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Sunday, 2 February 2014

GUEST REVIEW: GREGORY ON TWO POETS

NEIL GREGORY REVIEWS

Orchestra & Chorus
by J.T. Welsch (Holdfire, 2012)
and The Gallery
by Christopher Jackson (Poetry Salzburg 2013)

 With Orchestra & Chorus, his third pamphlet – after Orchids (Salt, 2010) and Waterloo (Like This, 2012) – American-born poet, musician, playwright and scholar J.T. Welsch presents a poetry suffused by voices from the past.

A glance at the contents page is enough to see the extent of the intertextuality that drives this collection: bookended by the sequences of ‘Orchid’s Want (I-IV)’ and ‘Orchid’s Name (I-IV), titles such as ‘Hymn for Akhenaton’, ‘Petrarch on Mt. Ventoux’, and ‘The Tiresias Letters’ point to a poetry drawn from myth and literary tradition. Welsch assimilates and appropriates literary precursors with skill, and frequently with wit, as in the playfully oxymoronic title of ‘Epithalamion Shotgun’. The message is orchestra loud, and repeated in chorus across all 28 pages of this short, but rich, pamphlet: there can be no writing without reading.

As messages go, especially for readers of poetry, this is a laudable one. Such is the frequency and depth of the references, however, that Welsch risks alienating his reader. There is of course no requirement for a poet to write poems for a general readership – if there still exists such a thing – but, without a grounding in philosophy, how many of us would pick up on the Descartes pun of ‘pineal hand’ (‘Orchid’s want, IV’)?

The opening stanza of ‘Le Petit Prince’ is characteristically dense with allusion:

            James Dean’s favourite book

            drives the sperm homunculus,

            vice versa. Whether it’s

            a Barnum effect or pareidolia.

James Dean is familiar to most, possibly so too the Barnum effect, but homunculus and pareidolia likely require a little detective work (or a good grasp of Latin and Greek) on the part of the reader. In the age of Wikipedia, this isn’t a necessarily an issue, but it does raise the question of whether a poem is an educational, or an experiential entity. This may well be Welsch’s point. These four short, notably unmusical lines encourage us to decipher them, to engage with them on a semantic level. The poem’s title (another reference we really ought to get) hints that perhaps, much as the Fox says to the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s story of the same name, what we’re seeing on the page is not essential; the real ‘meaning’ comes from within us.

Elsewhere in Orchestra & Chorus, Welsch gives us hints that this pamphlet, described on the back cover by Ian Pople as having ‘a deep, searching engagement with the human condition’, is indeed a book about what it is to be human. More precisely, these poems explore what it is to be an animal that uses language to express and define itself. From the first stanza of the first poem (‘Orchid’s Want I’), Welsch flags up the indefinable quality of both language and our sense of self:

The Lost child chased me to work

            on my radio, the VMS system on I-70,

            and finally, the rear-view, and finally,

            beside me, and we drove.

            All day and night, we drove—

 

Welsch is far too studied and far too skilled a poet for the repetition in these lines to be carelessness. Instead – though of course the point is that we cannot be sure – we get the sense that repetition affords a possibility of various interpretations: the impossibility of a singular, objective meaning.   

Repetition features throughout Orchestra & Chorus, as does a marked attention to, and play upon, the sight and sound of words:

            Its choirs reach an I chord (orchid).

            I do my crochet (orchidectomy),

            or I paint my nails and go see Rosie.

                                                            (‘The Artist’s Hand’)

These deceptively light-hearted, jangling lines not only amuse, they nudge us to look, and to listen more deeply.

Students of semiotics will take pleasure in ‘Sonnet’, the concluding poem of the pamphlet, and the culmination of Welsch’s exploration into the significance we create through interpretation. A sonnet in the loosest sense – fourteen lines – the poem is predominated by the word “sign”, dispersed across the page in a grid-like pattern with alliterated words such as “psych”, “soap”, “Sid” and “says”, which play out permutations of vowel sounds in each column and consonantal endings in each row. Appropriately, the result is something of a Barnum effect: the more we look, the more we begin to see patterns in and between these “signs”.

‘Sonnet’, then, is a mirror. As we attempt to uncover its logic, we simply apply more of our own. It is also a microcosm of Welsch’s pamphlet: a clever piece, by an undoubtedly clever poet. As with the rest of Orchestra & Chorus, there is satisfaction to be had, but you’re going to have to work to get it. 

*

Christopher Jackson’s debut, The Gallery, is a far more accessible collection than Orchestra & Chorus. This is not to say, however, that The Gallery is lacking in substance.

The twenty-six poems presented on the reassuringly thick pages of this Poetry Salzburg pamphlet guide the reader through the experiences and memories that seemingly comprise their author. The opening piece, ‘The Gallery or The Seven Ages of Man’, takes us on a retrospective journey from ‘“FIRST MEMORY”’ to a grave with “open-ended dates”. Littered with memories of places visited, of victories, failures and passions, this intriguing poem encourages us to wonder how and why we choose the moments and actions that define us. It seems an unlikely coincidence that the poem closes with the speaker’s body (of work?) left to “decompose here in public”.

Indeed, the structural conceit of the collection – a series of “rooms”, each preceded by a “catalogue excerpt” – emphasises the book’s artistic quality, the sense that these poems are a display of their author’s skill, but also of the various influences and desires that drive their (and the poet’s) composition. This is an original and effective device. Using the excerpts to suggest the existence of other exhibits and installations teases the possibility of a world beyond the words, something unseen and unsaid, yet just as present as the language on the page.

We need only skim the poems to detect the broad themes that drive this personal, yet universally applicable collection. Throughout we witness reflection and introspection, from the perfectly pitched image of a knife blade’s “cupboard-shadow - / like the idea of itself” (‘The Blade’), to the “dark backing of the mirror” (‘The Mirror’), the act of “reviewing our lives” (‘Counterpoint #2’), and going “back the way we’d come” (‘The Little Goddess Vendor’).    

Like Welsch, Jackson exhibits an interest in language as a building force, a maker of personality. ‘Past, Present, Future’, for instance, plays not only with personification (one of Jackson’s favourite tropes) – “I met Past on the corner of Gloucester Road and Cromwell Road, examining the moon as if about to confide in it” – but also with form. Presented as a block of prose, the poem compresses the characters of past, present and future into a single entity. The effect is much like the gallery structure of the collection, producing a multi-faceted whole from often contradictory constituent parts. The touch is light, though, and reading this poem leaves us with a sense of our own loose construction, a sense that “The pressure of truth is faint” (‘Optimism in Brompton Cemetery’), that we are less defined than we may think.  

For the most part, the language of The Gallery is vividly defined, as in ‘The Dream Sculptor’, where the speaker’s woken hand reacting to an alarm clock is “frog-tongue-quick”. There are places, however, where a seemingly strong image fails to live up to its initial potency: though bold, “the sky is a vineyard graped with stars” (‘The Blade’) weakens under the pressure of the reflection it invites. Such instances are rare, though, and, although the writing doesn’t always achieve the effortless authority of a more established voice, The Gallery is nonetheless a promising debut collection.

The narrative drive behind most of The Gallery’s pieces reveals the poet’s fascination with time. It also pushes the collection towards a mainstream aesthetic. There are no overt experiments (like Welsch’s ‘Sonnet) on show here. Jackson’s poems feel more personal, more a showing of life, than of language. Reading through the rooms of this “gallery”, we are reminded of and encouraged to ponder the way in which our lives come together, the moments and choices that hang together in our own personal galleries.
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