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David Underdown’s ‘Time Lines’: Review

David Underdown / Time Lines

£7.99 / Cinnamon Press / ISBN: 978-1-907090-38-7

Some of the poems in Time Lines can be found here, as well as recordings by the poet.

As the title suggests, David Underdown’s debut collection Time Lines is focussed upon the theme of time & memory. Over the forty two neatly crafted poems, Underdown explores the universal milestones of life in man & in nature. The theme lends itself to a collection, as poems on a broad range of topics – a Dark ages Viking settlement, frogs mating, an aging former pointsman, etc. – can all contribute.

The poems of Time Lines are acutely aware of the immediate sensory experience of things, & Underdown’s language is ebullient & crackling with vitality. The sixth stanza of ‘Time line’ gives the best example of this:

In the market, light wedges shadow,
polyhedrons spattering stacked oranges,
mounds of aubergine, jewelled cherries.
Pink-gilled fish sprawl shamelessly
as brazen as sad tarts. Mullet stare
from slabs where sardines glitter
in chests of casual treasure.
The traders sit like heedless priests steeped in incense
rank with fish and ripened fruit.
Our coffee is black gold
sipped thick as silt and sweet as sunlight. We count our coins in wonder.

It is the poetry of playfulness & excitement. It can get away with some wildness, such as lines like “like dessicated bogies”(‘Time line’), but Underdown is slightly prone to excesses when writing with this much energy; for instance, in ‘Lines written on a walk from Padstow to Poltreath, 23-25 March 2009’, the speaker describes the wind as “teasing the breakers to ejaculate their spume too soon”. This aside, Underdown is clearly at his most electric when evoking the senses, as ‘A small holding’ shows when it distills this down to simply listing the “smells”, “surfaces” & “sounds” in “the kitchen”.

This liveliness & love of reproducing the sensations of the world is necessarily a love of language as itself. Underdown cannot resist the sound of words; take, for instance, this stanza from ‘3 a.m.’ (one of the best poems in the collection):

Heavy-lidded, flannel-headed,
straining for familiar sounds,
the scutter of rain, a riffle of wind.

The “familiar sounds” which the voice is listening for are not really of the “rain” & the “wind”, but of the words “scutter” & “riffle”. For Underdown, the worst unhappiness of the old man in ‘Sidings’ is of the TV “turned-down”, the traffic “muted”, for the bumpers to be “never touching”, &, accordingly, the language in the stanza in which these horrors are related is distinctly flat. David Underdown has a real feel for the shape & weight of words, & does not miss a chance to play with them.

The awareness of memory in a lyric poem, in the act of the speaker putting himself into the past to recreate it (as memory does), allows a division of the voices in the poem, as one man in his time plays many parts. Between a person at any two moments in their life there is a sameness & yet uncanny difference, & the same occurs noticeably in Underdown’s poems, as he explores the complex nature of our relationship to our past. (Memories always want to be in the present tense.) He exaggerates this doubleness of memory in ‘Time line’ which separates them deliberately & typographically, as the main voice speaks from within the memory & the quieter voice looks back on it from without. The first two stanzas run:

Rucksacks bulge like Christmas,
strapped and union-jacked,
pockets tattooed with conquests
in ballpoint smudged by Icelandic rain,
bleached by Aegean sun.
Even our Britannic Majesty
requests and requires our passage
freely without let or hindrance.

Time was open then,
lives aligned to light like strands of kelp.
We swayed with the easy swell,
touched with lazy kisses.

The first voice, within the memory, is vibrant — “strapped and union-jacked” is a powerful image — & goes through the poem with the same strength, as discussed above. The second voice, reflecting back, moves from the concrete to the abstract, & takes control of the poem at the end with an attempt to symbolically articulate the experience of memories. However, it is not quite effective, as the sheer youthful vibrancy of the memory overpowers the voice of the old man looking back, which comes across, in comparison, as rather thin. We react like Cain in his Towneley cycle play when God interjects to rebuke him: “Who was that that piped so small?” That said, for the most part his poems explore memory interestingly & effectively, matching the symbolic language required for memory with the concrete matter of experience.

Underdown does have a tendency for a certain paucity in some of his poems. His poems, with their technical skill, are engaging to listen to (as the recordings on his website will attest), but some of his poems are entirely transmitted in the space/time of one reading. I suspect being an firmly oral poet is both Underdown’s main strength & biggest weakness. To explain myself better, here is his ‘Riding the Chittagong train’, quoted in full:

He has caught you for us all to see
crouched on the coupling like a trapped bird
brown eyes direct to camera. You seem amazed
but exotic as a parakeet wrapped
in rose and turquoise plumage of cheap cloth
as clean and bright as the speed and heat
he has also caught in an avocado trackside blur,
the hint of swelter from some front line.

His surprise lens has snapped you up
from your precarious perch to show the risks
you run but also how you stay separate,
as free of rust and grime as a back yard
sparrow, yet with wide eyes
that speak through a one-way window.

The scene is captured neatly & attractively, but once one has read it through, that is all. This raises the question: what is it, exactly, that we expect of a poem? Is it enough to reproduce experiences accurately & vibrantly? Here the reader has a sense of her colours, her motion, the precariousness of her physical position. But humans are not cameras. (Perhaps the ekphrastic nature of this poem, describing a photograph, hasn’t helped here.) Everything should carry the extra thickness of the symbolism of consciousness, like, in Bergson’s image, the layers of snow accumulated around a snowball. The poet’s work, surely, is symbol-making: the poet, at least in Underdown’s slightly conservative style of lyric, must “look back in wonder at the patterns”(‘Seasoned’) brought out from reality, & process experience to connect individual instances to the whole & derive some form of new knowledge from the world. Isn’t this what we, as readers & writers of poetry, have learnt to expect? (&, I think, rightfully so.)

This is, perhaps, the hardest area for a poet to work on, & it is only something to bring out from Time Lines because it is an interesting subject. From poems like ‘3 a.m.’, ‘The mackerel pit’ & ‘The nest’, it is clear the David Underdown is a talented poet, & that Time Lines is a very impressive debut collection.


David Underdown’s personal website; Cinnamon Press; buy Time Lines here.