Light and good to hear


Settings, Tim Allen (Shearsman, 2008)


Knowing, as I do, that there's a lot more where this came from, I can only marvel at the excessive imagination of Tim Allen's writing. To call him fecund would be a massive understatement. Settings is a series of seventy seven pieces - whether prose blocks, poems or prose poems is a moot point and probably irrelevant - each taking up no more than a page of text and each being a discrete object, although there are, of course, occasional 'overlaps' and suggestions which are reprised at a later point. No matter, the essential point to be made is that these artworks feature a number of techniques common to poetry - Tim is particularly keen on punning and on the use of assonance and alliteration, usually as a way of steering the 'narrative' in a completely new direction - and are cumulative in the sense that the more of them you read the more you get a feel for what is going on here. Which is what, exactly?

As John Hall says in the back-cover blurb 'There's no story but there is certainly a scene...' yet the sense of a story being told is everywhere in this collection, where biographical detail, disguised or otherwise, jostles with an array of materials and 'subjects', from popular culture and WW1 to the details of a poetry reading for hospital radio where a certain Kenny Knight, apparently, spilled coffee over the protagonist's microphone. Although high-octane emotions burst through at irregular points and serious thinking is often interrupted by dazzling displays of linguistic wordplay - often leading to intentional dead-ends - there is nevertheless a sense of flatness here which is induced by Allen's refusal to set up any sort of hierarchical value-system of material or information. Although this collection represents a particular individual's highly personal 'outlook/inlook' on the world there's an essentially democratic motivation behind this writing. Yet Allen is never bland or lacking in imagination - even the material which may have been 'throwaway' is heightened due to the author's strong sense of euphony, a deep need to make the poetry work as texture, as sentences balanced into harmony forever teetering on the edge of collapse.

It is a genuine wonder, given the wide variety of materials used to construct these texts, that they hold together at all, yet there is coherence and there is certainly a great deal of pleasure to be got from engaging with them. There are times when I laughed aloud when reading these poems and times when my brow tightened as I attempted to follow a particular 'thought train' only to realise that the sense I was making collapsed into nothing as the writing changed course, shifted by a pun into a completely different mood and off on another tangent. There are times, of course, when this sort of game-playing can be irritating but the irritation never lasts for long and it often promotes some serious thinking or at least a good hearty laugh. Ok, let's get particular.

Set 44, where the author 'discusses' the work of the avant-garde poet John Wilkinson, not the occasion for a barrel of laughs, you might think, but think again:

 ...It takes longer to read a page by John Wilkinson than to write one of mine a - nurse reads me a page as if I was in the children's ward it takes him longer to get - home from the hospital than it does to do a shift.  ....

This is funny because if you've struggled with the density of a Wilkinson poem you know exactly what Allen is getting at but it's also a serious point - Wilkinson is, sometimes!, worth struggling with - but the shift into location changes the context and then adds detail which throws up a whole load of other thoughts and feelings if you've a mind to let yours wander. There's a lightness of touch here which balances the 'immediate' with the longer-term' and which is, I think, the source for a lot of the pleasure to be gained from reading Allen's work, if you're prepared to engage in the first instance.

Some of the commentaries display a caustic yet somehow restrained sense of the absurd, as in Set 67, where among other matters, Allen touches on the theme of conceptual art via an intrusion into 'the mind' of The Chapman Bros:

...The Chapman Brothers should stick life-sized figurines of traffic cops without their cars on all the sites the project could be called Babblefield. A glider made of all the sauce that ever dripped down the
bottle could take this in even if the critics remain as baffled as unpoliticised widows.  ....

The invention here is fantastic. I've a pretty good idea of Allen's views on conceptual art (we've had lots of 'discussions' over the years) but the answer in this instance is to project something even more absurd and perhaps trivial yet incredibly imaginative at the same time. The IDEA of making a glider out of all the sauce that ever dripped down the
bottle is completely barmy, not to say impossible, but also very witty in the context of an Alice in Wonderland universe - perhaps somebody should try it!

Allen marshals an enormous width of material into his projected landscapes where the 'real' brushes up against ' the imagined' and both are given equal footing even where real rage and anger break through to make clear this isn't post-modern writing in its cool, detached form. Then again, I
also find myself persuaded and enlivened by the pure aesthetic delight involved in his work: 'Polish greasily rots in desk grain but the limbs and faces of my imaginary siblings shine.' Just read that line for its resonance and its sound, never mind the meaning! Sets is full of such sentences, where the language is made to work hard for its living yet it all seems so light and good to hear.                             

I wasn't too sure about the 'glossary' at the end of the book, together with Allen's comments about the 'partiality of cultural references' often included in other books, but I warmed to it in the end. Nobody is ever going to be able to know all the names in a volume with such wide reference points and I don't see this as being a problem of elite versus popular - we all have slightly different accumulations of cultural baggage, whether popular or otherwise (I have a particular blind-spot when it comes to sporting matters, for example). Yet this is a user-friendly guide as well as being personal to the author and it can be used as an aid to further research if you so desire.

    Steve Spence 2008