The Rapture, Tim Cumming’s first book since 2004’s The Rumour, is divided into three sections: Chapel of Carbon, Improvisations and First Music. The short poems in the first section find portents in everyday occurrences. Cumming is also a film-maker and that is clear to see in his ability to tell stories and in his eye for picking out fresh details or zooming out for wide angle shots of his vividly written scenes. There is a rakishness and a middle-aged youthfulness to his work, and the poems crackle with mental energy. Sentiment is kept at a bare minimum, perhaps too much so, while Cumming lets his intellect engage with his subjects. In the best of the poems he utilizes his good ear to augment his images with the right words, the right sounds. In ‘Pipe Music’, he achieves this effectively:
The moon shakes in a telescope.
Long distance needs a steady hand.
The white coals under the coffee pot
darken one by one, ash and clinker
bedding in a milky way of white heat,
night Cairo burning in its brazier…
…Time doesn’t pass,
it gathers. The hour to move will come.
Cumming doesn’t like to give too much away, and exits his poems by the back door, usually leaving the reader with an image or juxtaposition of images to contemplate. In this he is similar to the American poets of the Deep Image school. However Cumming is far more engaged with the debris of the street, the dirt and sex of contemporary life and revels in it:
Woke that night with a hard-on
sticking through a Penthouse centrefold
opened on the long hot summer of’76,
punk rock in the papers, platforms
on the streets, pages stuck together,
teenage spunk dripping through
my fingers like Airfix glue in front
of the mirror pulling at the head
of my cock like it was a clasp on
a treasure box, shit pop on Top
of the Pops…
[from Penthouse Sonnet]
The voice in many of the poems belongs to a stoical, fairly no-nonsense man. Cumming doesn’t allow his poems to feel sorry for themselves, even when dealing with painful subject matter. The unconcerned tone he employs makes the poems feel like improvisations, albeit well-handled improvisations. In the final section, Night Music, Cumming returns to the landscape of his childhood, using memory as both the vehicle and subject of his poems. Here, the poems open up and he reaches for brighter, more natural images, like a Ted Hughes with whom you could have a pint and a chat:
Walking with dad towards Sittaford
and the source of Cherry Brook
in the giant’s thigh of the valley
falling to a spear of silver water
burnished into gold where it cuts
a line through peat banks.
Heron and buzzard worship here,
hawthorn trees twisted like thumbscrews…
…We’d gone too far and cut a V
through the valley and followed
the water back from the source
into the brain stem, drenched
to the skin, all our colours running
as the rain fell loose and then held fast.
Leaving is so much harder than becoming.
Hard to measure how far we’d really gone.
[from Father’s Day]
Cumming’s skill is in choosing the right words and images. Where “Falling to a spear of silver water // burnished into gold…” risks sounding grandiose, Cumming pulls it back by enjambing the image and grounding it with the earthy “cuts / a line through peat banks.”
His poems are busy with observations, details and opinions yet there is often a silence at the centre of his work, notably in the last poem, ‘A Dartmoor Ghost Story’, a poem with a more compassionate tone:
…The fire didn’t take
and the black wood sighed
as my little girl slept
but my brother saw a figure
slide through, a column
of light in the mind’s
translucent glue, me below
in a cloud of blue smoke
and John half asleep saying
“go away Silus Sleep,”
and Silus went and Silus slept.
Cumming’s voice is worldly and confident. The control he has over his work is impressive, although the poems benefit when he brings some emotion to counterbalance his intellect and keen observational eye.
This is not a book of spectacular poems. The poems in The Rapture are friendly and open-faced but they won’t fully open up to you until you are good friends which is why the book should be read repeatedly. The wit and energy in Cumming’s work is admirable. There is much casually-given wisdom to be found in this collection, and that becomes more evident with each reading.
Christopher Crawford was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His poems, translations, essays and criticism have appeared in Agenda, The Cortland Review, VLAK, Orbis, Rattle, Neon, Gutter, Envoi and elsewhere. His poems have been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes in the US. He is a founding editor of B O D Y and the poetry editor for The Prague Revue.
The Rapture by Tim Cumming is published by Salt, 2011, £9.99)
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