Following his post on the folk singer Shelagh McDonald, Jonathan Law continues his occasional series on artists who have vanished into thin air with a look at a strange and possibly brilliant poet…
If you’ve ever come across the work of Rosemary Tonks, then I think I might hazard a guess where: probably, you’re one of that vast horde of readers – at last count, some quarter million strong – who have armed themselves with copies of the Bloodaxe Books anthology Staying Alive: Real Poetry for Unreal Times (2002). While this militantly eclectic volume has become far-and-away the country’s best-selling anthology of contemporary verse, Tonks’s own books have been impossible to obtain for some 40 years; there is no Collected or Selected Poems. The reasons for this – and very strange reasons they are too – will emerge by the end of this post.
If you did chance on one of the Tonks pieces in Staying Alive, I think you’ll have paused a little before turning the page. At a time when every run-of-the-mill poet is hailed as “a unique and distinctive voice”, Tonks’s wholly idiosyncratic work is a reminder of what such a claim might really entail. Unique and distinctive? Well, here, from the Bloodaxe book, is the whole of one piece, ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’:
No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
Obsessed first by one person, and then
(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another:
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
They belong to the people in the streets, the others
Out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.
Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!
Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.
Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd
That’s fed on lemonades and matinées. And seas
That float themselves about from place to place, and then
Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.
Yalta; deck-chairs in Asia’s gold cake; thrones.
Meanwhile … I live on … powerful, disobedient,
Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,
With these people … who are going to obsess me,
Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgiveable
For this is not my life
But theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.
Whether it appeals to you or not, this is poetry of an alarmingly original order. The voice is nervy, febrile, often caustic and accusatory, with an underlying hauteur (“these people”). Sudden swerves in argument and abrupt changes of tone are registered by Tonks’s most obvious formal quirk – her wanton use of ellipses, dashes, and exclamation marks. There’s an abundance of brilliant, baffling phrases (“moody isobars”, “sumptuous tittle-tattle”) – and the occasional pratfall into something rather like nonsense (“Asia’s gold cake”).
Reading this for the first time, in the Bloodaxe book, you might wonder why you have never heard of the woman Tonks and flip to the index in search of some basic data. But if you do, the mystery deepens vertiginously. The entry reads:
Tonks, Rosemary (b. London, 1932: disappeared 1970s)
While it would be untrue to say that we know nothing about Tonks, the things that we do know are not generally those that we long to. After a comfortable London childhood, Rosemary attended Wentworth School until the age of 15 or 16, when she was expelled for reasons nobody now seems to remember. Somewhat remarkably, she was already a published author; her children’s tale Miss Bushman-Caldicott(“the story of a very nice cow”) had been broadcast on BBC radio in October 1946 and was subsequently included in Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Story Book. A novel for children, On Wooden Wings: The Adventures of Webster, followed in 1948. The trail then goes cold until the early 1950s, when – still aged just 19 – Tonks married a wealthy banker, whose business affairs took them to Karachi. This sojourn is presumably responsible for the vein of Eastern exotica – all bustling souks and magic carpet rides – that runs through Tonks’s poetry. Wretchedly, it also brought an attack of polio that – by some accounts – left Rosemary with a withered arm.
The early 1960s find Tonks and her husband settled in a vast house in Hampstead and at the centre of a somewhat louche set in which writers, artists, and academics rub up against Old and New Money. While some who attended the couple’s celebrated parties recall a witty and vivacious woman, others remember their hostess as shy and self-conscious about her polio arm. Away from the social whirl, these were years of intense literary activity. Tonks reviewed for the BBC and the New York Review of Books and the first of six adult novels appeared in 1963; like its successors, Opium Fogs is a short, brittle satire set in a milieu of wealthy Bohemianism, collapsing marriages, and intense but unsatisfactory love affairs. The tone has been described as one of “well-bred savagery”. The same milieu – and the same strong hints of autobiography – inform the altogether more extraordinary poetry that Tonks began to publish at around this time; her first collection, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms, came out in 1963 and a second, Iliad of Broken Sentences, in 1967. For once, the cliché about ‘slim volumes’ is entirely apt: the books contain Tonks’s complete poetical works – a total of 46 short poems.
If Tonks’s poetry seems outlandishly original to most English readers, this is due in part to her choice of masters; her most obvious influences were Rimbaud and Baudelaire and there is clearly a wider debt to French symbolism and surrealism –movements that remain pretty much unassimilated in contemporary English verse. She is also, like these writers, a very urban poet – arguably, the finest poet of London life since Eliot (who was himself largely formed by Baudelaire, Laforgue, and the poetry of 19th-century Paris). Indeed, it is fascinating to note how far Tonks’s London – the London that was just beginning to Swing – is still recognizably that of Eliot, writing some 40 years earlier. The London celebrated by Tonks is still a city of fogs and smokes, of sulphurous Novembers and “dark rag-and-satin” Aprils – a real-but-unreal city of tenebrous railway stations and “side-streets / Mouldy or shiny, with their octoroon light”, of hidden squares “stuffed with whisky-dark hotels” and “little bars as full of dust as a stale cake”. It comes as something of a shock to realize that the London of Alfie and ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is, after all, closer in time to the city of The Waste Land than to our city of Nandos and Boris Bikes and unimaginably rich, inexplicably slandered Russian philanthropists – but so it is, it is …
Poets’ attempts to explain their own work are often weirdly off-the-mark but Tonks sums up her poetry and its preoccupations very well:
I have developed a visionary modern lyric, and, for it, an idiom in which I can write lyrically, colloquially, and dramatically. My subject is city life—with its sofas, hotel corridors, cinemas, underworlds, cardboard suitcases, self-willed buses, banknotes, soapy bathrooms, newspaper-filled parks; and its anguish, its enraged excitement, its great lonely joys.
The accuracy of this could only be established at length – but suffice it to say there is a particularly fine lyric about the “great lonely joy” of going to the cinema by yourself:
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum
… the fogs! the fogs! The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,
The screen is spread out like a thundercloud – that bangs
And splashes you with acid … or lies derelict, with lighted waters in it,
And in the silence, drips and crackles – taciturn, luxurious.
(‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’)
and another marvellously strange piece about crossing the “magnetic landscape” of the city in the “precarious glass salon” of a London bus:
… I began to feel as battered as though I had been making love all night! My limbs distilled the same interesting wide-awake weariness. We went forward at a swimmer’s pace, gazing through the walls that rocked the weather about like a cloudy drink from a chemist’s shop – with the depth and sting of the Baltic. The air-shocks, the sulphur dioxides, the gelatin ignitions! We were all of us parcelled up in mud-coloured clothes, dreaming, while the rich perishable ensemble – as stuffy and exclusive as a bag of fish and chips, or as an Eskimo’s bed in a glass lift – cautiously advanced as though on an exercise from a naval college.
(‘An Old-fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’)
If Tonks’s vision of urban life is more celebratory than Eliot’s, it can involve a similarly fierce sense of detachment from the epoch and the culture. She writes disparagingly of the “tragic, casual era” of the 1960s and more savagely of “a century that growls/ For its carafe of shady air, oblivion, and psychiatric mash”. Elsewhere, you will find this unsettling declaration:
I understand you, frightful epoch,
With your jampots, brothels, paranoias,
And your genius for fear, you can’t stop shuddering.
Discothèques, I drown among your husky, broken sentences.
I know that to get through to you, my epoch,
I must take a diamond and scratch
On your junkie’s green glass skin, my message
And my joy – sober, piercing, twilit.
(‘Epoch of the Hotel Corridor’)
In all this we begin to approach the central mystery of Tonks’s life – her sudden decision, in her early 40s, to abandon literature and la dolce vita for poverty, seclusion, and silence. With hindsight, it is tempting to see portents all over the work. Those who have read the late novels say that Tonks’s disillusion with modern life and modern loving gives way to something much darker here – an apparent loathing for materialism and carnality in all their forms. Is there not a hint of finality in the title of her last, bitter comedy of sexual pursuit, The Halt During the Chase? (The title is in fact borrowed from the last, barely finished painting by Watteau. And what of the poetry? Well, make of it what you will, but the last poem in Tonks’s last published collection includes these haunting lines:
… England is darker than a thrush, tonight,
Brown, trustworthy hours lie ahead. Suddenly
My past hurls her dream towards me!
I steady myself … but how tender, carnal, blasé it is.
Let me hide, well away from a past that dreams like that.
Away from streets that taste of blood and sugar
When the glowing month smashes itself against the hedges
In the dark. I need ink poured by an abbey…
(‘A Few Sentences Away’)
Let me hide: from the carnal and the blasé, from the past, from the sweet and bloody seduction of dreams.
According to one account, the moment of crisis was brought on by a visit from Baudelaire’s ghost. In truth, no-one knows exactly when or how it happened, but at some point in the mid-1970s Rosemary Tonks slipped out of that big house in Hampstead and to all intents and purposes vanished. She would never publish again and for many years the literary world had no idea if she was alive or dead. Even now, accounts of her fate remain vague – but there seems to be some agreement that Tonks had a violent religious conversion and lived for years with one of those semi-sinister hippy-Christian sects that flourished at the time. Other versions have her becoming a nun and/or spending time in Soviet Russia.
Although Tonks’s name vanished from most literary accounts of the 1960s, her work was of such singularity that it could hardly be forgotten for good. Among those who would try and fail to track her down in the decades ahead was Andrew Motion, who recalled in 2004: “Disappeared! What happened? Because I admire her poems, I’ve been trying to find out for years … according to some people she became a Sufi. Others say she entered a closed order. Others imagine her footloose and anonymous, travelling the wide world. In any event, no trace of her seems to survive – apart from the writing she left behind.”
The first sign of a renewed interest in this writing came in 1996, when Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney included two of her poems in their ground-breaking Faber anthology Emergency Kit – Poems for Strange Times. At the turn of the century several big anthologies followed suit, notably Sean O’Brien’s The Firebox, Oxford’s Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, and – critically – the bestselling aforementioned Staying Alive. Apart from spreading the word about Tonks’s poetry, these books inevitably stirred up interest in the enigma of her life – an enigma that received nationwide publicity when BBC radio broadcast the documentary Rosemary Tonks: The Poet Who Vanished in 2009. Paradoxically, the invisible poet was in danger of becoming a celebrity. Indeed, in 2013 it’s startling to see just how far the super-reclusive Tonks has penetrated the culture. Trawling the net in search of Tonksiana you’ll find a much-watched fanvid
in which Sarah Parish intones Tonks’s ‘The Story of a Hotel Room’ over footage of herself in a clinch with David Tennant. You’ll also find speculation as to whether (Nymphadora) Tonks, the shape-shifting magus and Guardian of the Department of Mysteries in the later Harry Potter books, was created in honour of the poet. I’d love to believe that was true.
The BBC doc resolved at least one part of the enigma, by establishing that Tonks was still alive and leading a secluded, anchoritic, existence in a shed-like structure at the bottom of someone’s garden. Attempts by the media and literary worlds to make contact have, however, been rebuffed as firmly as those of friends, family, and well-wishers over the past four decades. In particular, publishers seeking permission to reissue the poems have met with a stony refusal. When the collected volume appears it will no doubt be posthumously – Tonks is in her 80s – and there will be talk of a major literary event. You can even see a Plath-like cult developing around the mystery woman with the sharp, cruel take on it all. Suddenly it all begins to feel like something out of The Aspern Papers. You can almost see those publishing scoundrels hovering.