Peter Finch - The Welsh Poems
reviewed by Jamie Wilkes
This new collection from Peter Finch is a real pleasure. His poetry inhabits an old border of the English language, permeated with Welsh sources, literature, history and place, fraying into Welsh or deeper into the common realm of sound where distinctions between languages dissolve. From this interesting position Finch continues to mine the rich seams of experimentalism, which if The Welsh Poems are anything to go by, are far from exhausted.
This fairly substantial collection, printed with the tantalising promise of a further New and Selected to be published by Seren in 2007, can be divided into three sections. The first contains individual poems, the second a number of visual poems including a set of visual haiku, the 'Dauber poems'. The last section is an act of homage to R.S. Thomas appropriately entitled 'R.S. Thomas Information'. It simply collects together in alphabetical order "deconstructed text, found material, collage and original work, along with actual information relating to Wales’ greatest poet, R.S. Thomas", as one of the copious footnotes explains. The poem, or sequence, enacts an exhausting informational overload appropriate to its original internet incarnation with footnotes in the print edition replacing the hyperlinks, but the mix is leavened with emails, anecdotes, fantasy and poems-within-poems. I was won over by Finch's succinct justification: "With so many words why make more? These resources exist and need to be proclaimed. There is a thin line between data and information and another one between information and art. I am in the business of crossing these lines." Finch's alphabetisation is simply an alternative organisational structure for the poem.
The way in which an interest in Oulipian constraints, new ways of writing and non-traditional form intersects with a sense of place and history is partly what gets me really excited about Finch's work. Take the first poem in this collection, 'Fold'. It uses as a source the first lines of R.S. Thomas' 'Welsh History' – "We were a people taut for war; the hills / Were no harder", and makes this of it:
We (us) (I) (you) were (weren't) (won't) (will) a (the) (this)The second section then uses the above as its source, building on the already altered text until it ends: "(fold) (fold) (fold) folded (fold)." This is poetry as origami, a folding that is also an unfolding. The Thomas poem ends with the prophecy, "When we have finished. . . gnawing the bones / Of a dead culture, we will arise / And greet each other in a new dawn." You could see this poem's gnawing as a part of that new dawn, a striking of balance between internationalist poetics and respect for a long heritage.
people (pointed sticks) (prime numbers) (purple patch) taut
(tired) (tiled) (tight as fists) for (from) (frightened) (foaming)
war (wet fish) (wet fist) (wet fear); the (those) (these)
hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)
(hardened) were (will not) (can not) (can) no
(none) (neither) (normal) harder (holding) (heaving)
(happy as barber’s poles) (hard hosts) (home)
Finch is also extremely funny. His Zen Cymru haikus include moments of deadpan wit that slide into melancholy and out again:
Could be moon– and the collection is seeded throughout with humour, sometimes gentle, sometimes earthy. This balances the sobriety of some of the other poems, which include the musings on method of 'How' ("Probably the most important realisation was that the ear could lead the voice. Hear the distortion and then mimic it. Follow the pale traces of syllable bumping"), the resurrected and treated social history of 'Mardy Maerdy', and various celebrations or remembrances of fellow poets Barry MacSweeney, Bob Cobbing and Chris Torrance.
. . . .
This Wales leaks there isn't one
The breadth of techniques and forms marshalled here shouldn't really be surprising – Finch has done it before in Antibodies and to a lesser extent in the shorter Food and Useful – but it's still stimulating. The visual poems in The Welsh Poems (first published by Writers Forum in 1997) are high contrast, hard b&w pieces similar to those in 'Five Hundred Cobbings' (from Antibodies). The explanation that prefaces the Dauber poems is helpful and to the point: "Haiku because they use only the slightest amount of text, verbal fragments, half syllables, seasoned words. They work by suggesting, by letting ideas echo."
I will leave a final description of the collection to Finch himself: "aficionados of technique will find the found, the extracted, the bent and processed, the recycled, the cut and pasted, the masqued, the flailed, the rubbed, the ripped and the repeated here."
[Published 15 March 2006, Paperback, 148pp, 9"x6", £9.95 (UK), $16 (USA)
ISBN-10 0907562914; ISBN-13 9780907562917 Shearsman]