New Kid on the Block
New Kid on the Block. A review of Tim Cumming, Etruscan Miniatures (Pitt Street Poetry)
The first thing that strikes one about this slim chapbook of twelve poems and six images are the obviously high production values of Pitt Street Poetry, the most welcome new poetry publishing kid on the block. This is a chapbook small as a breviary that looks good and, at least as importantly, feels good in the hand, a unifying pleasure for eye, hand and mind. The whole thing is done in smooth off-white-to-beige paper (the colour of the universe as the latest science asserts) and feels almost as good as a velvet skin.
En passant, I would argue that this pleasure can never happen on a screen or an e-reader, with that infernal glass between you and the world of the text and the text of the world, that such a high quality of printed product is an old value of sensory wealth and pleasure that is worth preserving against the digital avalanche of screen worlds now increasingly colonizing our life-worlds, mostly with enthusiastic uptake and little critical reflexion on the potential costs in sensory diminishment and mental complexity (cf. Nick Carr, The Shallows). I am aware the PSP also publishes in digital formats, and, given market realities, who can blame them.
This is poetry to contemplate, not skim over while watching a DVD or your toddler. This is slow food of the mind, a small collection of miniatures of stars and watermelons and Umbrian landscapes and God, an illustrated book of hours, a poem for each new glass of red, each pause between a series of breaking waves or gusts of breeze.
The work is suffused with Tuscan wine, food and landscapes , here perhaps a little retro-impressionistically caught in Cumming’s own miniature paintings reproduced on the cover and within the volume.
Most of the poems are in the painter’s eye, as it were, sensuous visual cascades describing the real or its artistic representations, and the blurring of the two:
The best pictures
are underlit, a blurred fire
flung against the dark
faces caught in the flash
of an image-making
paparazzi of mind,
and lapis lazuli,
a lighter trailing
a flare of gold over
moonbulbs of garlic
hung out to dry on
the south-facing wall
of Paulo’s farmhouse…
As in this poem, these visual cascades may end, perhaps with a certain inevitability, in the overtly, albeit here perhaps somewhat drunkenly overwrought (and/or not quite felicitously captured) sexual:
starred with quartz
and a Roman frieze
in milky marble,
the sexy buttocks
of a spear-carrying
centurion turning against
the writhing of the sun.
Ahem, not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps, but after all, there does seem to be a lot of drinking going on in many of these poems: ‘After lunch, the blossom of a young bottle/takes us bubbling to the Piazza Raphaelo…’ (‘Piazza Raphaelo’); ‘We’re staring up at Umbrian night sky/watching fast stars stir the drunken cranium’ (‘Fast Stars’)…
And personal relationships. There are memories suddenly looming of a magic mushroom-taking friend in London as in ‘Mushroom Robert’: ‘…crumpling hallucination/that swam through every mammal/like images on a closing fan’. There is a marriage negotiating its ‘next hairpin’ in ‘Watermelon’: ‘…this pen/following the next morning’s breeze/and our frescoed selves on/the slope through the trees’.
In its first main book series PSP has also published Jean Kent’s fascinating recherche du temps perdu Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks and two collections by John Foulcher, a reprint of his famous early work Light Pressure and his latest (ninth) collection The Sunset Assumption.
These covers are in a pleasant minimalism of all text in lower case, author in slightly larger font than the title, two colours (black and red), off-white, no images at all. All of which makes a visually appealing, elegant change from many messy and image-overloaded poetry book covers. For the lover of fine poetry books also produced with an eye to visual design and tactile pleasure, Pitt Street Poetry is obviously a new publisher to look out for. (Website on the Blogroll).