• Andrew Cunning

Review: Paul Maddern’s The Tipping Line (2018).

Updated: May 1, 2020

To live in Ireland is to never be more than a couple of hours from the ocean. Many of us can get to the sea and watch the waves break within minutes of the house. So when Paul Maddern — Bermudian born — pens a new collection, it ought to find a home here, a place similarly at eye-level with the ocean. Maddern’s work has always drawn from the coastline and the beach, which is hardly surprising given Bermuda’s twenty square mile size. Kelpdings (2009) and The Beachcomber’s Report (2010), both published by Templar Poetry, are firmly planted at the shore, as their titles would suggest, but with eyes for the horizon and the possibilities of beached minutia. Maddern’s latest book, 2018’s The Tipping Line is a further exploration of the coast and hones in on the meaning of its own title. The tipping line is, as the initial section teaches us, ‘the point / where what floats in finds rest’. Maddern’s choice of a central image is evocative, and the seeming randomness of what useless detritus gets washed up on a beach balances the ostentatious flights of imagination that glimmer throughout this long poem.

Unit 1 reports on a Donegal landscape alive in operatic cacophony, with the speaker sitting amidst it all, experiencing it as he creates it.

from the farthest field a heldentenor, the rarest of his breed, makes his entrance.
Othello listens to his Estulate! richocet between the mountains

Maddern’s opening section blurs any lines thought to separate what is happening from what has happened and what will happen. Such land borders are shown to be naïve constrictions, made ludicrous by the wildness of an Irish beach. In Maddern’s imaginary, we create the reality we describe, a fact that explains his gorgeous, fastidious attention to mundane and sublime detail. After all, if every act of description is also an act of creation, why not be as lavish as possible?

Addressed, like each of the book’s eight units, to his nephew Rowan, this opening section places the ordinary alongside the spectacular. ‘For you, I’ll create an amphitheatre’ the speaker declares, and this impulse of the imagination transforms the landscape of a sanded shore to accommodate a long list of operas. That we get an equally long list of washed-up objects — mouthwash, a fisherman’s glove — on this Donegal tipping line is not at odds with the catalogue of imagined performances. And this is Maddern at his best, refusing to parse the mundane and the miraculous. Other reviewers have noted there is a latent Romanticism in Maddern’s work, and we could be more specific and say that there is a specifically Whitminian impulse at work here. Whitman, famously, found letters from God ‘dropt in the street’. If he had spent time in Donegal perhaps he would have found them littered on the beach, too.

At one level this book is centred on the reality of imagined things. Perhaps the most striking recurring image of the work is Creature, a figure from Bill Condon’s 1998 film, Gods and Monsters. We all know the face of Creature, and a rendering of him appears in The Tipping Line before a word has been spilled.

Creature leaps and spins beyond his limitations becoming skilled in the language of movement, he battles his creator and we are all the richer for it

A product of imagination and human creation, he is slow to learn the rhythms and sounds of suburbia and the ostensibly normal.

As a construct of the imagination Creature, the poem observes, will never sit well in a world of polite functionality. The opening section on Creature is my favourite part of the book — it is thrilling. Here, the creature escapes his middle-class confines and ‘raises an arm to the sky’. The speaker addresses us directly at this point, saying ‘believe me if I tell you / behind him those are not suburban lights / in suburban hills. They are torches’. As a symbolically queer figure, Creature deepens this long poem’s deconstruction of borders and designations. The tipping line is, after all, where land and water meet, where the ocean brings its offerings, and where the seemingly immiscible make contact. So while this poem meditates on radical divisions, it also explores deep interconnection.

Unit 6 documents the death of the poet's father, and builds a scene by a rock pool that mirrors and shadows this very same moment years ago, long before it became an echoed memory.

I walked the length of Grape Bay beach and stopped midpoint where as a child I explored the tidal pools among the sheets of rock that fold into the sea

Not only does Maddern show us temporal connections by giving the present its past, his poem also furls around found poetry from the work of painter and artist, Paul Nash. These poems, often letters from Nash to his wife Margaret, anticipate Maddern’s lines, and Nash’s phrases echo through the Units. A fitting methodology for a collection with this title, The Tipping Line is the product of combing; beaches, letters, old books and cities. The passion of the poet is imagined here as ‘a love of finding objects, reshaped for purpose’. This book is a challenging, demanding read. This is a startlingly fresh addition to this island’s poetry. And it is worth every cup of tea poured to accompany it.

Paul Maddern was born in Bermuda and has published four collection of poetry with Templar Poetry. He is the proprietor of The River Mill writers retreat in Co. Down.

Review by Andrew Cunning. April 2020.

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