The Eastern Boroughs by John Welch
[145pp, £9.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LD]

Welch is on the readable side of an experimental tradition; he writes about the atomisation of identity and the quandary of subjectivity whilst eschewing familiar post-modern stylistic traits (such as not making any bloody sense). His voice is instantly accessible and pleasingly unusual. An Eastern European feel pervades poems such as ‘Fathering’:

     The stars have broken out
     Into their brutal glitter.
     Frost roughened trees

     Lead up to a brick tower.
     In there my children are asleep
     Stacked one above the other.

Images visual and direct swinging on the hinge of one well chosen word – the “brutal” stars.  It is the clarity and confidence of the uncanny, also present in ‘Launch’: “It was a narrow door / Like a coffin lid, and swung open - / Ahead were the tight stairs.” On top of this imagistic facility, Welch possesses a comfortable sense of the absurd.  Gods are a recurring motif in his poems – but not in the clumsy updating of a Greek myth or specious arcane reference. Welch’s deities are defeated, anonymous and frustrated, as in ‘Edge’:

     The God has gone back under the waves
     Uselessly uselessly trying to write his name

I’m not sure why I’m so delighted by that couplet – I guess it’s just refreshing to read a poem that operates so matter of factly under its own logic. It is also a perfect repetition; the relentless gesture beautifully phrased, echoing the chill of the last line: “And these are our defeats the sea is smiling with.”

Welch treads the line between the playful and the unsettling deftly and subtly. There is something alarming in the Kandinsky image conjured by ‘Creature’:

     The creature has learned
     To make itself music
     Plucking and sawing
     Away at the guts of itself.

It has the beautiful awkwardness of direct translation, a sense of newness to the language unusual in much of English poetry. And while Welch receives one demerit for using the word “tendrils” in ‘Analysis’, this is wholly eclipsed by the accolades he deserves for the off-hand brilliance of:

     While kestrel hung
     Like an asterisk

The Eastern Boroughs is separated into three books, the assured voice losing its footing a little in the second.  Take, for instance, the wonderful dream sequence in ‘That Time in France’ wherein a woman made of cheese pushes in front of Welch in a queue. This is somewhat undermined by the fact that we’re told it’s a dream. Like anyone was going to read it and question the veracity of the travelogue. Welch has already raised the surrealist bar higher than this – therefore it seems like an odd concession.

The more prosaic pieces in Book Two are the weakest in an otherwise exemplary collection.  ‘The Dough Bowl’ is somewhat overlong.  “It was bought one wet afternoon in an English seaside town. Someone must have driven round Central Europe buying these things up, the light wood – limewood?...” [etc.]  Are you stifling what I’m stifling? The prerogative of any piece of writing called ‘The Dough Bowl’, even culled directly from a note-book, should be to make you pretty excited about the dough bowl – otherwise who cares? Take the dough bowl away. Put dough in it or something.

This mood continues in ‘On Sark’. You can tell it’s a notebook / journal because the phrasing is out, there are sometimes too many spaces between two words and sometimes none at all after a full-stop. Some of it is crying out to be edited:

     deep in the well the eye of water
     the ‘I’ of water

It’s such a splendid image of a well, too. No need to ruin it with the observation that the words ‘eye’ and ‘I’ sound the same (vague notions of identity as a liquid notwithstanding). Much better to keep the first line and maybe even insert a comma, comme ća: “Deep in the well, the eye of water.” But then I never did appreciate the avant-garde attitude to punctuation.

Maybe it’s something to do with living the greater part of my life a short drive from the coast: I take seaside towns for granted, they all feel eerily over-familiar, I’m amazed that anyone has anything to say about them (although it usually turns out that they don’t). Welch draws attention to “typical Sark holidaymakers”, but thankfully spares us any portraiture – setting himself above the glut of English poets who seem to write primarily to exercise their superiority over your common tourist. Elsewhere, he is thousands of leagues deeper. So during the mid-section, I was tapping my foot, waiting for Welch to leave the tea-rooms and the promenade and turn his attention back to “The ever-hooded, tragic gestured sea” that underpins his best work.

The first piece in Book Three is a long prose-poem (gosh, but it makes me cross when people say there’s no such thing as prose-poetry. Is A Season In Hell a collection of short stories?) named ‘The Sense Of It’ and it’s stunning, detailing Welch’s experience of breakdown, brain-scan and benign tumour. He eloquently captures the shifts in consciousness, the “sudden magic in ordinary things”, at once beautiful and awful.

'All right, this happens to everyone, but it’s got more noticeable recently, as if there are gaps, odd empty spaces in the world opening up somewhere just behind you.'

This is how the narrative works; it finds a point of common reference, but then extends the distance, de-focuses, so that the reader shares the writer’s disorientation. ‘The Sense of It’ could as much be read as a reflection on the act of writing; Welch’s honesty and clarity is truly disarming:

'When it is going well I have a feeling that everything means
.'  I can't say what it means, that doesn’t seem to be the point.  It simply means, it has that sense of fullness. As an infant might feel at the breast?

The expansive sweep of ‘The Sense of It’ makes it a fine companion piece to the shorter meditations on consciousness – of which ‘The Good Things’ is one of the more startling:

     His life? He felt it was like
     A novel of which he had never
     Read more than the first few pages,
     Such fullness of expectation

     Being caught in the morning sunlight
     And he could never quite bear to read more.
     It is still there,
     A book that waits all night beside its owner.

Specifically, it is the ontological works that are the most breath-taking. When Welch turns his focus from the detritus of life – the concrete references most of us have to make to avoid sentimentality – and writes about existence itself, it becomes apparent that he is a uniquely gifted writer. He can take the feeling – the abstract, impossible feeling itself – and describe it more precisely and elegantly than if it were a landscape.

‘Benign Tumour’ engages directly with the psychological vs. the physiological mind, hinting that our sense of knowing
one another may be illusory.

     Watching the ferry approach I asked if you had the right change.
          Then as I was saying goodbye it came,
          That moment of indescribable strangeness
          Called an ‘aura’. It’s as if a gear shifts in my brain
          And I felt I was seeing you for the very first time
          Where you were standing beside me on the sand.
          It was the thing still lodged in my head
          That appeared to be telling me this
     As you climbed in the little boat and sailed away.

In this, as in much of The Eastern Boroughs
, Welch is at the top of his game, profoundly affecting, fascinating and sad. There is a real cost to this work: it is not just the meaning of words that is at risk – that dissolved long ago – it is the things themselves, our very sense of self. Not the units by which we measure, but the units by which we live:

     Whatever was it, the meaning
     Of all that closeness, being at home together?
     It’s as if we were not sure
     Quite what to do with it,
     There was so much that went without saying
     And I still find it hard to explain
     The silences, surrounding us
     Like pools of dusty light.

While it may be the stark, high-modernist lucidity of all that’s solid melting into air which initially allures, there is yet an innocence and a warmth that plays against it, awakens further synapses. Much here deserves a place in Welch’s Selected Works. ‘The Feelings’, for instance, is essential:

     And he remembered them out of his childhood
     Or rather, as if they were
     What he remembered remembering
     He thought, the feelings were like
     Animals – part familiar and part strange.

Deceptively simple, Welch’s ideas unfold on inspection (Ah, the right way round for a change, thank God). He doesn’t hide his intellectualism, rather states it plainly – which is the mark of true sophistication.

          © Luke Kennard 2004