John Horder on

Rosemary Tonks
featured in Lost Voices, Radio 4

The Poet Who Vanished

Rosemary Tonks, the poet, disappeared from the luxurious home she shared with her banker husband Mickie in Downshire Hill, Hampstead, in the early seventies. Brian Patten, the poet, in the second of four Lost Voices on Sunday afternoons on BBC Radio 4, thought it was the late seventies. It wasn't.

Literary bloodhounds who have been trying to track her down ever since, include J.C Hall, the poet, Paul Keegan, Poetry Editor at Fabers and Neil Astley, who is Bloodaxe Books. Both Keegan and Astley want to publish her fifty poems in a collected volume. They have to have her permission, which isn't forthcoming, and isn't likely to be.
 
The vivacious blonde Tonks first had two slim volumes published that fizzled with passion and brio, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963) and Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967). Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney started her much needed revival in 1996 when they included two of her poems, 'Badly Chosen Lover' and 'Hydromaniac' in their life-affirming anthology, Emergency Kit - Poems for Strange Times (Fabers).

Astley followed suit in more senses then one with two poems by Tonks in his anthology, Staying Alive - real poems for unreal times (2002), 'Badly-Chosen Lover' again, and 'Addiction to an Old Mattress'. Can you tell me of any other poet writing today who could have written poems that grab you by the neck and shake you till you awaken?

When I knew Tonks in the mid-Sixties, she regularly steeped herself in the poems of the French poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and the Greek poet Cavafy, as if they were all straight out of the stories of the Thousand Arabian Nights.
They were as far as she was concerned. Two of her Bibles which she constantly re-read were the Oxford don Enid Starkie's biographies of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Neil Astley reminded us at the end of the under-researched mishmash of Patten's second Lost Voices that Tonks is now 77, lives as a recluse in Sister Wendy Beckett-type isolation in a pottting shed, having understandably not settled down at all well in a commune of frenzied hugging Christians, is profoundly "spiritual" (whatever that wretched word means), and has no idea there is a huge audience of young people in the 21st century awaiting to read her poems (according to his greedy calculations).
 
There is one poem, 'The Time Before Death', by the Sufi poet Kabir, of such infinite power, knowledge and bliss, which Rosemary could have written, if she had given herself fifty more years writing time in the Sixties. I quote the first three stanzas in Robert Bly's version, which has made me break down in floods of tears every time I have performed it in public:
 
Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think...while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
 
The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten -
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

(Kabir in Robert Bly's version).

John Horder © world copyright 2009
first appeared in the Camden New Journal © 2009

One of John Horder's poems, 'Through The Lavatory Window', is being performed by Piers Plowright in a programme of poems about London in Hampstead and Highgate Festival in May.