Originally written last year for Cadaverine blogzine, previously unpublished.
Be My Reader82 pp., Shearsman, £8.95
Be My Reader82 pp., Shearsman, £8.95
How much can you put into a poem without appearing to try? Yeats claimed, in 'Adam's Curse', that the appearance of effortlessness required by good poetry was always the result of vast effort (“I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe'”), a claim whose apparently casual expression itself belied its large implications, its deconstructive effects on the poem and its explorations of nature and artifice. The problematic reappears in connection with Alec Finlay's work. Finlay, the son of poet and sculptor Iain Hamilton Finlay, works mostly as an artist, but also produces pamphlets, mostly through his own Morning Star Publications, that straddle poetry and artists' books. Be My Reader collects texts produced for commission with other lyrics. Many, particularly those produced for fine art projects, were made by, or toy with, process. Most are fairly short (only four poems are over two pages long), sparse and seemingly very casual – the kind of thing that could be jotted in an afternoon. Reading them, one has the sense that a lot more is going on in each gesture of the text than there appears to be. The question is, just how much?
Finlay Snr. was interested, in his books and text-sculptures, with the model of the haiku, in which perhaps a single image (literally: some haiku, in the original Japanese, may consist of a single character) seems to hold intense depths of feeling or philosophical significance. It also expresses a relation to nature: the elements of the haiku relate to each other as in nature's patterns of order. (One may wish to contrast this with the popular anecdotal mode of contemporary poetry, in which nature, fragmented into convenient images, is belaboured with explanation and confession.) It has room for humour: haikus can mention drinking and other pleasures of the flesh – there are a fair number of poems about football, or “fitba”, in Be My Reader – and frequently involve visual puns, a device used in both Finlays' artworks. Finlay places a similar trust in the finely turned image: sections of the long poem 'The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden)' read like renga; many of the shortest poems – including one, 'The Scottish app', only one word long – posit themselves as a single image; 'Cove (Kilcreggan)' is a succession of such images (“a purple thistle without prickles / cloud shadows stroking the hills”), a list poem of “[k]nown cures for melancholy”. This form, hiding beneath the surface of the poems, also ensures that the short comedic poems are, for the most part, actually funny, rather than fussily contrived jokes (in which the title often sets up the punchline of the poem's body). They aren't, though, necessarily funny a second or third time.
The lyric poems thankfully don't take their subjects too seriously. Rather they try to follow, in a process of simple mimesis, the weave of movement or thought (or, more truthfully, both conjoined) in language. 'The Wait' begins with motion and location – “I rock the swing-seat to-and-fro / in the low sun / chatting with Christine” – moving to another part of the house at the end of the third tercet – “Upstairs // with the girls / kneeling on soft cushions / surrounded by scarves” – looping back round to the swing, the narrator imagining “you” coming “down / the turning stairs / from your painted room.” There's a guilelessness to this, to the choice of incidents and the diction, which feels refreshingly uncontrived (where so much contemporary poetry that deals in everyday occurrences and language collapses immediately into whimsy), even confrontational, as if daring the reader to force him to be more ornate, more 'writerly'. It works most obviously in the tradition of transparency of William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, but somehow feels more ordinary than them, an ordinariness that the intelligent syntax and linebreaks belie. Their modesty and provisionality at least feels more truthful, less burdened, than the false universalising that plagues contemporary British poetry.
There is, then, something depthless about these poems: their play or playfulness is an endless movement on the surface of things. Which is, perhaps, appropriate to the nature poem in a period when human subjugation of nature is reaching an almost total scale. Certainly the 'found' or processual poems, in spite of their uneven quality, feel this way. Those most allied to process don't necessarily wear so well on repeated readings. 'RCAENLGTEIRCS', whose title is also the text of the poem, is a bit too self-explanatory to do much more than, uh, explain itself. 'E-D-W-I-N-M-O-R-G-A-N', in which every word contains one letter from the late Scots Makar's name (in sequence), is impressively virtuosic, and contains some nice phrases – “anagraMs Of youR orGan And hymeN, // sharEd iDeograms Within whIch Nothing / becoMes pOetry”– but little more than that. By contrast, 'Hid in a Tale: a Folio of Leaves', which uses the subtle device of embedding “leaf”, usually spreading it between the first and last letters of consecutive words, as a kind of golden thread weaving through the poem, is direct,.transparent and sweet, a repeated return to the consolations of a mute nature: “Clustered / azalea fills my eyes; / the young heather // springs gentle, / affords me cover”. But it returns also, perhaps more strangely, to the Romantic trope of imploring nature for tenderness, an action whose belatedness contributes to the awkwardness of the address, like listening to the erstwhile Romeo of a Miranda July film:
Tree, hear my plea:
forgive me; console
a friend, so pale,
afraid; allow me
to amble afternoon &
evening, seeking meaning
in the whole affair.
There's something faintly embarrassing about this, an affect ironised by the wry turn of “the whole affair”. Notably, there's no answer to this imprecation for the provision of meaning, the poem concluding “Now I leave this // dark green wood”; the comedy of our relationship with nature is in its inadequacy, not in any heartening climactic marriage. It's further evidence that, even if the experiments of Be My Reader don't always work, there's more than enough here to tempt anyone to join in.