Birds may be delightfully ever-present in Tim Cunningham’s new collection; but John Forth finds that the poems amount to much more than merely a nature tour   AlmostMemoriesfrontcoverAlmost Memories Tim Cunningham Revival Press, 2014 ISBN 9780-992 862558 64pp     £10

My first impression after reading a clutch of Tim Cunningham’s poems is of well-lit windows, plenty of space and air, and maybe not too much in the way of hard work. There are strong hints, though, that this last might be only a first impression. The ‘almost memories’ in his fifth collection are quick to revisit some of the themes in his earlier Peterloo books: the father, lost at war, he never knew; the Limerick he did know. Sometimes they are like birds: ….casting their shadow on a passing / Trout, the heron’s chasuble wings (‘Riverbank’). Elsewhere, taking their place among the seven wonders, they are birds:

And sometimes, on fresh snow, the record
Of a sparrow’s journey
Printed in fluent Japanese. .
.                                       (‘Seven Wonders of the Parish’)

What may look like an insistence on ‘country’ soon becomes town & country. The change in habitat brought about by urbanization is put to original use in ‘Changing their Tune’, beginning with a clever take on the fox’s cry:

Roughed from the soft, rural bark
To the hoarse iambic of a loud moan
Followed by a shriek.
The ghost Of Darwin rubs his hairless hands.

‘Pioneer tits’ are said also to ‘announce their patch’ differently from their country cousins, and some birds are becoming ‘night-birds’ in artificial light. This takes years to happen, but the poet is there, ready to match the years:

I know those interloping years
Spent sculpting vowels,
Chiselling at consonants.

He’s never shy of wading-in quite forcefully after we’re lulled into a sense of what the poem’s about, in this case the effects of slow change. But if the birds are everywhere, ever-presences, the book is a long way from being a tour of nature’s free gifts. His method has always been to assert the birdness and let the ‘freight’ take care of itself:: I wanted a tour of her heart and mind; / She offered a tour of the house…. Then, almost as if by accident, this image is allowed to fly in at the end:

I still recall the aviary’s kaleidoscopic birds,
The keyboard feathers of the zebra finch,
Still read the shadows and reflections,
Hold each negative up to the light.
.                               (‘Zebra Finch’)

A number of the poems, especially early on, seem to benefit from what Yeats called ‘exfoliation’. One hesitates to quote from the younger writer when his first book with Peterloo was published in 2001 (when he was 59) but there is evidence that the challenge in ‘Don Marcelino’s Daughter’ was to ensure that the language of inference was expansive enough for clarity. The challenge now is to avoid saying too much even when it comes more easily – leaving the reader with less to do. Even so, there are times when it works beautifully. It’s a long way from the banks of the Shannon to a school classroom, but if Oisin happens to be the class-reader you have the recipe for an evocative poem about exile and homeland that wears its allusions like a bunch of feathers: I knew that salmon feeling, that restless something / At the bend of the river insisting on return. (‘In the Valley of the Thrushes’)

This is a poem which seems to revel in increased freedom, whereas in ‘1888’ and ‘Proclamations, 1916’, which immediately precede it at the end of the book, I would have been happy with less explicitness. It’s a very fine line of course, one it’s nearly always worth the risk of crossing, but it seems to me there’s a poetry of surfaces that lulls the reader into seeing more, which is another way of saying that it is more than a surface. If I’m right in thinking this to be Tim Cunningham’s ‘patch’, then there might, on occasions, be a case for listening again to Yeats.

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John Forth grew up in Bethnal Green and now lives by the sea in North Somerset. Low Maintenance: New & Selected Poems is due in 2015 from Rockingham.