The Sunday Poem: Badly-Chosen Lover

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 36 Rosemary Tonks
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London-born in 1932: a mysterious and one-off figure whose two flashingly original, surprising collections, very strong and confident, came out in the 1960s. She has stopped publishing; but some of her poems, especially this one, are much anthologised.

The dark end of love poetry is the reproachful valediction to the lover who is not worth suffering for. Shakespeare was brilliant at it; I'd say at least two lines from the great bitter sonnets ("Farewell, though art too dear for my possessing" and "expense of spirit in a waste of shame") lurk under the skin of this one. The danger of the genre (for the poet, that is) is tone. Shrillness, rage and vindictiveness are pretty one-dimensional, unrelieved stuff, and a good poem needs play and give, shift in perspective and a modicum of compassion to work. Tonks gets round that danger by varying the tone - from imagism (clear muscles of my brain), to the surreal (lens and jug), from furious disgust (brothel-meat), to the capitalised, over-the-top humour of Criminal and Turk and the comic disgustedness of cabbage stumps, brothel-meat, erotica. But also, in a poem ostensibly addressing an ex-lover, by commenting implicitly on her own behaviour. Very softly, in the first and last lines of the last verse qualifies her own act (I damn you); so does the only other adverb, the one in the title. The poem's point is damning him, but self-criticism introduces it: the lover was not bad but badly chosen. Softly qualifies her use of words, too. She uses strong predatory verbs for what he did (took, took, took in the first verse, fed and gulped in the second) which characterise him as all take, all consumption. But that was in the past: now she has got things clear - the word which describes her own inwardness in the inner part (fourth-to-fifth lines) of each stanza. She has clarity at her centre, and her stanzas' centre: she is the one in control of words, the one with present-tense verbs (I have, I have, I damn). She is in control of damning him: so strong she can throw her condemnation at him very softly.

Paradoxically, a hard C opens this soft cursing and then runs right the way through from the first Criminal to the last, via took, took, took, clear, books, coarse banknote, cabbage, Criminal, broke, Turk, neck, clear, flunkey, erotica. The long vowels (life, time, clear, brain, thoughts, meals, days, houses) are on her side. Wielding what is false and coarse, he leaves her with short brusque vowels (mud, stumps; then fed, breath, neck, then brothel, erotica). Holding the lens and jug (echoed in mud and stumps) of what he did to her, she sees it clearly, is filled with it. This internal clarity (of muscle, brain, lens, retina) gives her damning its strength. She replies to his short brusque vowels by flourishing three- syllable words (and images for his behaviour) at him: criminal, retina, behaviour, brothel-meat, erotica (echoed in for it at the finale). He is the criminal, but he is caged up now: she is making rings round him, in words.

In spent like a banknote, the first verse reckons up the emotional expense of the affair in money terms, like Shakespeare's "too dear for my possessing", or "expense of spirit, waste of shame". After those cabbage stumps, though, the second verse turns the costliness into an image of mutual consumption. But her eating was a spiritual breaking of fast (my spirit broke its fast on you), while his was a blow-out. His heart comes over as both metaphorical and literal, both greedy and tepid, the eating agent and the eaten food (tepid as cooling stew, or brothel-meat). Sex appears as an image (flunkey with erotica) for the gulpy eating of his heart. This lover was a thief - he took a great piece of my life, a piece of time; his love-behaviour was stolen. He was a Turk - he wasted half Europe. His attitude to love was both voracious and tacky; like consumers of brothel-meat and erotica, he didn't care about the object eaten or loved. But her love (in the first verse) involved other sorts of books and other meals; as well as thoughts, Europe, houses. As in all love poems, the one writing the poem has the power. On the surface, the poem is about being left with nothing but mud and cabbage stumps. In fact it gets half Europe into itself, and ejects the lover wittily, as a party-piece, from its own Eden.

What's missing in the tone is sadness, or gentleness towards the good things she saw in him: as if she only regrets her investment of spirit, and doesn't mourn the way she loved him. Softly, I think (though other readers, especially male ones, may not agree), does supply a whiff of that missing tenderness. As well as flagging her command (of language, tone, poem, of the last word, of the whole situation as it now is) it suggests she still has softness towards him. Calling him Criminal like a pet ("Criminal", you say, when your beloved spaniel demolishes yet another new packet of Honey Nut Loops), and putting softly beside it, brings in that missing, otherwise unexpressed affection: it softens the curse.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Badly-Chosen Lover' appears in the anthology Emergency Kit (ed Sweeney & Shapcott, Faber)