Sparks of warmth
Love's Bonfire. By Tom Paulin.
TOM PAULIN, an Anglo-Irish poet and Oxford academic, is no stranger to the evocative power of words. He was born in Leeds in 1949 and grew up in Belfast.
His work is attentive to the shift between these differing cultures, the pinpoints of speech that separate one from another.
His poetry takes place both against the backdrop of Irish sectarian violence and in the glare of “that cold intense/English light”;
his feeling of displacement between the two places described in lean, simple phrases.
“Love's Bonfire”, his latest collection, is no less stark.
Eight years in the making, Mr Paulin's poetry has been whittled down over years of revision.
His short, punchy poems are characterised by their ability to evoke images through the smallest of details, or through sudden shifts of register.
Often impatient with what he sees as euphemisms or newspeak—“It was some phrase like level playing field/that gunked me as he said it”
—Mr Paulin's poems fight against lazy uses of language: “let's try to unpack this gave me the cue/to leave”.
Like the nearly burned-out bonfire described in the title poem, Mr Paulin's poetry revels in a certain charred bleakness.
However, the poems that make up the centre of “Love's Bonfire”—translations and adaptations by Mr Paulin from the work of his contemporary, the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar—are far more playful.
Coupling Mr Paulin's lean language with the livelier, surreal images of Mr Khazendar, they are among the most compelling works here.
Whether it is the description “you drag your shadow behind you/like it's a ladder” or the dreamlike evocation of someone,
who “wanted to rub his tongue on tree bark/and ask how it happened”, these poems prevent “Love's Bonfire” from becoming too austere.
And although Mr Khazendar's poetry can be serious or sinister—one,
“Belongings”, opening “Who entered my room when I was out/and moved the vase on the mantelpiece just a tad?”—in Mr Paulin's translations, they never seem too laboured.
This may surprise some readers who are aware of Mr Paulin's work as a cultural commentator in Britain.
On television his political statements are not always so nuanced.
But unlike these appearances, in “Love's Bonfire” Mr Paulin demonstrates the strength that comes with saying less, not unlike relying on only a spark for warmth.