Peter Ualrig Kennedy finds a lovely Irish wit and an evocative sense of place in Tim Cunningham’s latest collection.
Tim Cunningham’s Feathers sets an affectionate tone from the start, in ‘Bagatelle’ and ‘Wagtail’. A strong sense of place is felt in ‘A Language of Water’; the poet is recognisably in Ireland, and his lexicon is nature:
Gingerly, we waded in the Shannon Fields’ Water words, its vocabulary Of rushes, reeds, horseflies; The braille of pebbles and stones.
The linking of pebbles and of braille is charmingly tactile. These poems are celebratory of Cunningham’s Irish roots and childhood, and of his happy relationships: in ‘The Race’ we will realise from later poems that he speaks of his sister.
Skipping, your feet barely touched the street; Your peppers impossible to count.
But who is it who comes to his mind in ‘Where it Happened’, where the Clare Hills unroll their backdrop? It is a mystery, and whatever did happen itself remains a mystery:
Here where our shadows danced On the floodlit wall. Yes, this is where it happened. What happened, I cannot now remember. But yes, here. It definitely happened here.
The sinewy strength of that poem continues in ‘Pietas’ – not now in Clare or Limerick, but in Dublin: “We do hunger well.” A shrewd threnody in which Cunningham recites a bitter roll call of the martyred leaders of the Easter Rising, the dreamers who “saw a blessed sun shine / on future meadows” …
Where children would play and butterflies flutter, Where the rose would burn its sanctuary lamp And the Easter lily’s fervent flame Would never be extinguished.
After this powerful polemic, we turn to the beauty of the Curragower Falls. Here is the final stanza:
On holiday from Heaven I will definitely Return here.
A pretty conceit. Cunningham’s verse is full of places and real things, sprinkled with a wry imagination. In ‘High Maintenance’:
What demi-god directs the salmons’ traffic And alerts the bear to the waterfall, Tells the daffodil it is almost spring
One may perceive this as fanciful musing – however in ‘The Voice of the Turtle Dove’ Cunningham quickly puts paid to that old deceiver, religion; (It seems that in this respect Tim Cunningham is in bed with John Lennon):
And lo! Suddenly religion was no more. And with that, the corollary Of an end to violence and war.
Some changes of scene now. After a brief flirtation in ‘The Music Menu’ – “His starter was a Bach cantata / Hers a Chopin etude” – there follows a subtle alteration of tone, as Death tiptoes in as light as the Feathers of the collection’s title. In ‘Old Flame’:
In the Lady chapel, I try to light a candle To your memory.
‘Beyond the Woods’ is worth quoting in its entirety:
When I am gone, I will leave A Hansel and Gretel trail Across the stepping-stone stars. Follow them. Find me. Or how can that place Be called heaven?
That clutches at the heart. A procession of serious poems comes next; however I shall leap forward to the light mockery of ‘Examining the Entrails’ where: “The old man on the hilltop / looked down on the meadow of his youth” which too struck a chord. Then ‘Feathers’ is the title poem and it is a beauty; here is the opening stanza:
He found a thrush’s feather, Dipped it in a meadow And penned a sonnet.
‘Three Windows’, a poem of sadness and loss, brings a prickle of tears to the eye; and ‘Eggs in a Wicker Basket’ must concern his late sister:
Now that you have gone, Spilled like eggs from a basket, Falling in slow motion, Losing orbit, The yolks not yellow but blood.
And lastly, to complete this treasury of verse, the final lines of ‘Mayfly’:
So brilliant this briefest Span between incarnations Where the dance of life And the dance of death are one.
The thing about Tim Cunningham’s poems is that below the surface there lies always a shimmering truth. It has been a real pleasure for me to review this remarkable collection.