'Vermeer language. An accessible voice, full of the colours of his native Limerick. The small and the large are the same size, because nothing is small. In this book Tim Cunningham, one of Ireland’s finest poets, steps out of his previous collections as if they were discarded shells, and brings us to new perceptions. Of how poetry can reveal, acknowledge, heal.
'Everything has its homely touch, as when the poet as a small child hears a reminiscence of the father he does not remember, killed in Italy in the War:
So, like hot tea from a saucer,
I sipped away at absence, slurped clues
From photos standing to attention
On the wall or on the dresser at their ease...
'A grand book in view of its scope and its risk-taking: the banal and the hilarious, TV watching and worse; Catholic liturgy at its most damaging and at its most consoling; Limerick under the fists of the British, then under the fists of Irish politicians and bankers; unexpected associations, as in a poem ‘Lifebuoy’ which touches upon Bernini, wagtails, ice-cream, rescue, drowning.
'Throughout the book, the Shannon - ‘Lady River’- running as an indifferent and a healing force. Anything, even something rotten, is privileged to come into this man’s field of attention. Almost memories, because there seems to be recall not just from after the experience but also from before, as in Wordsworth. So a ‘Daffodils’ effect. Poems to reread. A wonderful book.'
Richard W. Halperin
Review of ALMOST MEMORIES
R. V. Bailey in Envoi Issue 169, February 2015.
Ever since his first collection, Don Marcelino’s Daughter (Peterloo Poets, 2001), Cunningham’s work has found a loyal and appreciative audience. Winner of the distinguished Kavanagh Fellowship earlier this year, he goes steadily forward, his poems never disappointing in either their humanity or their craftsmanship.
The past has a strong hold on Cunningham, and in this collection he uses it again, often to reveal the present. Many poets can bring the past alive in touching detail; Cunningham never leaves it there. At the end of a poem, which proceeds steadily along the path of reminiscent detail, a twist of the wrist gives us the unexpected opening-out of the last four lines:
Because we were children
It never rained that summer
When I learned to read the clock
But knew nothing about time.
The book’s title suggests the territory. ‘Almost memories’ – is this a collection of reminiscences? It is, and yet it isn’t. Sometimes perilously near the edge of the sentimental, Cunningham rarely lets his foot slip. What preserves this balance is his gift for accurate visual detail, both imaginative and real. To what had seemed an innocent pastoral, there’s no easy finish in
Sever cygnets bob like paper boats
In the silver slipstream of a swan
and, casting their shadow on a passing trout
the heron's chasuble wings.
The impulse to preserve may lie at the bottom of all art. But poetry’s more than just a verbal Damien Hirst sheep or a Tracy Emin bed: it is a kind of inheritance of sensibility, distilled through a range of experience and perception. Cunningham’s poetry has this kind of richness at its heart, using the ordinary human condition to enlarge the range of our sympathy. He offers no platitudes; just the everyday reduced to its lively essence.
One of the felicities that preserve his writing from the sentimental is his crisp no-nonsense way with words. See how economically he deals with history, in ‘1888’: history – family, social, artistic, musical – is a matter of glancing references to Van Gogh at his ‘frantic’ best, to ‘the scalpel-wielding nobody’ Jack the Ripper at work in Whitechapel, to Eliot
In St. Louis Missouri,
The Eliot bird hatched and sang
An entirely original song.
His big themes are celebrated in commonplaces. The awesome political matters, the violence, the horrors of famine, are seen through the small things, the piteously unimportant. In ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’, the Irish famine years are merely sketched; the house martins build, delighting the landlord’s daughter, in response ‘to the blueprint of their DNA’, before
... bailiff and wrecking ball,
The dance of light on bayonet and sword,
The torched thatch, it's cracking reds competing
With the sizzle of the setting sun.
Even the fire is touched in the colours of the setting sun, and that in turn is deftly set alongside ‘sizzling’ with its innocent suggestions of something tasty at suppertime. In ‘Last Minute Packing’ what’s going on? Presumably a holiday. The opening line dismisses this, hints that it’s a matter of packing grave goods for the tomb in ancient Egypt. What it is, is different from both:
… he chose, folded and packed the memory
Of waking to a dream of Christmas stockings,
Holding his mother's hand against the hill,
The thrush's speckled lauds on the rockery
That slow kiss at the bus stop in the rain
Such treasures as tomb raiders cannot steal.
The precious seconds in ‘Counting the Seconds’ that make a child’s game to defeat the fear of thunder counterpoint the seconds it takes for a car on ice to cancel the child’s life.
Ageing he handles dispassionately. In ‘The Invisible Man’, with its echo of the famous thriller, the quiet ‘clues’ that timetable a man’s moves towards death (and of course invisibility) are the ‘steep changes on the morning hill’, the ‘walk to town’ which is ‘surreptitiously longer. In his tribute to the musician Fred (in ‘Allegro’) even the Great Depression
Did not burgle his music. It was there In fortissimo handshakes, vivace eyes, In fingers hurting for allegro keys.
He even manages persuasively to describe that most elusive thing silence in ‘The Minus Decibels’.
Never showy, always readable and interesting, Cunningham’s work is increasingly assured, invariably satisfying. It is a delight to have this new collection. I hope there will be many more.