“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” ― Kahlil Gibran
However uninspiring the title, Short Works, may appear, this is much more than just a book of poems, translations and short stories. The work nestled within this simple cover, accumulated over five decades, is nothing short of a literary treasure trove. It makes me wonder whether there is perhaps something more to the title Short Works – is this just a literal description of the contents in its rawest form, or does it mean something else? The works are really not short at all. I would go so far as to say they are relatively ‘long’ works. While the reader could easily make short work of reading the book – I myself succeeded in a lazy afternoon – it is clear that the author took more than a little more time in writing the book. Perhaps I’m looking too much into this – but I like to think that the, perhaps somewhat dull, title has a deeper meaning, one which alludes to something of the comedian in the author’s personality.
The first half of this book is a collection of poems, past and present, which speak volumes as to the life of the author. Tomkins’ wonderfully melodramatic and fantastic younger years overflow with the essence of youth, while largely avoiding the embarrassment of childhood innocence. Later years fall into the metaphysical, the metaphorical, and the philosophical. The works clearly span not just decades, but continents, and more than one or two frames of mind, exhibiting a truly unique voice, at times jumbled and jarring, at others fantastically vivid, presenting creatures, settings, times and places that form and reform before your eyes, like images from the screen of Disney’s Fantasia.
The author’s words are at times beautiful:
Under an opal moon
Metallic scorpions scuttle
Toad winks, blinks, and gulps
Wings sticking tattered to damp lips.
At others morbid:
I remember hide and seek
And a dog dead under a bush,
Its pebble-teeth scattering the path,
But always, above all, vivid and resounding.
I was delighted by the section given over to ‘Poems from Poems’ – although I can’t be sure, exactly, what Tomkins means by this. I imagine this section is where translations and found poetry come into play*. I absolutely love constructing poetry from other poetry, it has a charm all of its own, and I like to think that the author shares and has explored this passion. A story does not need to have a meaning before it is written, sometimes, it is in the writing that a meaning is born. This section of the book goes to show just this.
The section of short stories is perhaps the most difficult to pass judgment on – with so much content, how can you give adequate coverage to everything? On the whole, Tomkins’ short stories are well-written – remarkably well-written in fact – concise, intricate, and beautifully flowing. The works really bring character and setting to life, with the imagery exhibited in the poetry brought to a whole new level, delivering a picture the reader can really see. The stories are so open to interpretation, leaving their mark and giving the reader something to think about long after they have turned the final page. The characters, each unique in their own way, have hidden secrets, desires and aspirations that the text can only allude to, a mystery which can only be imagined, a silent, niggling message which can never be fully understood. I love the power of the short story to make you think, fill out the characters and create your own story, within the verbal landscape of the author.
I was particularly taken by ‘The Sands of the Sea’ – although ‘Mr Lippstadt’s Holiday’ was certainly not without its charm – being drawn in firstly by the delicious descriptions of Ferdy’s newly found bookshop. I was delighted by the description of the books as living creatures, hopping from shelf to shelf, following Ferdy on his search, as though desperately excited at the prospect of purchase. The last book, however, is something more insidious, with the elusive work crawling through the bookcases before coming to rest, like some predator, to lie in wait, inconspicuously, silently, on a final dusty shelf.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
Overall I found Short Works to be refreshing, thoughtful and surprisingly readable. While undoubtedly magnificently written, this book is not self-important or difficult for the sake of difficulty. The poems and short stories alike are sure to delight wordsmiths, and leave the reader with one or two things to think about.