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Guest Review: Smith on Dooley

Barbara Smith reviews
Imagined Rooms
by Tim Dooley

I have a recurrent dream that involves old buildings, the rooms of which seem to interconnect on planes that I cannot explain or convey. What I learn in these buildings and rooms is something that I can never bring back to the waking world. All of which is why I experience a shock of recognition in reading Tim Dooley’s Imagined Rooms. It is as though he writes about the places I have visited, the urbanscapes I have seen from those building’s windows, and brought the whole into the light, for a stronger investigation. All are caught together with a grasp on both the waking and imagined through his firm use of form.

Whether using short restrained stanzas that swing between three and two alternating lines, as in ‘A Part of the Main,’ suggesting the ebb and flow of life outside of the constraining room of the narrator, or the longer lines and stanzas of ‘Homefinding,’ somehow suggesting a large, roomy Georgian house, each poem represents a snug cohesion between form and content, allowing a discourse that registers as surprised recognition in the ear of the careful reader.

Quite often, we think we know where a poem is going in its early stages– the shape and lines seem to suggest one path. The enclosure of rooms and their constraint is portrayed in the first stanza of ‘Homefinding’: ‘Back then I hated walls. I thought they / kept all life outside and it was colder /when they curled around me. I kept away / from rooms before.’ Dooley undercuts the expectation of the accumulated density of a large stanza and long lines by changing the direction of the fear: ‘but now so much has changed.’

The new direction of the second stanza expands this: ‘The new place is like that. It stuns us by / its size ... The high / ceilings are light, unstained and even.’  But the ending is unexpected: ‘I’m sure you’ll find / the place quite soon and hope that you won’t mind / when you arrive, my asking the address.’ Up to that point in the poem, we have felt rooted in a reality, but now realise the room has been a metaphor – for what though? What new place has that amount of ‘unstained’ perfection, especially when it speaks of age: heaven? Or some other hinted at conclusion? We don’t know, but delight in the complexities that emerge.

These complexities develop in blocks, as we travel through the collection, such as in the first group of ‘large’ poems. ‘32°,’ one of this first grouping, captures a hot summer’s evening in June, where ‘trees are comfortable like wealth,’ and ‘the indifferent suburb / ... is part of our unease and as large as bowel movements / a dry throbbing light in our reading of the day.’ This is a unique way of describing how unease can feel, as well as how the scene appears. This moment in time is caught and portrayed, just as slippery as the feeling of ennui, but not wholly pinned down.

Dooley’s expertise is to show, through his language, how experience and memory become interchangeable in our minds. The divide between the private and the public, as evidenced in these poems is fraught between a representation of reality and what we imagine. Conveying this to a third party, the reader, there is a trade-off between the experience of the writer and the reader – this is where the dream, or imagined, is brought into the waking world.

Another angle on this idea can be seen in ‘Nos Meilleurs Clich├ęs’, part of the same sequence. ‘We have // the scenes already framed and squared and / we are in them,’ Dooley says, but we are not in them, we have simply imagined them so as to have ‘something to mediate on in winter years.’ Again, our capacity for imagining ourselves into a scene or photograph, is almost stronger than the reality, providing a source of comfort – a stay against what the future might hold. It is this tension between these ‘imagined  rooms,’ these varying viewpoints (in a later sequence, with ‘Above Genoa,’ and ‘In Genoa’) that tease out these extraordinary connections.

Although some of the poems are re-gathered from an earlier collection, The Interrupted Dream, the sense of recording previous time manages to steer clear of simple history (one damn thing after another) and shows a poet using a framework on which to develop a sense of personal imagination that has a beautiful continuity throughout. The old complements the newer most successfully. There are no duds in this book, just a flowing consistency that carries you through the collection, surprising and gently interrogating that part of consciousness you thought you’d left on the pillow.

Barbara Smith is an Irish poet, blogger and poetry reviewer.
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