Greg Tome, Watching from the Shadows. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2017. ISBN 978 1 76041 335 4
Perhaps typical of the kind of psyche that envelops us in the retirement phase of life, Greg Tome’s poetry hinges around reflection. There’s reflection on aspects of nature immediately around, reflection on people present and long gone, reflection on human nature and, most poignantly, on mortality and the inexorable march of time.
Appropriately, Tome’s poetry collection, published by Ginninderra Press in 2017, is called Watching from the Shadows. His voice is emphatically that of the observer, the one who needs to make sense of what he sees and draw salient lessons. Though the shadows on his own life are lengthening, not everything is treated with a heavy touch; there is time still for something of a whimsical eye.
A former secondary school teacher living in southern NSW, Tome has written plays and two novels as well as poetry. He has a strong and capable grasp on form, his modus operandi a free-form style that he fashions to the mood of his piece. His no-fuss diction and measured image-making give his work a sense of immediacy and honesty and a kind of quiet passion as he searches to make meaning of all he observes and reflects upon.
‘The Voice of Shadows’ feels totemic of the mood of the entire collection. He writes:
A lopsided silence sits about me, perturbed by a creak of board
A creak too slight for human agent.
Nobody is there but caused
by something unseen
It is Tome’s own history and that of his family and ancestors that he senses present, that lurk behind the facade of his world, and that need some kind of reckoning:
I view my rational thought
now a cupboard, stark, clean of line.
But its door is shut tight.
Packed there behind it,
behind all the rational, useful terms lurks nagging disturbance
lurks dark and mystery.
From the shadows he can observe and bring light and freshness to aspects of everyday life, such as in ‘Woman Pegging Clothes’, ‘To a Dead Mouse’, ‘School Excursion to the NGA’ and ‘Batting for Paradise’, in which a cricket match becomes an occasion for reflection on life’s final ‘dismissal’:
For me the grim reaper wears
an umpire’s coat but needs
no referral system before he raises
the fateful finger.
Out of the shadows come people and events from the past that require understanding, honouring and appraisal. In ‘Anzac Heresy’ he puts a blowtorch to Australia’s fascination with myths of war; in ‘Memory of a Prisoner of War’ he tells the story of an unexpected, kind act by an elderly German woman; in ‘Frank and Mark: a tribute’ he reflects on his uncles who died as POWs when the Japanese ship that was carrying them was sunk in the Pacific – ‘The good die and the unjust thrive, just as the Book of Job says’ (66) – and in ‘Torrington’ Tome takes sober stock of the far-flung country town set among rocky outcrops where he began his teaching career:
Despite its name no market town in Devon is this place.
More a hideout where only the blousy old pub flaunts
its up-yours presence …
Where now is Gloria, little Linda, or landlord’s wife
Or the hawk-eyed headmaster with the generous
Heart? Time swallows us all bit by bit, until
Only God’s careless granite rocks will remain
A sense of humanity and a compassionate concern for the world comes through in much of Tome’s work, and he is aware of the enormous damage we humans are causing the Earth. In ‘Penny Lizard’, he contemplates humanity’s short but violent history in relation to reptiles:
Perhaps I will outlive
this little one
I saw this morning
But long after we have disappeared
from the planet
having outsmarted ourselves
these tiny reptilian creatures
will be here
for many millennia to come.
Tome’s aim for an honest, immediate poetry is not well-served, it must be said, by his tendency towards prose and a plodding, clunky language short on vitality. His imagery is so measured it seems to rest casually on the page rather than leap to engage the reader; there is no pay off of risk or challenge, just a sense of comfortable security of thought and observation. Perhaps, aware of his own mortality, he is done with too much uncertainty, the province of younger folk. Yet the prospect of death is, of course, profoundly unsettling. In ‘The Last Taxi Ride’, he handles the subject with customary restraint and good grace:
Oh glum chauffeur,
nobody is bustling to head the line at the rank
where you collect your fare.
But as my years spin by in a dizzy cycle
of days and weeks I move closer
to the front of that fatal queue ….
Give me the Business Class passage and make it quick.
But most of all, I beg you, I almost pray, let me leave
with dignity, at least a few shreds of dignity. Dignity.
One hopes that his wish his heeded, and that until such moment his progress to the front of the line is slow enough to afford him much more poetry.
Sasha Shtargot is a writer from box-ironbark country in central Victoria. A former journalist now working at a not-for-profit environmental organisation, he has had poetry published in a number of journals including Plumwood Mountain. His first poetry chapbook, published by the Melbourne Poets Union, is due out in 2018.