Daniela Brozek Cordier reviews Tilting at Time by Greg Tome

Greg Tome, Tilting at Time. Port Adelaide, SA: Ginninderra, 2019. ISBN 978-1-76041-783-3

 

Daniela Brozek Cordier

 

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? Being fascinated by fools, Greg Tome’s hook: Tilting at Time, is certainly what caught me. The title of this slim volume of poetry provides the context against which I have read Tome’s texts. Perhaps I ought not have, but I think the approach was justified. The work merits asking the questions: what has time to do with Quixote’s imaginary giants; and how are both of these sublime foes engaged with by Tome?

… they came upon thirty or forty windmills …, and as soon as Don Quijote saw them he said to his squire:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to kill each and all of them …” (Don Quijote, Chapter VIII). [1]

In “This is The Time”, the second poem in Tome’s collection, he writes that twilight, when, “… the skeletons / of obscure truths” are revealed, is the time to write poetry (8-9). The volume opens on a light note, and though it descends briefly through uncomfortable ‘4 a.m. ruminations’, a writing time, (10), it rapidly lurches out again, into ‘5.15 Summer Morning’, when “a rooster auditions / for the role / of a comic Pavarotti” and “A new day shakes itself / before emerging from its kennel” (11). The volume’s galloping rhythm is echoed in the shapes of most of Tome’s poems. They initially irritated me with their ragged left margins and zagging form. If Cervantes’ Quixote loved to lunge and parry with his sword, Tome, I thought, was doing it with the tab key. Then I read the poems aloud and the purpose of their form was illuminated. The staggering lines are easy to read and impart a natural, effortless rhythm. Tilting at Time becomes an adventurous frolic, though not without pathos, nor depth.

The weight of Tome’s poems is best measured by stepping back from their apparent lightness and considering how he challenges our human species-centric ways of seeing. In “Fuchsia future” Tome indeed flaunts his “particular majestic display” (22), imagining rebirth as one of these vivid, exquisite, somehow quixotic little flowers children love to pop. His imagining seems absurd, fanciful, yet it is with poems such as this that Tome efficiently dislodges humanity from its throne by asserting the living energy of other species and their right to a future.

Tome does not limit this stance to species either. The poem “Bowral Landscape” journeys readers through the changes humans have wrought upon that particular place, with the personified landscape asking “How to overcome / what is inflicted on me”, before answering itself: “Time is on my side” (32-33). Is Tome suggesting that time is on the giant’s side, that humanity, for all its brazen vivacity can only play games with its own delusions? That might be strong, but such questions lie in wait for adventurous readers of this surprising collection.

From destabilising poems like “Fuschia future” and “Bowral Landscape”, Tome swerves onwards, concerning himself with how best to use this time we have. “Trailing Titinius” is a fascinating adventure on this journey (43-45). If, like I, you find yourself having to google “who is Titinius” you will find, as Tome indeed tells us in the poem, an odd peripheral figure, perhaps one like most of us, who plays his parts, does as asked by leaders on both sides – first Caesar, then Cassius – and then, all of a sudden, becomes the central figure in his own tragedy: Cassius, thinking him dead, commits suicide, upon which Titinius too must turn the fateful sword on himself. From the revelation of this point Tome pivots his poem and it becomes a meditation on the human desire to make a mark, to become immortal, and to be celebrated throughout time:

… there is an immortality of sorts

linked with the continued playing

of this tragic tale

who of us would not settle

for such a canonisation?

(44-45)

Another poem, “Rialto calling – a man who has nothing”, turns over the stage to a destitute man, “sprawled on the concrete / seemingly asleep”, surrounded by the magnificence of Venice, “of turquoise and silver” (54). Tome subtly plays out a picture of defiance and injustice, and ultimately asserts the powerful language of gesture: “No apology in his case / his space is his space” (55). The poem could be read as an allegory of the death of Venice, and the world as we humans know it, as we carry on with our frivolous commerce. Ultimately, what will stand strongest in the face of climate change will be the irrefutable evidence of this catastrophe, which will submerge everything we know.

From such portentous writing it might do well to turn back a few pages to a quirky looking little poem, “Red dot romance”. It’s one of Tome’s rare, almost straight down the left aligned works, which gives this one an air of candid simplicity:

The switch on the power point

where I plug in the toaster

has this red dot.

 

It hypnotises me.

I cannot escape its gaze.

(46)

Reading “Red dot romance” makes one smile inwardly in recognition of a shared, warm and humble domestic experience. The scene is quirky though apparently trivial, but against the other poems in this collection, it illuminates how our lives are affected by forces beyond ourselves, whether they be non-human “vibrant matter” (after Bennett), or human socio-political or cultural systems. Like Cervantes, Tome has written a work of humour, compassion and lightness (in all senses), but it is also a compassionate and critical work that touches the core of many ancient and contemporary conundrums. Tome offers readers a shift in perspective that allows us to see things a little differently and perhaps even gain a little agency in the world. It may be foolish to tilt at time, but if we could just shift the balance a little, should we not give it a go?


Notes

[1] The spelling Quijote is modern Spanish spelling. Apart from the quote from Raffel’s Norton translation, and reference to this, I have adopted the more usual English spelling, Quixote. It seems quixotic to me, not to do so.

 

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quijote. Translated by Burton Raffel, edited by Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: Norton, 1999 [1605, 1615].

 

Daniela Brozek Cordier was made by Tasmania’s wild and human places. She has taught English in Europe, been a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, worked in tourism and marketing, grown and sold plants, and was an environmental consultant for many years. She is principal of Bright South, which, among other things, publishes poetry and assists writers with marketing and promotion.

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