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Poem of the week: Hydromaniac by Rosemary Tonks


A poem that first appeared in 1967 explores the thirst of desire, necessary as wine, water and gin-fizz

Rosemary Tonkss two collections of poetry excited many young English readers in the 1960s. So sassy, fresh, sexy and French, we thought and wanted more. But there were to be no more poems after the publication of Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967), the collection in which this weeks poem, Hydromaniac, first appeared. Tonks, more prolific as fiction-writer than poet, published the last of her six novels in 1972. Then, in the spirit of her admired Rimbaud, though for different reasons, she stopped writing. Neil Astley, who has recently edited the two poetry collections for Bloodaxe under the title Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems fills in the biography in fascinating detail here. Tonkss poetry seems influenced both by the symbolists and the situationists, and sometimes feels like an erotic extension of the dérive, in which sex is an aspect of urban geography. Hydromaniac is one of the rare poems that finds rest. In the beginning, the speaker marks the loved body as if she were a marble-smith. The body gains solidity from an image that also suggests Michelangelo, planning to release the angel from the block of marble. Subsequently, the body resembles the pleasure page in a daily newspaper. The stroking fingers, were reminded, are those of a writer and reader, a hungry consumer as well as a thirsty lover.

Hydromaniac has roots in an everyday metaphor. Desire is thirst; its satisfaction is blissful, necessary refreshment. Tonkss figurative language flows with a demotic ease, mixing the colloquial and the metaphorical so they form a single register. I sniffed you to quench my thirst is plain enough, while effecting a synaesthesia continued in the transferred epithet of the soaking wet chords. The adjectives in the phrase huge, damp sheets of lightning inevitably suggest bed linen, luxuriantly king-sized and moist with body fluids, as well as the sheet-lightning before the storm. Metamorphosis continues: the overflow of the music could float a canoe. Tear in line 8 is a verb, but tear cold also looks like a compound adjective minus hyphen. Somehow this cleverness is entirely unfussy.

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