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Review of The Acoustic Properties of Ancient People

Michael Tims collection, The Acoustic Properties of Ancient People, from Finishing Line Press, $19.99, is a keen study of the curious intersections between history and the now, the ever elusive emotional present. Rooted in realism, Tims looks at his world with objectivity, searching for balance.

“<H>ell is a place we cannot see. The bad wait just below the good,” Tims writes in the opening poem of the collection “Artifacts,” a meditative warning of sorts straight out of the jungle. Tims frames his collection with literal artifacts that remind of us, dear reader, of our dual spiritual nature, and that despite the struggle between the two sides, death awaits us all. And perhaps even more alarming, an erasure of our identity, like Angkor Wat, or Ozymandias, forgotten by all except those who encounter our ruins. Tims focus on the elusive present shapes the tone of the collection. To hammer this home, Tims follows up with “Stinson Beach Gnome,” where the sounds of a tranquil morning become a lesson on what does not last. “If I sing a lifetime more of their song, how much will I remember?” Memory is a trick, a cheater. It takes the past and holds onto it, and colors it ruby warm, or steely grey.

The now looms large in the narrative pieces on display throughout, such as in “After Market Auto Parts Factory, Greensboro South Carolina,” where robots, absent fathers and mothers, and even the robot’s coders “will disappear.” We are here one moment, and gone the next.

It’s not just what we build and where we work that is ephemeral, love and lust rise up and fade away. The smell of sex will eventually dissipate from our bodies, the touch of a lover lingers, but eventually goes away. Like family, lovers shape us only in the moment. Tims reminds us that we can only be lovers in the now. Maybe we will be lovers in the future, God only knows, and the past will remain a fixed point in memory, but the now is where it’s at.

Tims poetry also participates in that Romantic ideal of education, or enlightenment via nature. The world is the best teacher, but that does not necessarily mean people. In fact most of the poems in the collection focus on natural world rather than the people in them. Oh, family looms in some of the poems, most notably in “Silent Years” where he writes, “Father you gave me your hands./ I hold them aloft like kites.” But even here, the poet’s great inheritance is not knowledge, but biology. Like the ancients Tims elegizes in Acoustic Properties, the poet knows that the wisdom comes from being in the world, which is best epitomized in “Totem:”

What did it say about my search for

meaning beyond the obvious,

that I kept plunging deeper and deeper

discarding what I found as trivial?

That afternoon I caught sight of someone pulling

an orange kayak

upstream across leaf-scattered waters. They

were headed for an island of light near a

stone-littered beach

marking a bend in the river.

What followed lay hidden from sight.

In other words, people know very little, and if we are to trust what we see, there is a risk that we will walk through the world blindly. Or as Iris Dement sang once, “Let the Mystery Be,” enjoy the world, because you won’t be around long enough to figure it out.

Tims has a background in biology, and on occasion his work sings with the musical diction of science. Not only does “The Chemistry of Breath” elegize the most important, taken for granted biological process, but it does so with the wonderful syllabic friction:

Radium ions dissolve from rock to ground water, accumulate

inside Eucalyptus roots.

Pumped up into the canopy

and released through evapo-transpiration, they have lost

their particulate nature

For the most part, Tims diction is colloquial, and his tone frank. Stylistically Tims voice is rooted in the contemporary American style, breezy free verse focusing on alliterative and off rhyme assonance to swing, versus traditional form, or experimental soundings. Primarily this is an elegiac collection, a mindful one, rooted on that precarious ledge of time we call the present.


Stephen Scott Whitaker is the managing editor of The Broadkill Review. His poetry and prose have been published in dozens of journals and magazines.

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