Donut Press, 2009, £10
There’s a story, I think told by Simon Armitage, in which he turns up to do a reading at a school and is warned by the headmaster that “we don’t like poems with language in them”.
God knows what he’d make of Tim Wells, then, because Rougher Yet is crammed full to brimming with the stuff.
I don’t mean just the four-letter, Anglo-Saxon stuff, although there’s enough of that to frighten off any passing Ofsted inspector. No, it’s the way that Wells pulls off the trick – much attempted since Frank O’Hara, but a lot harder than it looks – of appearing to be noting down the stuff of everyday life as it happens.
In fact, even to say “noting down” is misleading, because it’s more like wandering down some high street in east London in that hour just after the shops close but before the pubs fill up, while Wells gives you a running commentary on his mobile.
But, and this is the crucial bit, the use of slang and colloquialisms always sounds natural. Perhaps that’s a consequence of Wells being a fine performance poet, but perhaps not – I tend to think a good poet is a good poet, full stop.
Whatever, I like the sound he makes. In London In Peace, “dippers fleece the crush”, while in Comin’ a Dance, “her bloke’s in a pony suit / and drek trainers”. There’s much more, but Wells trusts the reader to make of it what he will, the same as when he slips in snatches of patois and even Asian languages that reflect the intensely multicultural scenes he’s describing.
Where subject matter is concerned, it’s that vibrancy, that determination to celebrate life in all its dubious glory, that’s most appealing. A poem like Keep The Faith, celebrating the pleasures of his beloved reggae, ska and R&B, closes with the refreshingly unironic:
Pain and heartbreak pounded out
On a powdered killing floor.
Fighting isn’t about hitting
it’s about getting hit.
This joy in my heart is the best revenge I have.
Music figures large, as do the delights of the greasy spoon caff, and if I have a complaint it’s that he’s so good at drawing significance and feeling out of seemingly mundane situations (you get the feeling that Wells knows that to write about London plainly and truthfully will inevitably touch on most things that matter) that one or two more self-consciously ‘serious’ pieces feel, well, self-conscious.
I’m going to undermine my own point, though, with the superb Now the Gate Fly. Here it is:
And what is left
when all this lust
sweats down to nothing?
A love, so subtle.
A love which has reached
its extreme. A love
become the air
you breathe out
and I breathe in.
What’s that if not a serious, straightforward love poem? So, enjoy the humour, the tragedy, the absurdity and the poignancy (see closing poem There’s A Ghost In My House), and thank God Tim Wells isn’t afraid of a bit of language.