Nick Asbury reviews
by Peter Finch
Sometimes you wonder if books are the best place for poetry. The clean white page is like the wall of a gallery, elevating its contents and conferring status, but also sterilising the work, putting a polite border between it and the surrounding world. The poems in Peter Finch's collection come very much from the surrounding world: a gritty world of performance, literary engagement, and a career spent at the front line of Welsh cultural creation.
Many of the poems come with a contextualising back story. 'Kerdif' ends in an acrostic that has been inscribed into the pavement outside Cardiff's new central library. 'The Ballast Bank' has been incorporated into a public artwork at the entrance to the new South Wales Police Headquarters. The title poem was written as an interactive piece of web poetry. Others are clearly intended for public performance more than the page, with a tendency towards deadpan punchlines or spoken-to-camera-style asides.
But here they all are, herded into a book, much like the two sheep on the front cover, standing in a comically restricting shed, looking (sheepishly) towards the outside world. It's a good image for the cover. Playful, charming, melancholy, hard to forget – and a good signpost to the book's contents.
The poetry is a lively mix of accessible and performance-friendly, experimental and gaming (including a poem apparently based on the roll of a dice) and elegiac and personal. Some poems fall into all three categories. The binding theme is mortality and loss, with some powerful poems about the poet's mother and father, as well as darkly comic reflections on his own impending mortality.
I loved the poem 'Rain', dedicated to the poet's mother, which ends:
We walk in the garden where the plants no
longer have names and the birds are blurs.
You are holding onto me with that clutch of
yours that crushes bones. Who are we,
mother and son in a rain which keeps getting colder?
The mouth won't answer, it doesn't know,
but the body, that remembers.
It's typical of the poet's style – conversational, with the occasional seemingly arbitrary line-break, but then resolving into the most arresting of phrases – "birds are blurs" is a wonderful matching of sound and sense.
'Wide' is about the poet's father and also ends with unanswered questions:
He still has on those thick rimmed glasses
helping him see doesn't need them now surely?
Sight of them again clutches my throat
I run upstairs and check the box still
there and this hat dust of decades those
gone and those coming.
Is this it, I mouth at him.
but he's not answering.
The broken syntax (used throughout) is disconcerting at first but gradually justifies itself. There is a real sense of a hesitant, searching, human voice, suspended in the present tense, trying to strike a match in the darkness.
The collection is full of father figures of a different kind, from pop culture giants (Elvis Presley, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector) to lamented poetic compatriots (RS Thomas and John Tripp – JT – in particular). 'Coming Back with JT and Bob Dylan' is one of the key pieces, opening darkly:
There is downpour, always.
Fat rain hung over South Wales
like a diseased lung.
"There's many here among us
who think that life is but a joke."
and ending grimly:
Two beers with JT's ghost in the swaying bar
full of men in bad suits who
sell and never go home.
Intellect and dignity buried.
The land leveed with golf, junk and garbage.
And God somewhere making it worse.
This is brilliantly direct and engaged writing, from a poet who isn't afraid to invoke the big abstract nouns, including the biggest one of all in the last line.
The battered dignity of Wales itself is a recurring theme. This is a land that has lost its sense of binding national narrative. In 'I Chew My Gum And Think Of Rifles', the poet comically posits the theory that Wales missed out on a proper armed revolution with a Castro-figure at its head:
... He would have
stood on the balcony they'd have
erected hastily along the front of City Hall
and told us we were worth everything
in the world
But this was never to be:
Then I recall that we are a peace loving people
full of mothers and hope. If we'd had rifles back then
by now we would have given them up.
The note of rueful affection is typical. This is, after all, a poet who has chosen to stay in Wales and fight the good fight, culturally speaking. Wales itself is slow to return the favour. In 'R.S. Visits The City', the poet recalls the inspirational effect of a reading by R.S. Thomas in Cardiff – a glimmer of hope in a land never visited by Yeats, Pound or Eliot – but then asks wearily:
In his work are there traces of this place,
where he was born, reluctant, leaving
as fast as he could? Do the streets of Cardiff echo?
No, they don't. Do we honour him in this
city as a lost son? Plaque, statue, trail?
No we do not.
Instead, Wales has become a land where "what was once the working class / sashay past dressed by Matalan and Cotton Trader" ('Ikea'). The poet doesn't pretend to sit above this process of commercialisation, recalling a set of postcards of R.S. Thomas, which – rather than cherishing – he carelessly sold.
Some of the above may give the impression of a grouchy poet bemoaning his home country and the lack of respect it affords its cultural heroes. If so, it's down to my clumsy rendering of what this book is really about. It is the work of a playful, questioning and serious mind, willing to take on the big themes and engage in a national literary tradition that it is energetically helping to sustain.
Nick Asbury is freelance writer, poet and author of Corpoetics, a collection of verse rearranging the words on corporate websites.