Saturday 13 December 2014

The Poet Who Vanished

Ruth Graham sets up the central mystery around Rosemary Tonk's reputation:
There’s something unnatural about wildly successful people who decide that, actually, they prefer to be anonymous after all. What kind of person chooses to forfeit the rewards of fame: the praise, the power, the prestige? We might say we admire them for eschewing the worldly, but there’s an edge of resentment to our fascination too. It goes against human nature.

In poetry, the most famous example of such a retreat is Arthur Rimbaud, who quit writing at 21 after five years of blazing innovation and productivity. Rimbaud spent the rest of his short life traveling, and he became one of the first Europeans to visit Ethiopia. His letters show him apparently consumed with his work as a trader. Critics call his abrupt abandonment of his gift “le silence de Rimbaud."

Decades later, a London poet named Rosemary Tonks would name Rimbaud as one of her main influences. If she was not quite the scandalous sensation of her forebear, she was nonetheless respected, and she ran with a bohemian crowd. Tonks published two collections of poetry in the 1960s, along with six novels and frequent reviews. Philip Larkin corresponded with her and anthologized her. Critics took her seriously; Cyril Connolly praised the “unexpected power” of her “hard-faceted yet musical poems.” And then, quite suddenly, she disappeared.
Neil Astley goes into some detail about what caused Tonks, as one poet put it, to "evaporate[] into air like the Cheshire cat":
The literary world both attracted and repelled her, and she was to turn against its materialism, false values, betrayals and indulgence, as she was to follow Rimbaud in renouncing literature itself: "The mistakes, the wrong people, the half-baked ideas, / And their beastly comments on everything. Foul. / But irresistibly amusing, that is the whole trouble" ("The Little Cardboard Suitcase").

Her mother's death in 1968 was the first in a series of misfortunes and crises that sent her life spinning out of control: a divorce she didn't want; a burglary in which she lost all her clothes; a lawsuit costing thousands of pounds; and ill-health, including incapacitating neuritis in her left arm and one good hand (her right was withered from polio). She turned her back on Christianity, believing the church had failed her mother, and instead looked for help from mediums, healers, spiritualists and Sufi "seekers". The inspiring presence in her house of a collection of ancient artefacts, including oriental god figures, led to her approaching a Chinese spiritual teacher and an American yoga guru. All these she repudiated in turn.

After her marriage collapsed, she found herself living alone, just a few doors away from her ex-husband (soon to be joined by a new wife), doing Taoist meditation, writing reviews and working on a new novel. She later attributed her next life disaster to difficult Taoist eye exercises, which involved staring for hours at a blank wall, turning the eyes in and looking intensely at bright objects. In 1977, on New Year's Eve, she was admitted to Middlesex hospital for emergency operations on detached retinas in both eyes. This was her reward for "10 long years searching for God". Returning home after a month's recuperation at a health hydro in Tring, she found herself totally helpless. Hardly able to see beyond a few feet, she rarely left the house, couldn't cook and became emaciated, all the time suffering from agonising pain in her eyes and permanent headaches.
Tonks became a semi-recluse, devoting her remaining days—until she passed away in April of this year—almost entirely to the Bible. Bloodaxe recently reissued her two poetry collections, unavailable for forty years, under the title Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. But Hillary Davis reminds us that rediscovering her work also means confronting the literary cost of Tonk's decision.
The poet who most comes to mind when encountering Tonks is David Gascoyne. The comparison appears at first sight instructive: their best work written by their late thirties, a powerful sense of their own destinies as poets and of dissatisfaction with the flawed world which greeted them, descent into mental instability and then silence. But the contrast is equally illuminating; whereas Gascoyne’s voice matured from the Surrealist excesses of his youth into the most serious examination of man’s relationship to God and mortality—as in the sequence “Miserere” and the metaphysical poems—Tonks remains frozen at an early stage where the work has not yet settled. As with other poets, though not all, who stop writing young, she does not often get beyond an anger and an attitudinizing which are essentially adolescent. Quite a few of the poems are, moreover, very inchoate in a way which does not spring from genius or the “dérèglement de tous les sens” but merely a failure to master her material: “He, kneeling, with the moonlit sight of thieves, / Begged the ounce hog of the hedges she would seed / A touchy litter of her vermin commoners / That, gentle, he find syrup in his torn lack mouth / Before the radiant traffic of space / Cut to pieces the palm of his hand”. So, although there are indications of movement away from the claustrophobic interiors of Tonks’s self-consciousness, it is impossible to say what a more assured body of her work would have looked like, had her poetic career continued.

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