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Tim Cumming – Well Loved Tales

Tim Cumming LE P&W February 2019

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Well Loved Tales, Prose and Poetry by Tim Cumming.

Tim Cumming is a poet, artist, journalist and filmmaker from London.

He was born in a children’s home in Solihull and was brought up in the West Country. His poetry collections include The Miniature Estate (1991), Apocalypso (1992, 1999), Contact Print (2002),The Rumour (2004), The Rapture (2011) and two collections from Australian press, Pitt Street Poetry, the art and poetry of Etruscan Miniatures (2012) and Rebel Angels in the Mind Shop (2015). A new collection Knuckle is due from Pitt Street Poetry in 2019. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Forward’s Poems of the Decade, the WS Graham anthology, The Caught Habits of Language and Bloodaxe Books’ 2010 anthology of poetry from Ireland and the British Isles, Identity Parade.

He made the acclaimed Hawkwind: Do Not Panic documentary for the BBC in 2007, has shown his film poems at cinemas and festivals worldwide, and writes regularly about music and the arts for the British and international press.


I was born Brendan Quinn, an amalgam of my birth father’s Christian name and my 17-year-old  birth mother’s maiden name, in Father Hudson’s Children’s Home in Solihull in the winter of 1963, and became Tim Cumming, the youngest adopted child of a family of four children, growing up in Dorset to loving parents who were artists. I was later told that my birth parents had been artists, too, and that the nuns suggested the placement. So art had a hand in redirecting my identity and future life from the very start. This essay, from a manuscript called The Re-Enchantment, looks back to the first stories I was ever able to read, at the age of seven or eight. Fairy stories. As a remedial child, a late learner, I can still vividly see those black marks on the left hand page of the Ladybird books scurrying like insects across the page and into words – like some charm from a fairy tale …

Well Loved Tales

Some events in life remix your colours in ways you can’t imagine. Mind and matter mix like pigments and it’s the strong colours that bleed through. Your gravity shifts, you hear a new bass line, and your moves change. Being adopted, exchanging one name for another, is like being mugged of your identity. There’s a violent wrench a long way beneath the surface and all this wreckage to deal with after the storm, except you can’t classify it as wreckage because you’re dealing with the basic material that makes up your life. And the most basic of all is that identity switch, the first dislocation, the unexplainable disappearance of the mother who bore you. It’s the plot of a fairy tale. Sublimate it and bury it as deep as you like in anger or acquiescence but it’s not going anywhere. It surrounds you, it’s your wagon train. It’s your story. How are you going to tell it?

The first story I ever read was Rapunzel, a Ladybird edition with watercolours on one side, 14-point text on the other. Whoever did the Ladybird watercolours were professionals of their craft. The tale is full of nasty forks and twists and I felt them all. The couple who can’t have children, the wife who conceives a child and pines for the old woman’s greens, the sustenance she lacks. The timorous husband who climbs the walled garden, way beyond his years, and picks the vivid salad greens from their beds of saturated colour, a colour so strong it has a life and movement of its own. His capture, their agreement. The birth of the child and its adoption by the old woman – with fairy tales, it’s amazing how many foundlings and orphans and adoptees blaze in their furnace.

The old couple disappear after that. Whatever they did was irrevocable, and it was done. They cross the line then fall into a vacuum of not here, never was. The woman will pine for the witch’s green rapunzel till the universe spins itself out to a series of dots and dashes. Rapunzel, Rapunzel… Let down your hair… The young beauty in the tower, the young wandering prince who climbs her tresses and makes her fat with sex and progeny. The old witch puts a measure to the girl’s waist. She is the hated Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Something from nothing? You dirty little bitch!”

The pictures in my mind of the witch’s garden, and the tower through the trees of the forest that the young prince sees, I’d feel them twang and vibrate and shimmer. They’d begin to move, and I’d see the old man creep through the darkness, enormous dark green leaves hanging in still air. Not a sound, not a breath of wind – and then the witch’s finger.

You!

I twitched, looked up from the first story I could read, climbing the fine hair pinned by a nail and ending in dead fingers, speaking in tongues. What was the girl virgin to the old witch? And when she was swollen with child and cast out into the thorny wilderness, I saw the skulls of Golgotha in dad’s painting above his bed, done some time between art school and the war. Christ on his knees at the mouth of a cave at night, black and grey but for his crimson djellaba. Dad’s voice from an underworld studio.

“Rose madder.” Madder from Friesland, a plant for the colour of panic and life and blood, the prince’s eyes bloodied by thorns, the thorns and petals of a red briar rose. I can remember learning to read the thorny black marks into words, the prince stepping through the parting wood and looking straight at me.

And then the witch vanishes, and so does the tower, and the rapunzel. Never here, never was. Just years in the wilderness, until he hears her sing and her tears heal his sight. Remote vision: I remember the ache and terror built in to that little paragraph: “And he wandered alone for many years.” So light on the tongue and the fingers, and so unendurable. I stared into the mouth of the story and never blinked. It was like staring into the mouth of a dark cave, one that had once been inhabited, and you could very faintly scent the habitation. The thorns, the prince and the old witch and the girl in the tower and the fearful husband and the greedy wife – they moved and flickered like figures on a cave wall under the light of a fat lamp. Fairy tales are the cave art of the ears and tongue. I think they are just as old, stirring in the minds of the young.

Every terror in life, and the terror of death, has been felt out first for us in fairy tales. A great scientist once acquainted them with stories for people afraid of the dark. One of his anti-religion raps. He didn’t know his subject. They are instructional, not escapist. They’re there to make us fear the dark, not protect us from it. Riddles wrapped inside an enigma dropped in to a well, and you hear a faint echo.

Like you’re on the way to Thebes, and there’s this floppy bitch with claws resting under her dugs, waiting to tear your head off and feed it to a ravenous, disc-shaped sawmill of a mouth. The name’s Oedipus, and you’re the original tragedy. The foundling marked by the claws of an eagle. All adoption stories pull in their thread from the labyrinth and they all end at the foot of Oedipus, the baby tossed in to the wilderness because of a promise and a curse.

“Motherfucker killed his father, sired his own brother.” Kept on punching holes in his social network. He married his mother and killed his father and solved the riddle. How would my fate slot in to that mythic template?

Because they are questions loaded with weapons, riddles feature large in myths and tales and songs, like holes in a Swiss cheese. The current academic fashion is to date nothing in folklore further back than its first documentation. It’s an odd twister of a position to take on an oral lineage of descent from the collective tales Carl Jung wrote about, the prince and the witch and the girl in the tower, forbidden fruits and blinding thorns. They live in a steady state, way older than written matter. It’s worth noting that one of the Grimm’s sources for the tales they collected was a neighbour woman who came to clean their house. Once, after telling them a tale, she returned, concerned that she had placed a word incorrectly, and in the tales she told and had heard and learnt, every word had a place as firmly fixed as the stars.

Songs, we know, are more protean; they’re carried to be spilled, and one song often pours through another. The devil riddles a young boy on the road; a gentleman lover puts life-changing riddles to the beautiful young sister who will take him to her bed; The Bells of Paradise is all riddle, drenched in the musk of grail imagery. “One half runs water, the other runs blood.” John Barleycorn, dealt with as if he was one of the bog people garrotted over the peat workings of ancestral neolithics. Barleycorn finds an antecedent in the Exeter Book of Riddles, pages of which were used, some time in the 10th century, as beer mats.

So, riddle me this: did I have to kill my father and marry my mother?

“If I saw her again, I’d kill her.”

I once made good friends with Nabila, a young British Pakistani woman. She was the accountant, I was the copy writer. We were often alone in the overspill office together. There was a spark, and the same with anyone I liked, she soon learnt about my children’s home origins. “If that happened to me,” she said one day, apropos nothing in particular – she was settling some petty cash accounts for the book reps – “I would find them and kill them both.” Then she gave me a dazzling smile. Not long after that, a young accountant working on the end-of-year books nodded towards me and Nabila and murmured to his younger male colleague: “He is her comrade.” Their eyes were still and pointed. I was being watched, like the witch watched Rapunzel. A few months after that, her marriage was arranged to a dull fellow with a scratchy beard, and here comes the groom-to-be’s brother to work in the warehouse, to keep eyes on the valuable bride.


Earth

You’ve got to appreciate the atmosphere,
a day’s humid haze rising from the page,
voices off, traffic through the night,
candlelight on the arm of Picasso’s minotaur
lit by a child’s raised light in a Mayfair gallery,
women overlooking from the balcony
of a lap-dancing club, ships on the blue horizon,
the blue in the eyes of brave Ulysses minding
the traffic, lights red, moving with purpose.
Scooter gangs sing like sirens.
The traveller needs a room, a telephone,
a door to the roof, a young girl
with her lamp, down the fire stairs
to a back alley, sign above the door,
a suitcase in a station locker
and inside the case, Picasso’s minotaur.

Mars

People with hands on heads
walk through Southwark at night
as if hands on heads was the new thing,
the veering van a pen in the hand
of volatile fate scribbling down names
over and over in random colours
until nothing is clear except that
it happened today and it happened here.
What else is there to say?
One of them said, you must stop living
your life this way, then put the knife in.
Now we play Simple Simon Says
and walk away with hands on heads.
I half-expect a second wave the next day
or the day after that, the surge of a crowd
as I’m passing through security,
pressing a lanyard to the screen
that recognises me and lets me through.
From my work station, I know all
the emergency exits, the flow of traffic
down Buckingham Palace Road.
From here it’s barely a murmur.
I don’t let my thoughts wander
further than my hands can reach.
On the journey home, eyes down
and half asleep, a surge of images
rolls by like thunder. I let them pass,
one by one. I think I might follow
a few of them, before I leave the
waking state, and go under.


Jupiter 

I said I would keep my head straight,
my words plain, but I can see what has fallen
and how I seem to be falling away
not only from you but from every narrow way
we found and I knew what was being lost,
because beneath us is the ground,
it is full and tired and lets in very little light
and I want to keep my distance from the ground
but the laws of physics make that difficult.
You’re too busy to be interested right now,
but on the backs of my hands
appear the first few spots of decay.

Saturn

The metal bending intensity
of what was exchanged.
It felt like penetration,
the searing chemical kiss
of a contact sheet rising from
its bath in the dark room
to flood our page with images,
eyes adjusted to their maximum
rate of exposure, light-sensitive
film of longing and desire,
the fuel of zodiac stars
whose arrangements open books
to those that know and see
the signs underneath the skin.
What we saw was the far side
of each other, coming in from
the outside where it is cold
and seeking where it is most warm.


Uranus

I am with the magician Cagliostro and his
mistress in Paris in the autumn of 1781,
staring up at the same spot of starry sky
in the slide of a magic lantern.

Herschel has just discovered Uranus,
and he is so ridiculously pleased with himself
he could pull that fine crescent moon
from its cloudless city sky at dusk and hang it

from the animal in his nature. Between us,
the birds evening chorus, synesthetic distances
blending with sirens in the etching mind.
I check my phone. The passage of time was in dispute,

lurching from its carriage in a morning suit,
reeling drunk from dawn to dusk
between Cagliostro and his mistress
dressed as double agents of love and doubt

slipping about on a treacherous slope
where any sense of self is more subtle than a scent,
sky hung with the planets of our nature.
The lights of every room they came to frequent.

Climbing over the wall into the next walled garden,
night jasmine exhales itself in one great exultation,
Cagliostro rises and his mistress climbs behind him
into the starry sky and I can’t take my eyes from them

moving as one high above the city lights.
What does a new body add to the system?
Hearts turn full in the afterglow of a kiss.
Nothing of this is visible to the naked eye.

I felt dizzy for ages, following their lengthening shadows
into the lamplit city’s nocturnal abyss until I knew
they were gone, and I was lost. At dawn, I found
my room, folded back the sheets. The shutters were drawn.

Whisky from the mini-bar, the flicker of a magic lantern.
They say it will be hotter here today than it is
in the Sahara, though I do know it grows
very lonely and blue in the desert at night.

Neptune

He’d look out for her
as if she’d be everywhere,
stacking up signs, signals
from distant places, all the stuff
you’d like to hear, enough songs
o fill an atmosphere, right up
to the cold emptiness of space.
Repeat to fade and the long
night’s chatter: it was like being
stuffed into a vacuum-packed box,
inarticulate matter and a combination
of dead locks pressed into
service of the human condition –
eyes, lips, blood flow, temperature –
stealing through every kind
of drama that feels real when it
passes the lips, words for songs
casting off like ships between
you and your significant other.
Between us the heart’s mirror,
images roam and stretch on
the other side of the glass
which is where we are crawling all
over each other, fluid in our mouths,
the dark backing on this tarnishing
with a brush the steady light of day.


Pluto

Once the mechanism had been set
into motion it was like someone had
turned the lights on in a hidden room
crammed with all sorts of incredible
acts of creation and there were chests
of treasure glittering down there,
things you could almost reach for
and touch, as if they felt the very
same emotion, but she had to offer
them up herself or the room stayed dark
and he’d lie in the middle of it conjuring
the subtle formations of her mouth,
the drawn bow of the upper lip,
the muscle and the feeling that
reflected each other down through
the hall of mirrors upon which he’d
settled himself for contemplation.


©Tim Cumming