The possibilities of being is the subject of a wonderfully evocative poem by Charles Tomlinson.


Their Voices Rang

Their voices rang

Through the winter trees:

They were speaking and yet it seemed they sang,

The trunks a hall of victory.


And what is that and where?

Through we come to it rarely,

The sense of all that we might be

Conjures the place from air.


Is it the mind, then?

It is the mind received,

Assumed into a season

Forestial in the absence of all leaves.


Their voices rang

Through the winter trees and time

Catching the cadence of that song

Forgot itself in them[1].


Perception, or the relation between the mind and the world, is one of the major themes in Tomlinson’s poetry and this poem is representative of his inquires in the subject as it fuses both emotional and intellectual reactions to the physical world in the act of perception. Like many of Tomlinson’s poems, it is also full of vitality, for it chooses to view and show a barren winter landscape as redolent of the possibility of life. The mind-world relation here relies on the dendritic structure of mind (neurons) and trees. It is the mind, which can become “forestial/ in the absence of all leaves,” that has the power to suggest possibilities and evoke them so strongly that they become actualities (to a hallucinatory pitch, as in, “yet it seemed they sang” and “conjures the place from air”) in the realm of thought.

It is interesting to note that the poem does not describe the landscape visually—except the barren “winter trees” and “absence of all leaves” —but aurally: “voices,” “rang,” “speaking,” “sang,” “cadence” and “song.” However, the poem has a distinctly visual element, which is achieved by the suggestive power of the aural vocabulary (we always look for a source or imagine one whenever we hear sounds) and the past continuous tense used in the poem.  What the tense establishes is the fact that a sensibility, a mind, has experienced the possibility of the future in the present (now located in the past). It makes the experience of the future more believable than prophetic statements in the more obvious choice of the future continuous (spring occurs in the future of winter): They will be speaking and yet it shall seem that they are singing. The past continuous also makes the poem a recollection and therefore brings the voices, the song, close to the present of the reading. Being recalled through reading, the song unfolds once more and the reader is placed in its now. This recollection of a past when the unfolding of the future was experienced in the present triggers a more conscious, because vicarious, recollection in the present of the poem’s reading. The visual effect this toggling of time zones creates, in my mind, is that of leaves emerging out of bare branches in time-lapse. And it is this visual effect that I find the most musical or lyrical aspect of Their Voices Rang.

[1] pp 327-328, New Collected Poems, Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet Press Limited, 2009.