Poems for Tristan and Iseult’, the archaeological ‘Devon Sequence’, and ‘John Keats: About to Write a Letter’, none of which managed to capture my interest. There is often a certain intensity of language in these poems, but where there’s drama it feels overdone, and the mixture of description, symbolism, and stylisation fails to generate the tension of which Tamplin clearly is capable.
Checkpoint is Ronald Tamplin’s third pamphlet, having previously been published by Five Leaves and Smith/Doorstop. Tamplin writes that the poems were “brought together after a gap of many years. The places seen are ones I have lived in, and received from, in those years. I hope there is discernible a continuous thread binding them, a layered sense of figures in a landscape, historic, sometimes legendary, always present”.
Tamplin is an academic poet, and these are not all easily accessible poems. Reading them aloud I found it helped to imagine the poems floating within a layer of historical, musical and artistic references—an interweaving of ideas. They often start in a low-key, almost conversational, observational style. But before you know it you’re in different territory altogether. The title poem inhabits the no-man’s land between countries, and this is the physical and emotional space Tamplin’s poems return to explore, whichever country or setting he locates them in.
To give you a flavour, here are two extracts, the first from ‘Checkpoint’:
And looking back,
Only the circled checkpoint stands, a world apart,
Where white-faced boys trump cards with cards and cars
With guns, alone in the equal darkness where Bedouin
And the black tents move. We stop at a roadhouse
Just before the town. Drinking coffee, I tell a man
What happened as we came. ‘We are all criminals,’
He says, ‘There is no border and we cross it all the time.’
and secondly, from ‘Village’:
I am both
The splayed convoy that surveys its spoilt flesh
And the darkened faces gaining the hills.
And they too change places.
There are two longer sequences within this elegantly produced slim pamphlet. ‘Seven Poems for Tristan and Iseult’ alludes to the legend, but doesn’t address it directly, and it wasn’t always easy to know which voice was speaking. I preferred ‘Devon Sequence’, particularly the beautifully crafted poem about Trew’s Weir, written with great delicacy and lightness of touch. Taking the simple image of two ducks, Tamplin is again able to inhabit that no-man’s land between two worlds:
Water slides across the lip, silked
Tresses combed to their fingered ends.
Two ducks move steady, downriver,
Towards the lip, angle left
In exact diagonal,
Avoid, then perch upon a log
Stalled and balanced on the weir’s edge,
The thin line between placid and plunge.
A small niggle—all the poems have (to my eyes) un-necessary initial capital letters at the start of lines, apart from an expansive poem triggered by discovering a picture of St George and the dragon in a small shop in a Turkish town. Because of the lack of initial capitals it has a more modern feel, with line-breaks working with the poem rather than holding the reader up.
As a bonus, the pamphlet includes two stunning line drawings by Robert Tilling—one on the cover and one from his set of illustrations to the Tristan and Iseult sequence. If only the whole set could have been included!