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Scorched Earth
Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set On Fire

Tim Tomlinson

Winter Goose Publishing
132 Pages; Print, $11.99

inline graphic This collection contains some elements rare in contemporary poetry, but also an attitude, an atmosphere, quite familiar from Twentieth Century American culture.

The fresh features include vivid imagery, with emphasis on visual experiences keenly observed and precisely captured in language. These scenes may be of human forms and human interaction, or aspects of nature—living creatures and the environment they inhabit. Thus the intense and careful scrutiny, together with a meticulous choice of words, gives the book a hard, sparkling quality.

The more familiar trait is evident in the overall tone—sparse, restrained, laconic, hardboiled, skeptical, ironic. Even in the portrayal of what would seem to be deeply emotional situations, an atmosphere of "cool" prevails, reminiscent of much American prose fiction of the Twentieth Century since Hemingway, through film noir and Mickey Spillane, to the present.

At first glance the pages look as if they held verse, with indentations, shortened lines of irregular length, and separate stanzas. But on closer inspection it is apparent that these are mostly pieces of prose broken up to look like poetry, and generally lacking in elements usually associated with poetry—rhythm patterns, rhyme, rhetorical tropes, etc. Of course, this is nothing new. Many poets since Modernism have discarded traditional poetic devices.

But despite this absence, Tomlinson's language vivifies the book. The careful selection of details together with the precision and aptness of the individual words produces a taut and heightened effect. Verbs, for example, are never merely the direct, obvious, generic choice. They are slanted, oblique, fresh, and often unexpected. Here goldfish do not merely "rise" to the surface; they "kiss" the surface.

However, Tomlinson does make use of one poetic device frequently and effectively—simile. Some examples:

"His iridescent slacks / shone like gasoline on a puddle," "barracuda / flash silver as new dimes," "Mezcal sizzles his ulcers like clams / in a wok," "anemones limp as gloves half off hands."

In their own context these usages do not so much call attention to themselves, but rather heighten the animation, shedding light on the whole scene around them, providing a fresh view of the subject, and reminding of the bigger world outside that is always present and surrounding.

With few exceptions, the basic form of these pieces is the anecdote, a tale told in a bar, a brief descriptive sketch, a meaningful, funny, or grotesque incident. The later poems are sometimes more reflective, linking past, present and future, disappointments, joys, expectations, worries, doubts.

By and large the book is structured chronologically, with the individual poems following roughly the various stages of a man's life. The first poems portray childhood experiences in the New York area, focusing on parents, sometimes siblings, grandparents, cousins, neighbors. These are followed by pieces describing the narrator's itinerant adventures living as a laborer among the poor and down-and-out in various locations such as New Orleans, Florida, the Caribbean, the Western United States, Long Island, and again New York City.

Some of the most moving poems are those that depict incidents from boyhood scenes of a distant father, sought, feared, deeply troubled. Equally disturbing are the accounts of bored middle-class American youth—rebellious, bitter, destructive, at times sadistic.

The poems set in New Orleans are low-down, earthy, funny, vulgar, but not as poignant as the poems of boyhood. They are mostly anecdotes involving bar life in the Vieux Carre's. The very title of the New Orleans sequence, Stool Samples, suggests its flavor. For it represents an amusing pun on the meaning of the word "stool"—referring both to specimens of feces, as well as the human specimens found perched on the stools of the French Quarter.

The poems show little concern for contemporary social and political events, except indirectly, in the portrayal of society's failures and victims, or as a brief flicker on a television screen. Abstract thought and abstract statements are generally avoided, but certain attitudes become apparent that could be seen as philosophical positions...