To begin with a
brief aside... When I am not reading and writing poetry, or scouring London for
book launches that offer free wine, I am an English teacher. Ask any English
teachers you may know - a lot of our time is spent drilling into pupils that
poems do not 'flow'.
uses lots of rhythm to give the poem more flow...
they all say. I don't know where this phraseology originated, but it appears
to have been around forever. Every pupil, it seems, at some point has to be
helped over this stumbling block of literary analysis. It is perhaps for this
reason, that a similar literary phrase has begun to stick in my throat. I am
referring, of course, to 'ebb and flow'.
On the surface of things, there is nothing exceptionally bad about 'ebb and
flow' as a poetic image. It is phonetically beautiful and presents readers
with a vivid enough image. My problem is that it is everywhere. In literary
criticism and poetry alike, I cannot escape it... it is as though there were no
other way of engaging with life's rhythmic movements; 'so and so has
successfully captured the ebb and flow of nature'; 'it is through this
masterful imagery that we get a sense of the poet's ebb and flow through
life'; 'no other poet has better captured the ebb and flow of a sandwich.'
I am no angel in this matter. I've used it. You've used it. We've all
resorted to festooning our language with Orwellian dead metaphors at some
point. I urge you now though, join me in a new movement. This will require
little effort, just return to your draft-books, facsimiles, manuscripts,
pending reviews, etc. and remove every mention of 'ebb and flow' you can
find. Let this be the dawn of the post-ebbflowvian era as that bland,
ubiquitous phrase joins literature's jetsam.
In this cause, I call the fisherman poet, Chris McCully to be our spiritual
leader - his latest collection, Polder, deals extensively with life by the
sea, and not one single mention is made of that particular tidal descriptor
which shall now no longer be mentioned.
Polder is a deceptive collection of poetry. On a superficial level, there
seems to be no formal cohesion. Other than the two lyrical pieces, 'The Thorn
Carol' and 'On Greenfield Station', there are no two poems which employ the
same structure in this collection. Add to this the fact that the book is
broken into four distinctive sections with the poet employing myriad voices,
ranging from the ascetic intellectual voice of the prose-poem, 'Dust':
I have looked
Dust is in
the Bechstein, the dahlias are dust, the tray horse under
moon is dust. All the somewheres where everyone once
the future for someone particular and found nothing
to the McGough-ish lyricism of 'The Fat Girl':
girl's drinking diet stuff,
E-numbers make you thin,
she drinks enough
she'll have a
life and get a chin.
With such incessant shape-shifting, one could be forgiven for not immediately
seeing the subtle threads which hold this collection together. Let us return
to the boldly bleak beginning, 'Dust'.
... there are
those from the future who will, with a calm sneer,
tomorrow that everything becomes the night. But
I'll tell you
The six pages that follow are a terrifyingly reasonable exploration of how
all returns to the dust we create from the moment of our birth:
without your solitude, and left dust.
To begin this collection with such a methodical assertion of futility is
inspired; before we get to the rest of McCully's work (none of which is as
nihilistically macabre as 'Dust') our synapses have been slowed down to just
the pace the poet wants them. As we progress through the various
character-studies and scenes which follow, we still have the echo of 'Dust'
in our minds, reminding us of the absurdity behind the fact that any of us
bother to do anything, knowing that we will all return to a powdery nothing.
The poet's most effective device is his use of the 2nd person. The
majority of these poems include an extensive use of the word 'you', but to
shifting effect. A 'you' in a poem is a finger pointing from the page,
sometimes at the reader, sometimes over the reader's shoulder to a specific
addressee, and sometimes as an informal replacement of the aristocratic
'one'. Consider the opening of 'Minoan':
In a broken
row of exclamation marks
was a temple.
It is this ambiguous 'you' which gives this poem such a beguiling hook. Is
the poet purporting to know the secret of the reader's imagination? Is he
talking to one whose mind he knows intimately? Or is he making a
generalisation about how people's minds work?
This unsettling triple-threat of the 'Poetic You' is used to irreproachable
engaging effect in the collection, and ensured I read the thing in one
sitting (or two venti lattes to translate that into cafŽ terms).
As I have mentioned, the collection is divided into four distinctive
sections: 'Dust', 'Polder', 'Masterpieces' and 'Torquatus'. Whilst I enjoyed
the lyrical exuberance of 'Polder' and the engaging demi-dialogue of
'Torquatus', it is 'Masterpieces' which shows McCully at his best.
Composed as an exercise in ekphrasis in a series of visits to Amsterdam's Rikjsmuseum, McCully
provides us with an astounding sequence of vignettes in reaction to various
paintings. Whilst the idea of writing from paintings is well-trodden ground,
McCully has a real gift for embracing the impositions we make when attempting
to engage with a piece of art:
the meanings I was looking at, and listening for,
might not be
the readers' meanings - everyone will read the
differently, just as they will these poems - but
introduction to 'Masterpieces']
By turning the world into a
Rorschach slide, McCully forces us into awareness of the interpretive
processes at work in an art gallery. One poem in this section, 'The Drinker',
illustrates this well:
himself among the janitors,
flush of the
the smell of
wax and yesterday -
Just as McCully blurs the parameters of the 'Poetic You', he erodes at the
frames of a painting and allows them to interact with the gallery-space and
create communion with all who view it. 'The Drinker' leads a double-life in
the poem as a lonely figure in an art gallery who 'smiles - for company', as
well as a reference to the poet's own struggle with alcoholism. McCully's
'Masterpieces' are a fine portrayal of a persona unable to concentrate on a
fixed subject without catching his own reflection. 'You' becomes a
masterfully masked 'I'.
The collection ends with a sequence of epistolary verse called 'Torquatus'.
As McCully communes across the centuries with the Ancient Roman figure, we
get a real sense of McCully's clawing for companionship in a world which so
often leaves us alone. At times, Torquatus becomes the poet's confidant, as
I have this
To run out
naked on the roads
The most touching of the sequence however, is 'Trade', where the poet
attempts to console Torquatus on the loss of a lover:
out of it, man. Think.
as if she'd
than like a
It is at this moment that Torquatus' function as a friend becomes clear - we
use our friends when they are in times of need to assure ourselves of our
wisdom and togetherness. McCully hereby resurrects an imaginary friend with
depth and humanity - and as the poet's dust settles and mingles with that of
all who have come before him, he gains a sense of existing at all times and
Carcanet this season, comes Matthew Welton's highly anticipated follow-up to The
Book of Matthew. I shall get this out of the way now - the
collection is called We
needed coffee but we'd got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the
better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became
quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we
returned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the
tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and
untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it
felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle
sound of the wind
The audacity of this 101 word title is a good indicator of what to expect
from Welton. He does not want his readers to settle into their comfort zones
- his work is profoundly defamiliarising, at times even oulipian in
construction, and undeniably the bold work of a visionary.
The sequence 'Virtual airport' begins:
moment it takes to blink your eyes and stare, and feel
as if you
recognize the place you are in, is just long enough for
the air to
cool off again or the lights to dim, and for the entire
familiarity to drift away to nothing.
Whilst this passage is an apt evocation of an airport's genius loci, this
could just as well serve as a mission statement for Welton's work. As we
inquisitively navigate the looking-glass universe Welton constructs for his
reader, we are always catching glints of the familiar, before being plunged
back into the weird and beautiful verbal traps the poet lays for us.
The snatches of observation in 'Virtual airport' contain some of the most
effective evocations of light and colour in contemporary poetry:
The light is
like a gesture not everybody is going to understand.
The colour of
the light is like new aluminium.
The light is
a colour like sugar or aspiring;
the light is a colour like still lemonade.
All at once, oblique yet instantly understood, Welton conveys all the
exciting soullessness, the vivid blandness and the foreign familiarity felt
by all who have spent time in transit from terminal to terminal.
As with McCully, Welton has arranged his collection into a series of distinct
sections which, taken in gestalt, contribute to a staggeringly accomplished
whole. The section 'four letter words' is a highly oulipian sequence, in that
it is made up entirely of 'four letter words'. Welton makes himself
comfortable and seemingly unrestricted within these parameters as he is able
to achieve perfect coherence:
door ajar. Fill your guts with good, weak wine.
Play with your hair.
Flip open your head.
as well as the vibrant eccentricity which characterises the rest of his work:
pour your beer your door
more here your more
push-pull lush-hull hush-mush-mull
Welton also hilariously incorporates the most obvious connotation of the
phrase 'four letter words' in 'vier':
fuse fume fusm fuss futs fuss furk fumn full furd cuck
cunk cuck wack cuck wack cuse wase cume wame
That barrage of nearly-swearing goes on for a whole page. It is such moments
which show us how acutely aware Welton is of how he can manipulate his reader
by setting a honey-trap of connotations. The poet's primary concern in this
collection seems to be a deconstruction of these semantic fields which
writers and readers use to illuminate the mysteries of a text.
Consider the wryly titled 'Got loose and let some':
late last summer when he shows up at
club where the gin's rough and the wine's rough and
things the band play fills your head with sludge.
This could easily be a passage from a Richard Yates short story about a
city-slicker falling on hard times, were it not for that name at the
beginning. Do we therefore interrogate the poem as an allegory for the life
of Christ? Does that alter the significance of the wine? Or do we take the
stance of noughties rock-band Frightened Rabbit, that 'Jesus
is just a Spanish boy's name'?
Throughout the collection, Welton has us interrogating our own schemas of
connotations and, like McCully, forces us at all times to be aware of what we
as readers bring to a poem:
trainers and jeans she looks like a narrow-faced Alastair
Burnet. In her trainers and jeans she
looks like a sad-faced
Einstein. In her trainers and jeans she looks like a wary
the car on the south side of Main Street, 'It's just
a lot of cold
treacle,' was all Filippino Lippi would say. Getting
into the car
on the south side of Main Street, 'It's just a lot of
treacle,' was all Flanagan and Allen would say. Getting into
the car on
the south side of Main Street, 'It's just a lot of bad
all Fontana would say.
sober and alone, standing at the window with the
phone in his
hand. Kate Adie, tearful and alone, standing at the
the phone in her hand. Katherine Hepburn, indignant
standing at the window with the phone in her hand.
from 'Dr. Suss']
As we consider the shifts in meaning as words are replaced with other words,
we start trying to draw connections between different semantic fields. Is
Einstein somehow related to sadness? Is Katherine Hepburn somehow related to
indignation? The seemingly endless barrage of historical figures and subtly
tinting adjectives is like being caught in a perpetual redrafting process.
Reading this sequence I am reminded of Ted Hughes assertion that certain
words are 'meaningless hieroglyphs unless the stories behind the words are
known' (Myth and Education). In these baffling bombardments of famous names,
Welton makes us as readers constantly skip from story to story,
congratulating ourselves when we recognise a reference, scratching our heads
when we are stumped, and eventually realising that the poem is deliberately
entirely meaningless without the meanings we already possess.
This idea is taken to its logical conclusion in the most audacious section of
the collection, Six poems by themselves'. Allow me to transcribe the entire
of the first poem in the sequence 'The poem in itself':
The rest of this sequence more or less follows suit, with the lines
rearranged into different structures. This sequence makes a bold and
necessary point about art - we are never entirely reading something, so
much as we are looking for something based upon our previous experiences.
These 'poems by themselves' invite the reader to do just that - we cannot
help but create our own meanings from the most basic of stimuli; why not
literally give us an interpretive carte blanche?
In the hands of any other writer, Welton's approach to poetry may appear
gimmicky, but what saves him from this accusation is that he is relentless.
He never appears to be trying something different to create the illusion of
progress, but rather out of a belief that the only true meanings left to
uncover exist in nonsense - apophenia never seemed so beautiful.
Both McCully and Welton admirably create a freshness of expression which
should cleanse the palate of any reader. They have thoroughly captured the
ebb and flow of poetry.
Phil Brown 2009