No 31 - Spring 2005
Roddy Lumsden’s Mischief Night: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe £8.95) and Tim Cumming’s The Rumour (Stride £8.50)
Roddy Lumsden’s book begins with a new collection, The Drowning Man, before working backwards in time through his first three full collections and the shorter sequences The Bubble Bride and Cavoli Riscaldati. The resulting compendium is a real page turner with the ‘moreish’ quality of a good novel or bag of nibbles. This is partly to do with Lumsden’s subject matter - teasing titles such as Incident in a Filing Cupboard, Tricks for the Barmaid and My Sex Life lure the reader in like tabloid headlines, and there are plenty of sexual adventures between the covers. Another reason is the storyteller’s gift Lumsden describes in The Boy:
This was in the days when words were currency-
and good ones kept a man in drink for weeks.
My dad would eke out versions of each tale,
a yarn, a shanty, even epic verse
if connoisseurs were lurking in the midst.
This conjures up the old image of the itinerant poet or storyteller, earning his keep through the tales and songs he picked up like a magpie. It also suggests Lumsden himself who for several years supplemented his income via pub quiz machines, relying on his accumulated “currency” of words and knowledge. This compulsive pursuit of trivia provides another explanation for the ‘moreish’ character of his poems since several pieces read like versified lists or inventories (another venerable bardic form), cataloguing miscellanea such as Athena posters, sweets, ventriloquist’s dolls, Scottish perfumes and national dishes, savouring names like “rumble-dethumps an stovies”, “tablet an toffee wi a coo on it” and “a dish o cullen skink”.
This relish for words and word-games is what has made Lumsden a poet rather than just a storyteller or quizmaster; in my view it is the clinching factor that makes this such a readable book. His deft handling of metrical forms, with skilful rhymes and a powerful rhythmic engine, keeps the poems moving confidently forward, as in the first two stanzas of My Prayer:
For all the fools in loveless marriages,
for all the wretches stuck in dullard jobs,
for those in peril in the sea of faces,
or stranded in the gyms or jails of pubs.
For all those under mental anaesthetic,
and those who’re wrestling with the other self,
for all the dreamers starving in an attic,
and poor souls held at ransom by their health.
Personally I find writing metrical rhymed verse a bit like a more enjoyable form of crossword - getting the right fit between words down and across, getting the essential clues, and the satisfaction of seeing the whole shape gradually filled in. In the hands of a versifier as skilled and knowledgeable as Lumsden, this quality can be elevated into an eccentric beauty, as in Lullaby, which is simultaneously encyclopaedic and romantic, with its refrain “A to L, my love, and M to Z”.
Yet Lumsden is not just about fun and games, and a lot of the fun is not of the good clean variety. A Prayer to Be with Mercurial Women is emphatic in its preference for guilty, painful pleasures:
“Darling, you were made for me.”
I pray I’ll never hear those words.
I need to feel I’m stealing
love another man would kill for.
When in sleep she curls herself
around me, may she whisper names
that are not mine.
This alienated, haunted persona finds its fullest expression in Roddy Lumsden is Dead, in poems touched by “the full-wind sickness” (My Limbo) of mental illness, and where “the shocks of ECT, the shock of love” (My Early Years) can be conflated in a single line. Even here Lumsden manages to retain a sense of humour, and many poems in Mischief Night negotiate a kind of redemption from the most unpromising situations; several, such as Then, My First Love, and Rain at Night, add a breathtaking poignancy to a richly enjoyable book.
Tim Cumming’s latest collection The Rumour showcases another poet capable of taking a steady look at the darker side of life and particularly relationships. Unlike Lumsden, however, Cumming allows himself little in the way of lyric consolation. And whereas Lumsden infuses even his darkest pieces with a fierce passion, Cumming is typically more detached, keeping the animal, messy business of life at arm’s length and observing it with a kind of horrified fascination:
She wasn’t interested.
Sex was like a glass-bottomed boat
lined with men’s faces
that twisted when they came… (G Spot)
This is one of many brilliant images scattered throughout The Rumour, such as “the crop circle of her first head of hair” (Cartoon Variations), “a siren discoed down the street” (Night Sights) and “the first signs of age / creeping in, the wrinkled net beneath the skin / like something being raised to the surface” (Laughter Lines). The last image is typical of the collection’s tone, undercutting laughter with something more sinister. Even joyful events are not exactly celebrated in Cumming’s verse:
she thought how being in love
was like being in the middle of a conspiracy,
the meaning it gave to everything,
the endless patterns repeating themselves
Here the conspiracy metaphor is startling; intellectually apt yet emotionally disturbing, emphasizing the distorting effect of love, rather than its happiness. A similar effect is produced by these lines from Dancing with the Captain and Tenille, as two characters contemplate having children:
Life was so good
they wanted to make copies. Is that a promise? she said.
The best bits of life were like the golden age
of cinema. There’s nothing you’d want to cut.
“Making copies” suggests something as flat and lifeless as a photocopy or CD and the cinematic image is witty yet again unsettling, relegating the “best bits of life” to a dissociated image to be “cut” or stored away in a collection.
To say that many of the poems are emotionally flat is, of course, not a criticism but a comment on Cumming’s subject matter, and he deploys considerable technical skill to achieve his characteristic tone. Whereas Lumsden makes extensive use of metre and rhyme, Cummings eschews these in favour of finely judged line-breaks that focus or disrupt the reader’s attention. In As It Happens, for example, just after the speaker tells his partner he’s leaving her:
She diced potatoes and crushed garlic.
The house plants were growing in their pots.
It makes me feel low, she said.
We ate a tortilla and sat at table,
the first meal we’d taken for weeks.
The end-stopped lines stack up details like dirty plates, perfectly encapsulating the matter-of-fact sadness of the end of a relationship. Elsewhere the line-breaks fracture the sense to create spikier effects:
The landlady found all his clothes
tied into a long rope hung over the fire
escape and he was gone, the penny dropped,
the last sound in the room the electronic
voices on the help line. (Subliminal Sonnets)
The many relationship poems (not love poems) in The Rumour are foregrounded against three sonnet sequences and other pieces that offer a wide-angle view of cityscapes and a larger world where “grown men played with weapons of destruction” (Night Sights). Though I find these larger scale poems fitfully effective, they don’t seem to me to add up to more than the sum of their occasionally brilliant parts. They do however add to the book’s overall picture of a world in which “Commonly agreed facts / become unsubstantiated rumour”; a collage of modern life made up of personal dilemmas and relationships mixed with the flotsam of news reports. And in the middle of it all, a wide-eyed consciousness peers out, trying to untangle how it began and where it will end:
There’s a unified theory for all this,
like seeing the world in headlights
but where do you stop? When the ship comes in?
When the money runs out? And where does life really begin?
(Foot, Face, Fist)
Instead of a unified theory, Cumming gives us life and poetry as rumour - provisional, unverified, bristling with meaning and somehow compelling.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The