The Death Mask of Mary, Queen of Scots. Poems 1970-2000
By John Sawkins. Bochum (Bochumer Universitaetsverlag), 
Berlin / London / Paris (Europaeischer Universitaets-Verlag) 2003
ISBN 3-89966-119-2

The face of a woman, on the cover. A young and no doubt a pretty woman, but a severed head. Somebody, I heard, suggested to the poet it would make a good cover and this may well be the case.
But what does it tell us, about the dangers, of aestheticism?

Having spent his formative years in an English public school and later, during his college years, in Oxford, the rare refinement of the educated that I felt present in his poems in the sixties and early seventies, had an ambivalent effect on me who went, at that time, for the fine, yet rough and creaky voice of the old William Carlos Williams, recorded by some American record company. Or the rhythms of Bob Dylan, the big city sentiments and metaphors of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In old age, John Sawkin's voice has become more like that of the old Williams reading the Patterson poems, and over the years, his poems, at least quite a few of them, have attained a simplicity that is beautiful.

It began, perhaps, with poems dedicated to children. No sentimentality. Just very acute observation that gets across to us, in short, unpretentious lines. "Harsha Learns to Read," written in  1980. is a fine example.
Another poem, "A Piece of Eight, for Ragnhild," starts out very lightly, then developing forcefully to catch the impressions of movement, of beautiful energy present in a young human being,  ending on a somber note, the theme of time, "that awful clock / that goes tick-tock / tick-tock tick-tock/ makes a hell of a whirr," letting us sense the ambiguous feelings of a man who knows that this liveliness and spontaneity present in a child he observed at play may not last forever.
Perhaps it is not by accident that, in the context of another poem, entitled "Two Photographs of Rudyard's Children", the author quotes this passage from Angus Wilson's biography of R.K., "Rudyard Kipling was a man who, throughout his life, worshipped and respected (a rare combination) children and their imaginings."

A few poems are about members of the family. "Father and Daughter" (12.1980) is mild, full of insight, sympathy, unpretentious. "Oriel," written in 1974 and revised in 1990, mixes the view of a child with a view of history, not just family history. The world outside enters, the African landscape, "plots of green maize / and bee-hive huts",  the friendly Nuba inhabitants of the village who, " she came insight / [his kid, his daughter], they called her name / and after she had passed / they called her back / till the echo of Oriel / .... / became the fulfilment / of a solemn promise." Perhaps, there is all the love and hope and vision of a father included in these lines; but, as Blake would have said, the "fear" is missing that in combination with hope gives strength and endurance to vision,  and thus a poem that starts out strong  ("African her origin / land of the desert / the holy fathers / and the lion") and continues in a quietly dramatic way ("At five she went south / to another country / upstream all the way through swamp and silence"), ends on a note that in the last 5 lines turns slightly pathetic (the echo, of African shouts, "heard far away in Europe" - isn't it far from the concreteness of the rest of the poem, and a metaphor at that which is not very original?).
As a fellow poet I think I know what I'm saying, having fallen myself too often into the trap of a punto final surrendering to some form of pathos.

A poem like "Shatta" reflects, indirectly, his connection with the Sudan where he taught for some time very early in his career. The sujet chosen is the revolt of the Mahdi; the poet's sympathies certainly are not with the poor "Ingleez" killed in the course of the uprising.

Most poems in this volume, however, I would say, are love poems. Many, no doubt, inspired by the young women he came across on campus. This is almost certainly true of "Laura" subtitled, 'An Icy Fire.' 'The experience of looks exchanged, a handshake at the end, is transformed, in another instant (the time of writing), into a sublime piece of art. Sublimation at work, a sudden longing or desire transformed into carefully placed words, an enchanting rhythm. The poem succeeds, and more than that, it attains an almost classical beauty. The musicality of John's poems was always one of his great strengths, and a potential weakness at times when, in my view, the sentiment evoked by it was subverted by the Oxfordian elegance; it could result in an overdose, perhaps like too much  'sugar' when a bitter cup of tea would have been better. 

"Pony" (1990) recalls the memory of a young woman observed in class, "yes a Shetland pony / that stands and stamps / on sturdy legs." A whistful note can be felt, the distance of somebody so much older yet enchanted by the lively girl. It's all in the observation, in the keen way of finding the right words for the emotions expressed by her young, spirit-filled body. She's there, with the joy de vivre of a horse born just a few months ago, tender, vulnerable, fearless, trusting. What can you do but take it in, that picture, that image, that presence of energy released?

Another love poem has a certain terse brevity of the lines speaking in its favor that is reduplicated or enhanced by the shortness of words, mostly one syllable words like "dregs," "can," "shirt" (but "texture," ""washed-out," "cotton"  fit in well enough).
The poem, written in 1985 and to be quoted here in full, reads:

Rendez-vouz II

late afternoon

they talked
for more than
an hour but
all she did
was to give 
him the dregs
from her can
of coffee
after touching
the texture
tho' fine cotton)
of his globe-
trotter shirt.

A poem from 1977, "Wise as an Owl," is marvellous in the way of capturing a feeling of if not disillusionment, then certainly a momentary lostness. It,  too, is terse in its crisp way of recalling how the poetical I (eye) "..../lay wide awake / to hear again / that desolate cry / by owl light / of a summer night / with always another / owl answering with / the same dull question / as if the whole sky / were a hollow egg /..." Then, the poet's voice continues, " / and I cursed my lot / as defunct husband / to reluctant poet / in the empty bed / of my middle age - / ...." -  A moment of not silence (because the night is full of sounds as one lies silently in bed) but of truth or something very close to it.

During his stay in Oklahoma, John wrote a few very concise and unsentimental love poems, and as so often, this is about longing, about what might have been but was, in the end, objectively unattainable except for the unscrupulous. 

In "Bereavement," we read, "It is like a cut jewel / Set in the heart a hurt / one could not be without." 
In "Love Song" (10.2.1976) we hear, "Though I am old / my love is young / and this it is / that makes my song, / ...."

In "Spring Song" ( a title to which is added, "for Adrienne Scott"), the poet sings,

"Oh she is a blue-eyed
Texas girl
her smile is as wide
as her lips are small
if she fixes you once
with that telltale eyes
you'll be fishin' up river
in an April sky.

If I would be asked to name my favorite love poems, I might well come up with three very recent ones, written by the poet in his late 70s: "Last Love,"  "Sex," and "Christina."  I'm not sure, materially, whether love is really a matter of "persuasion" but that doesn't matter here because it doesn't affect the quality of poem. As for "Christina," it is, from afar, a very tender and sensitive portrait of a working woman, intelligent, lovely, respected by him who sees "her hands that have to work so hard / to make harsh things clean."

Perhaps one should not omit that nature enters, not only in the context of lostness when the owls call into the silent night. In "Robin at Nine o'clock," a small red-breasted bird is carefully observed with sober respect if not something approaching love, "for what are a few crumbs between friends?"

Any look at this volume of poems would be incomplete without mentioning that the poet is not only a poet singing the praise of love.  But a committed poet enmeshed in the affairs of the world, eying its injustices sharply. The Gulf War of 1991 prompted him to write "Presidential Announcement," "Rough Justice,"  and "A death in the desert." Another, very sarcastic poem is revoking the memory of the trade union man, Joe Hill, murdered by the authorities in Colorado, U.S.A. ("How they killed Joe Hill," 1977).  Yet another poem remembers the frail act of courageous resistance of the Scholls, brother and sister, in Munich during the fascist reign. Perhaps his best poem in this respect is, "In Answer"  (1980), a poem that revolts against the fact that in this world "there's so much suffering / so very many / kinds of hunger." In its final lines this poem is invoking the need of courage, asking  for the "sign of courage." 
".../let it burn in the blood / let it shine in the eyes / let it illuminate the mind."

- Andreas Weiland

Regrettably, it was too much to ask the publisher to convert the typewritten manuscript handed in by the poet, then already in his seventies (and not keen to work with computers), into a flawless book. In the process of going from typescript to floppy disc to final print-out, scores of typing mistakes entered. On the back cover, not even the name of the poet is spelled correctly. 


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