A ’60s Poet, Mixing Images of Asia and Africa with Bohemian London

[Rosemary] Tonks’s first poetry collection, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms, was published in 1963; her second and final one, Iliad of Broken Sentences, in 1967. She interweaves images of her years in Asia and Africa with snapshots of bohemian London: desert oases and mirages, jazz and cocktails. True to the first collection’s title, the poems carry a mood of chic urban dissipation. “For my fierce hot-blooded sulkiness / I need the café,” she asserts in the opening of “Diary of a Rebel.” In “The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas,” the narrator complains wryly about a faux intellectual rambling on about opera and the “international situation”: He “digs himself into the sofa. / He stays there up to two hours in the hole—and talks.” Across the two books, lovers meet at dusk, flaneurs wander dusty streets, and conversations last all night.

In “Addiction to an Old Mattress,” the narrator’s imagination carries her from a dreary February in England to restorative warmth:

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 matinees.

Though she’s stuck among the “potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know,” she describes herself as “powerful, disobedient.” But there is also a strong undercurrent of pain, exhaustion, fear, boredom, and real disillusionment in many of these poems. For a poet of “the modern metropolis,” as she once admiringly referred to Rimbaud, Tonks seems distinctly uneasy there. In “Story of a Hotel Room,” for example, a casual tryst proves emotionally dangerous:

Londoner, Parisian, someone should have warned us
That without permanent intentions
You have absolutely no protection

In “Bedouin of the London Evening,” which lends the new collection its name, the poet concludes:

I have been young too long, and in a dressing-gown
My private modern life has gone to waste.

From an essay by Ruth Graham for Poetry Magazine, examining the career of poet Rosemary Tonks, and Tonks’ subsequent disappearance from public life.

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