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Guest Review: Woodward On Welsch

Catherine Woodward reviews
By J.T. Welsch

Every so often a poetry collection comes along which is truly breath-taking, having read and re-read Orchids many times now I can safely say that it is the product of a remarkable talent, in fact we seem to be witnessing one remarkable talent after another appear amongst new, young poets. Orchids is book number five in Salt’s ‘Modern Voices’ series, a fitting place for it as this compact collection is as convincing and natural a voice of the times as a reader could ask for. It would seem that J.T. Welsch is part of an exciting new turn already in effect across Britain’s poetry scene.

Orchids is a collection of monologues from varied and surprising speakers (its reach doesn’t stop even at Death’s door) each working out a self by the confused terms of contemporary masculinity. But I feel that this isn’t good enough as an initial description. The issue of how man is to be man today, while a consistent theme, is not always directly treated in the poems, it is the ghost present in each. Orchids is first of all a book of love poems, of fear and anger.

Orchids contains a fabulous array of voices; they can laugh at themselves or be completely serious, some speakers don’t understand what they want, some wrongly think they know who they are, others behave as expected. Often a speaker doesn’t even realise that they are baring their scrambled self. How one speaker forms and balances their poetic voice and chosen confession is immensely different to the next; there are particular neuroses bubbling under the surface as speakers work through them without naming or even being aware of their issues; those poems which speak plainly and directly, which are in their turns endearing and threatening, can be read as pantomimes of regained control over the same neuroses. With these shaky, uncertain, and even untrustworthy speakers, Welsch gives his reader multiple angles from which to consider his poems and the characters who speak in them. Both intelligent and sensitive, the poems in Orchids are as impressive as they are memorable.

The control that Welsch has over his writing is something very special indeed; the interplay of his ideas is so subtle that each poem comes across as natural, honest and unforced even though Welsch keeps a tight rein on the interaction of his images. Welsch’s manipulation of language is delicate to the point that it can go unnoticed, such that a reader will continue to get meat from one of these poems over and over again. Equally unique is Welsch’s style of free verse, in which that same subtle control is marked. Though no two poems are alike they all manage to share the same poise; each voice finds its own music but doesn’t throw itself into the search with great lunges, Welsch does not misapprehend the paradoxical ‘constraints’ of free verse, neither is he still bound by the expectations of formal poetry. The overall impression is one of cool, deserved confidence. Welsch conveys the struggles of all of his speakers calmly, assuredly, dutifully. It may not be going too far to say that in Orchids he has achieved one of the poet’s main goals – to disappear from the page completely, playing as it were, the vessel.

I have a lot of favourite moments from Orchids. Particularly thought-provoking were those poems which dealt with relationships; man in relation to the mystery of woman, man in relation to the greater mystery of himself, even more interesting however were poems about the relations of men with other men. In ‘The Man From the Phone Company’ I read a desperately sad misunderstanding of the speaker’s self and other men around him ‘The man has taken no notice./My heart goes out to hands like/his, like paws. I need their pity’. In ‘Screen Tests’ the voice of Sal Mineo is filtered through the voice of James Dean and vice versa so that one distorts the other and each expression is anchored by its relation to the other. ‘The Artist as the Head of Goliath (c.1610)’ shone for me, a barely understood communication of a mysterious castration, the man suddenly finding himself as feminine.

I believe that Orchids is a central work to the search and discovery of an appropriate philosophy to deal with ‘these modern times’ (for want of a better phrase). Many young poets seem to be searching for personalised responses and emergency plans, or searching and discovering the impossibility of such answers, not just for Western culture but also for the individual. Orchids is a fine and erudite example, taking its points of reference from art history, Hollywood and the most mundane of domestic experiences. Coming from Illinois and living now in Manchester, Welsch also brings American influence into British style, a haunting sense of the alien and the broken dream which penetrates this kaleidoscope of self making. It gives an impression of the great ticking mechanism of the world at work in man and the wealth of meaning that can be drawn from anything by any man - the world of Orchids is filled with secret sadnesses to be found.

I love these poems for their style, their quality, their unique exciting newness, but mostly because they feel alive, because they have so expertly opened my mind to a mysterious, never-ending issue.

Catherine Woodward reviews regularly for Eyewear
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