They dragged him from the podium
the mic fell slack and squealed
and back inside his hotel room
his tortured mind unpeeled.
(‘The Strange Death of Charlie Wordsworth: Stand-Up Poet’)
-Reviewed by Seán Hewitt–
Pub Stuntman is Tim Clare’s debut collection, but it comes as the product of an already-established poetic career. Clare has done worldwide tours, written an award-winning memoir, presented a Channel 4 series, and even staged events with the likes of Vic Reeves and the legendary John Cooper Clarke. And yet, despite his enviable credentials, Clare’s poetic is one of self-deprecation, even sarcasm: it constantly attacks pretension, offering humour, as opposed to exclusivity, as a vehicle for poetic insight.
These poems, even on the page, retain their origins as spoken performances, and their humour often arises from the casual asides and thought-processes we can see developing. The reader can hear Clare’s voice, and can almost picture the wry smile widening over his face as he gestures to us, performing on the page:
I stiffen my felt death warrant
with mercury. This is my pet
barrister, Stephen Quinn.
Say hello, Stephen.
It is the little turns of comedy that make Pub Stuntman such a breath of fresh air and such an enjoyable and easy collection to read. There is none of the heavy-handed ‘ULTIMATE SOUL PAIN’ that Clare mocks, and he is the polar opposite of the poet who, in the collection’s final poem, wears ‘his condescension / like a giant gilt-edged monocle.’
But that’s not to say that Clare’s poetry is incapable of serious thought or poignancy; in fact, it is often the case that Clare and his eclectic cast of characters (Mr T., an unemployed hangman, the Home Secretary to name just a few…) seem to use humour as a defence mechanism, and Clare opens up various wounds through laughter. In one of this collection’s best poems, ‘In Which You Are Decapitated On A Rollercoaster In Budapest’, the ‘headless lover’, whose vulnerable head is variously described as ‘a scoop of peach ice cream’, ‘a cannonball’, ‘a winter moon’ and ‘a Christmas pudding’, becomes a way of exploring quietly touching moments of loss:
I write about the weeks that come after,
about giving your books to the charity shop
then regretting it,
the loneliness of finding a glove in the garden,
grief’s raw boredom.
Needless to say, Clare doesn’t let these words hover in the air for too long before quickly deflating them with another blunt comic progression: ‘Near the end of the poem I write about you / getting your head knocked off.’ He assumes the role of the intellectual poet in order to tear through it from the inside, leaving the reader constantly suspended between comedy and more potent images and aggressions.
The atmosphere of the festival poetry tent is evoked in Pub Stuntman with a quick wit and a knowing eye. Occasionally the use of more prescriptive rhythms and rhyme schemes get in the way of the comedy, as in the collection’s opening poem, ‘Welcome to the Poetry Arena’, but it is worth reading on and rooting through for the hidden gems, the gleaming comic moments and the more earnest and touching observations, the little wisdoms and truths. There’s a little of everything to be found here, and the poetry of Tim Clare is rare in that it manages to leave the reader both thoughtful and amused, with an ‘inscrutable smirk / smeared all over his cheeks like jam.’