Christopher Horton reviews
by Tim Dooley
Tim Dooley’s book Keeping Time, his first full length collection since 1985, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, appears to be less about keeping time and more about what occurs when you miss a beat to transcend the prevalent zeitgeist. Often, the characters in these poems are found caught between the orthodoxies of mundane post-industrial life and the urge to cut loose from the ‘rat race’ – the poems 'Out', 'Edit' and 'a Salesman in the Lakes' might all be cited as examples of this. In 'Out', for example, Lucille who has seemingly been laid off from her job, embarks on a winding journey of the east of England, then finally, the coast, where the sheer vividness of the natural world infers epiphany: ‘where oyster catchers dive for food/ and the diamond-glittering, brown-and-grey-skinned seals,/ swivel and swim between sand bank and arctic sound’.
Journeying is also important to Dooley and a number of the poems in the collection describe travel – from the escapism embodied in driving to music ('Yes it is' and 'Sunday Morning') to those of walking through the diverse and historic districts of London ('In the palm of my hand'). It is as an observer to movement, as someone passing through, that his eye is most acute. Yet, as is the case with memory, the nature of the journey is rarely sequential or straightforward; rather it comes in snapshots and incomplete remembrances. These ‘side glances’ to the transitory might be seen, at one level, as a conceit for life itself and the disorientating effects of time passing.
To this end, Dooley is less concerned with the destination, and the narrator’s placement within it, than he is with the notion of transitory experience that, by its very nature, will always elude our grasp. This is perhaps best exemplified in the last stanza of 'In the palm of my hand' and its last line: ‘Daily we brush against it or glimpse it beyond our touch./ What we walk through fail to say, or try to hold’. The poet’s reoccurring recognition that those things we ‘try to hold’ will, inevitably, escape us is depicted as a kind of exile. Whether in the wistful ‘Revenants’, where upon return to Prague, faces are altered by ‘disease age, or merely compromise’ or in ‘Echoes’ where a former student returns for a work reference after a life in New York and subsequent drug-induced mental illness, there is a sense of something lost to and in time as well as to the meddling hand of fate.
Dooley is that rarest of things: both a public and private poet astutely attuned to the public mood and imagination but also able to strike a gentle, understated private tone. In his poem 'Tenderness', he takes us from the nostalgia of vinyl and a second-hand Dansette record player to, finally, the heartfelt resonance of the word tenderness in Otis Reading’s well known song. In the poem 'The length of spring', he feels the same ‘fierce brightness’ experienced at a friend or relative’s funeral as he does marching against the Iraq war. Whilst other poets might retreat to domestic subject matter to reflect personal or private insight, Dooley does not shrink from big historical moments and demonstrates seamlessly how such moments inform our inner lives.
Perhaps what endures most in this collection is Dooley’s fierce poetic defence for, and belief in, the strength of the human spirit, often in the face of oppressive political forces that threaten to engulf the self. 'Digital' is a brave poem, unafraid to confront these forces. It begins with the line ‘Like a girl with a new pony’, as if to feign innocence, and ends candidly with the same motif, ‘This is no pony, just/ a naked man’. The use of the word ‘just’ here is disturbingly informal - almost casual, and holds tremendous potency in light of what we now know about Abu Ghraib. 'Cellular' combines an outsider's observations of self-obsessed commuters with rare glimpses of their vulnerability, culminating in the image of a husband trapped beneath the rubble, tapping the digits on his phone: ‘until the voicemail’s memory could take/ no more spoken word or text.’ Avoiding the numerous pitfalls that any poem about 9/11 has to negotiate, it is the ambiguous ‘we’ that hears and sees but is not implicit in the experience that works so effectively here.
However, Dooley does not always successfully convey his often ‘off the wall’ subject matter. The poems where the poet tries – perhaps too hard – to bring in a multiplicity of historical or literary references work less well because they appear either too oblique to inspire interest or run away with themselves. 'Brief Encounter' – a largely well crafted poem – is too overcrowded with incident, characters and literary reference to have a lasting poignancy. 'The Secret Ministry' and 'Mr Wu', though undoubtedly original, again dissociate themselves from the reader through a deliberate desire to demonstrate assumed knowledge rather than wonder.
In Keeping Time, Dooley consistently critiques the way in which we live and yet, curiously, this is a book that instils a faith in humanness. The characters in these poems, and one suspects the poet himself, are searching for something that feels to be real or at least more real than the standardised and artificial modern day coda that prevails. As such, much of the poetry in this collection offers an alternative, an escape route, whether through music, travel or language itself. We have had to wait some time for this collection but in it Dooley has confirmed himself as a poet of intelligence, gentle charm and genuine wit. He is not only a poet of our time but a poet that is needed for our times.
Christopher Horton is a poet and reviewer based in London.
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