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Trio by Sarah Tolmie

Trio.jpgI was reading Sarah Tolmie's fantasy novel, The Stone Boatman, when ron_drummond visited in May, and I waxed sufficiently enthusiastic about it to him that he found and gave me a copy of her other book, Trio, while he was here. Trio is nothing like The Stone Boatman other than in exhibiting the sensibility of a poet. As the jacket copy has it: "A collection of 120 sonnets in eight parts, Trio reveals, frame by frame, a married fortysomething female narrator in love with two younger men -- an intellectual and a dancer -- and torn between the claims of the body and mind."

I remember one of the poems revealing that the narrator/poet was in her 40s, but while I'm also pretty certain that the poems mention that she's in love with more than one man, I don't know that I could have figured out that one was a dancer and the other an intellectual, or, for that matter, that she was married to a third. In one of the poems, as I recall, the narrator/poet explicitly says she has kept the identities of everyone (including herself) ambiguous, if not confused, perhaps so that the reader could identify with all of them. To be honest, I almost gave up on the book very early on, because I found it almost inherently precious and coy, and I wasn't sure I was prepared to read a lot of impassioned poetry about love and sex at this particular juncture in my life. I have read another sonnet sequence -- Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season by Marilyn Hacker -- about the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair, so it's not that the sonnet sequence is repulsive to me as a form of literature. I'm not particularly well-read when it comes to poetry, but neither am I completely helpless.

What kept me going with Trio was the way that Tolmie flipped the gender script in a number of powerful ways. First she made the male body the vulnerable object of specifically female desire. (In Hacker's sequence, the female body was still the object of desire, even if the desiring subject was also a woman.) Tolmie also gives her female narrator/poet a sexual swagger and self-confidence that sometimes becomes mocking or condescending toward her male lovers. I found this irritating, and I was fascinated by my own irritation. Was it a purely defensive reaction? (My guess is that the answer is probably, "Yes.") The way that Tolmie made the female in the threesome -- foursome? I'm not sure whether the husband is the subject of any of the sonnets -- the figure of power and judgment and conquest was very unusual in my experience, and she earned my respect with her stance.

It took me a long time to read all 120 sonnets. Reading poetry is just a lot more work than reading most prose. I didn't reread or give a close reading to all the sonnets, but the ones that captured my attention got more of my time and energy. Again, I'm no expert on poetry, and I can't say I picked up on the over all clusters of imagery. (Karen Burnham's review at Strange Horizons strikes me as astute regarding how the poetry works, and she also points out that the narrator has two children, which is another detail I completely missed, along with the husband. Argh!) Anyway, I was also going to point out that Tolmie uses a lot of internal rhyme or near-rhyme, but it doesn't preclude the more typical couplets of sonnets. Here's one of the sonnets that I liked the best, to give you a taste of her poetry:

The love of a poet is a bullet.
Who can you ask to take it? You could not.
Can't bear the searchlight's glare, the ripping stare,
Admixture of what's wanted and what's there,
Compressed into a foreign object lodged
In the brain. Invasive love: it causes pain.
People flee it without knowing what it means,
Instinctually. The bloodied shell, falling
From its graze, carries a payload of
The DNA, fine, clean, a better print
Than the original. Such is the hell
Of the beloved, unable to tell
What he might have been, unimpeded,
Unenhanced, out of the pathway of her glance.

I particularly like how she follows the hell/tell couplet with the internal rhyme of "unenhanced" and "her glance". On the other hand I'm not sure I fully understand the metaphor of the shell. First of all I wonder if she means the slug rather than the shell, since a shell wouldn't graze what's shot at typically. Also if the slug is a load of DNA, isn't that an image of sperm? Or does she mean an ovum? Or is she talking about how the poet creates an image of the beloved that's superior to the original? I guess the latter makes the most sense: the image of beloved perfection created by the poet can become a painful form of distortion, something the real person can't possibly live up to. Blood is thinner than poetry? (She meditates in another sonnet -- one of the swaggering ones -- on how her poetry is making her lovers immortal.)


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2016 11:21 am (UTC)
She sounds like Edna St. Vincent Millay, also an inveterate sonneteer with an eye for men.

Would you say Tolmie is influenced by rap? I'm thinking in traditional sonnets, rhymes are often further than one line apart. Here you say Tolmie is prepared to rhyme the ends of lines as long as they're together, but then kicks things up a notch by piling them closer even than the ends of consecutive lines.
Aug. 16th, 2016 02:33 pm (UTC)
Great comments! I went through an Edna St Vincent Millay phase quite a while back, after reading a fascinating profile of her in an online magazine. One thing I discovered is that you could buy first editions of her books for dirt cheap, because so many copies had been printed in her hey day, such was her popularity. Anyway, while I remember that she was pretty open about her sexual desires, I don't remember that she treated men as the passive instruments of her pleasure in the same way Tolmie does.

As for rap, that's a fascinating question. She certainly piles the rhymes up in "Can't bear the searchlight's glare, the ripping stare/Admixture of what's wanted and what's there."

Edited at 2016-08-16 02:33 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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