Monday, November 29

Raw Vision

THE RUMOUR by Tim Cumming (Stride, £8.50)
Review by Clive Allen

Here are the opening lines from the first four poems in "The Rumour":

Business as usual, in the Nag’s Head.

She never read his birthday gift,
a guide to the G-Spot.

He slept heavily and travelled light

There were things she wouldn’t tell him

That pretty much sets the tone of this, Tim Cumming’s second collection, a no-holds barred, unflinchingly raw vision of the day to day. The world he describes is unstable & uncertain, full of things breaking up, down, apart or just plain breaking. Which, all in all, ought to make it about as much fun as reading through the contents of a Social Worker’s filing cabinet. But curiously it doesn’t feel like that; there’s something rather affirming & positive that fights its way through to the surface of the poems.

Sometimes the depictions of contemporary life (& the here & now is where these poems are firmly located) slide uncomfortably from a ‘warts & all’ view to … well … just the warts, I suppose. And when that happens it can get kind of hard to take…

There’s real life telly on the TV.
The drugs she’s on make her tired, nauseous
and halfway through the show
she sleeps with her head on one side,
looking like she’d been shot.

Now, there is a point at which this approach runs the risk of becoming little more than a sort of macabre fascination in turning over rocks to look at whatever ghastly spectacle is seething & wriggling underneath, & a more hostile critic might accuse Tim Cumming of precisely this sort of literary voyeurism. But by virtue of its precision, its unflinchingness, its acute & alert consciousness, the poetry in "The Rumour" somehow manages to offer a vision that is strangely uplifting.

This is from 'The Hair':

She tied up her hair
then asked him to call a taxi.
He picked up the phone and pulled
one of her hairs from his mouth.
I know you’re unhappy, he said
but please stop doing this.

It’s that business about pulling one of her hairs from his mouth, isn’t it? The way it suddenly sharpens the focus & ups the intimacy-rating. This deft (you might even say surgical) insertion of a tiny heartbreaking, human detail to an otherwise blunt matter-of-factness is something that runs through many of the poems in "The Rumour". And it’s the dynamic interplay between these two qualities that is the heart & soul of the poetry.

As far as unhappy tales of love, madness, sexual possession and casual emotional abuse go – this is remarkably readable stuff; the 108 pages practically turn themselves & I found myself fairly effortlessly swallowing one poem after another. This is partly a function of the plain, uncomplicated & brisk style, but it also has something to do with the fascinations of the subject matter.

To call the style plain & uncomplicated isn’t of course to say that it’s simple in a naïve or facile sense. The poems - generally tall, thin affairs, with few stanza breaks – are made of short, straightforward sentences, devoid, for the most part, of metaphor, that gradually build up a narrative where individuals struggle with large & small unhappinesses, where couples wrangle over that secret infighting we call a relationship, where, as the late Ken Smith points out in the blurb, ‘Strange things happen to strange people, and they turn out to be us.’

There are a few laughs in here too:

He worried about the size of his feet.
He didn’t talk very much.
He walked through the shopping centre
like a moving target,
looking at other people’s feet.

(from ‘The Way that Schoolgirls Danced’)

She was a pop star and
believed in life after
death and capital punishment.

(from ‘The Knuckles’)

Not exactly side-splitting, I know, but funny in a grim, wry sort of way that appealed to me. If forced to identify influences, I’d call it Geoff Hattersley out of Raymond Carver.

In common with the work of both those writers, some of these poems suggest an acquaintance with the shady peripheries of modern life while others are centred in a more routine domesticity. There are a few which ‘celebrate’ birth & parenthood – something that ought to make any seasoned poetry reader duck for cover - & whilst I confess to finding them the least convincing in the book, they manage successfully to sidestep that all too usual & all too syrupy gosh-isn’t-the-miracle-of-new-life-just-so-oh-I don’t-know-kind-of-you-know-miraculous! territory. That said, the birth scene in ‘Zero Station’ is tough going (‘It was like staring into the heart of a fire/ … the long savannah between contractions/ zeroed to an open porthole …’). Fortunately there’s not too much of it. You just need to skip page 54.

This aside, "The Rumour" comes over resoundingly as what lazy poetry reviews usually call ‘a very assured & engaging performance’. By that I think I mean there’s an enviable & compelling confidence to the writing, an air of someone who knows what sort of effects he’s reaching for & has the technical skill to achieve them without the strain & effort showing. Tim Cumming takes a long, cold look at the world & reports back that it’s often quite a gloomy place, but while the vision may be a disenchanted one, its expression somehow elevates us.

© C. J. Allen 2004

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