BOOK REVIEW / Tin tents and ticktock cries: 'Walking a Line' - Tom Paulin: Faber, 5.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
TOM PAULIN'S fifth book of poems follows a seven year pause after Fivemiletown - the kind of pause which most writers would welcome - in which he has published an adaptation of Aeschylus, an anthology of vernacular poetry and an extraordinary collection of critical essays, Minotaur. Fivemiletown was one of those rare books which knocks the coordinates of poetry such a distance beyond contemporary practice that all it can expect is irate incomprehension. Paulin had evolved a mercurial style that mixes the subjective with the political so as to make new shapes out of both.

Walking a Line has a more clement, meridian feel to it. Somehow Paulin has managed to jettison the internal coat hanger and wised-up downbeat disillusion which is characteristic of the 'well-made' poem to which he here refers as 'Foursquare / a dead duck':

'they want us to love

their rigid waddle

their ticktock cries

the way they confront

our square earth

in its box of -

I should say sky

in its box of air'

The constabulary manner of that word 'confront' is well judged, as is the way the voice veers off from the clinching rhyme. This poem isn't content merely to satirise but invents a parallel reality where language is free to try out new forms.

Paul Klee, whose meditations on the art of drawing give Paulin his title, is a guiding spirit not only for the three poems in which he appears in person. The first of these records Klee on guard duty ripping primed canvases off crashed German bombers. That improvisational 'throwaway permanence' is what these poems value. Set implicitly against Horace's 'perennial bronze', there is 'History of the Tin Tent' which is 'bowed into shape / from rippling thundery / hundredweight aces / of sheet metal'. Here we find a conflict between the poem's delight in the material of the tents and the history that brought them into being - 'Europe became a desert / so these tents could happen'. It's not a conflict that is resolved, but then the whole book is built on the unresolved - several poems end with question marks, not as evasions or as rhetorical questions, but rather as a way of earthing within the poem the forces that are left outside. 'The Firhouse', a title which, said rather than read, is an ingenious bit of sexual slang ('the house is set next a clump of fir trees on a small hill') takes a wary reading of the social climate of middle England. Everything is left in an indeterminate state - even the biro plays up 'as if it knows this poem (if it is a poem) / will never quite get written'. The poem's speaker goes to the door to enquire after a Christmas tree and is turned away by the woman of the house. He asks himself 'but why should you want in? why should there be / some little puja room you have to come inside of?'

The way in which this poem sparks off questions of national identity, of sex and politics, alongside a playful questioning of the act of writing, is representative of the whole book. Dispensing with conventional punctuation as Paulin does here requires exact judgement of tone and rhythm. What he has achieved is a powerfully oral, child-like immediacy of tone without sacrificing complexity of thought or design. The poems are tuned to register the most fugitive perceptions, catching 'more jizz more quickchanging brightness'. In 'American Light', which crosses Donegal with Cape Cod, the opening sets up an original play of the visual and the tactile:

'- the wild China roses paths of clam shells

those little slights of fog

stuck in the firtrees'

And the poem ends around a campfire, the company drinking and 'laughing our legs off'. That final image surreally re-imagines the 'slights of fog / stuck in the firtrees' as well as teasing out notions of being grounded, of belonging somewhere.

Walking a Line may well be Paulin's finest achievement to date - it is a real event to find, among others, poems as good as 'The Sting', 'Cadmus and the Dragon', 'Soldier and Packman' and 'Basta' in one book. The end of 'Basta' conveys the spirit of the book and the experience of reading it:

'- so we waded right into

that watery plain

that blue blue ocean

and started diving and leaping

like true whales in clover'