An Ode to the Lost Poet Rosemary Tonks

In celebration of National Poetry Month, here is a poem from my new book Qorbanot, written to one of my favourite poets, Rosemary Tonks.

Though now relatively unknown in North America, Rosemary Tonks was a highly acclaimed poet and novelist in the London literary scene in the middle of the 20th century, and was generally considered one of the best female poets of her generation. Her poetry was a view into urban subculture, full of hedonism and decadence, greatly influenced by French poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

However, after her mother died suddenly in 1968, Tonks had a crisis, followed by a series of personal tragedies, including the end of her marriage and the loss of her eyesight. She went on a spiritual journey that took her to various religions and healers, until she finally found solace in the New Testament. Tonks left London, stopped writing for publication, and became an ascetic and a recluse. In 1981, she burned an unpublished novel manuscript because a medium had given her the plot, along with a collection of over 40 priceless artifacts from the Far East, itemized in a handwritten list titled “The burning of some idols.” That October, she traveled to Jerusalem and was baptized near the Jordan River, ending her identity as the writer Rosemary Tonks and beginning a new life, in which the only book she read was the bible. People thought she had died decades ago, but she only left this world in April 2014, at the age of 85.

Listen to Rosemary Tonks reading her poem “Badly Chosen Lover” over at the Poetry Foundation. It contains what I find to be one of the most devastating lines in poetry.

Toronto, ON.

© 2021 Alisha Kaplan