Fred D’Aguiar’s The Rose of Toulouse is in many ways a highly eclectic text, with the poet not only flitting between free verse and more formally laid out pieces, but also managing to move seamlessly between themes. The blurb states, rather lazily, that this book is one of geographies; while that is certainly a dominant theme, such pronouncements oversimplify D’Aguiar’s work somewhat, pinning it down too narrowly perhaps. D’Aguiar’s is probably at his best reflecting on himself, and his own identity, in poems such as “Excise”. As in most of the poems in this collection, geography does feature in the background of this poem, without being explored explicitly. In common with several similar poems in the collection, it is clear in “Excise” that the places the poet has travelled to and lived in have prompted these moments of self-evaluation:
I answer with a face
that’s stranger to my passport every day,
telling lies about a life not lived, not his.
Arguably, although inspired by geography, the text is more closely centred on the effects of time, particularly when looking backwards. The poet captures this in a melancholy, despairing way which has the capacity to invoke that somewhat helpless sensation or fatalism that we all know when we consider certain aspects of our past: it can’t be changed and so we have to move on as best we can. D’Aguiar attempts to do this through what is usually referred to as “eco-poetry”, that is to say, verse lamenting the destruction we humans wreak on the planet, with the poet identifying an ever worsening pattern of such behaviour. While there is merit in this approach, this particular trend is somewhat de rigueur these days, and if the reader is not particularly in touch with his internal eco-warrior, he or she might find this tendency tiresome as the book goes on. Personally, it began to wear thin for me. This theme is particularly noticeable during the five poems taken from “American Vulture”. Admittedly, they give an almost unique perspective on the harms done by machinery; yet they seem extraneous in this collection. There are, however, some excellent nature poems here, such as “The Storm”, which focuses on the power of nature and our reactions to that power. It speaks a simple message, but does not seem to preach as much as some of the other poems do, and is thus more successful in creating a moment for quiet reflection. This seems particularly timely this winter, as we witness so much destruction:
Beg to go back out in the open, to throw up our arms
For the wind and the lightning to claim us all
As their offspring and drag us up into their embrace,
Beyond the reach of adults, calling our names.
Overall, The Rose of Toulouse is a book which both gains and suffers due to its diversity. Whilst everyone is likely to find something pleasing in it, it is unlikely that a single person will like everything on offer. Extremely well written throughout, the changes in poetic form ensure the reader has to work hard to get the optimum experience and that is no bad thing. D’Aguiar’s forays into self-perceptions and his continuing changes of style and form are truly fascinating, making this collection well worth the read.