Laying Siege to an Empty Fortress

Collected Poems, John Welch
(451pp, 16.95, Shearsman)

John Welch began writing in 1957, so this volume contains some fifty years' work. Welch's poetry is informed by Modernist and postmodern concerns, with echoes of some of the other poets of his generation - Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth, in particular - and a clear influence on a generation of more linguistically innovative writers who have followed after him. His landscape is mostly urban, planted up with laurel and lilac bushes; shrubs that grow in suburban gardens and that will 'thrive in fumes of traffic'. His poems are also inhabited by the ubiquitous buddleia, 'Seen from the top of a bus / Where it flourished among the rubbish'. The landscape is mostly, therefore, one of suburban and urban decay; scrubland; that 'inner city mix / of quasi-pastoral and light industrial', characterised by:

     Industrial decline -
          Its huge and desolate machines.
               The seeding rose bay willowherb
               Along the embankment's a cloud of silver
          (from 'Five Preludes').

and signs of human habitation that include not only houses, parks and gardens, but signs of our neglect as well:

     A plastic bag that will fade
     Over months of an urban summer

     Whose nights are a fabulous
     Inheritance of dew
          (from 'Iris').

The urban is specifically recorded in the strong, longer poem 'Out', which sits comfortably alongside Roy Fisher's City as one of the best poems of its type. Welch's subjects are not exclusively urban, however, with a good number of coastal and estuarine poems, as well as mountains and other natural landscapes.

There's a certain notational mode to the best of Welch's writing; direct, accessible and enjoindering confidence:

     A windy day, the page was cleared,
     I went out walking,
     A van was parked by the boarded-up flats.
     The radiant blood of afternoon -
     My mind stretched out into its quiet,
     Like signs from nowhere birds descended
          (from 'The Roads').

These are often flaneur-like, observational poems:

     Victoria park,
     Entering there, as if on bloated wings.
     Beyond the railings
     Deer nuzzle crisp bags.
     A stag is losing its velvet.
     Children with ancient bodies strip and lunge
     Into the Union Canal.
     It's nearly dark now, drunken laughter
     Floats over the shrubbery
         (from 'Fresco')

often with little gems of surprises hidden in Welch's terrific phrase making and imagery: in one poem, four flat fish lie on a kitchen table 'gutted and tidy like mittens'; in another, 'Someone's mother / Was bending down to say hello like lilac. / On the wind's blunt knife our blossoms cooled' (from 'The Drops of Wind'). It is through images and musical phrases such as these that the poet feels joined 'to the things of the world'. Of course, the flip side of feeling joined to things, is the fact that it is language - unreliable, slippery, conditional language - that joins us in a poem: 'Language the snare', as Welch writes. Lots of poets seem to find this relationship a problem, pretending that the contingency of language somehow makes the world unknowable (and, in their worst excesses, that it renders reality nonexistent!). That's rubbish, and John Welch knows it is too: 'How long / Can you hope to fend off meaning?' he asks. What is so strong in Welch's treatment of reality is that he has such a strong feeling for the artfulness of the poet's attempts to embody it - as Orpheus returns from the underworld, Welch writes:

     he looks straight ahead, safe in the knowledge that he is
     leading someone, it is the Real that lives and breathes and
     walks behind him, and moves steadily towards the creation
     of some final meaning. But, should he look round, all he will
     find in his hands is this meaning clearly stated, which is to
     say, lifeless 
          (from 'The Dreamer Restored').

In poetry, the Orphic tendency aims to name, to create, to sing the Real into being, without enchaining it; without rendering it lifeless. For the most part, I think Welch achieves this aim, negotiating that space 'Where language came to collide with the world'.

There are also many poems here detailing domestic relationships ('an institutional quiet, in which // Our lives are played'). In the poem 'Family' the poet asks:

     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.

whereas the estrangement and doubt of this poem is replaced by an estranged tenderness in others:

     After a week of migraines, you are better you say,
     Doped and smiling, smelling of soap and tiredness.
     The new sun is a rose rooted in valium.
         (from 'Treaty')

These are poems in which lovers, husbands, partners, friends are both together and strangely apart: 'a telephone // Wakes, and our voices / Rub together, like grasshoppers. / A rusty bird starts up' (from 'Voice'). These relationships are often coupled to a language of quiet disruption, as in:

     Meanwhile turning another page
     Indoors a clock discreetly
     Chimes, some leaves
     Blown inward into the hall
     Await the little storm
     Of our return
          (from 'A Walk in Winter'),

but they can equally be celebratory, as in the excellent poem 'Birth Right' about the birth of a child, which encompasses location, history, the natural world, the language of medicine, and the deeply personal, or the paired poems in 'For the Births' which ends with the fabulous quatrain:

     A mild rain fell
     Back on to the exhausted streets, she lay
     Her eyes feathered with sleep
     In the arms of an explanation.

Welch does not shirk his responsibilities to take on big existential concerns through his personal, quotidian observations of people and places. In 'Buddleia' he writes:

     We take refuge
     In the helplessness of being a spectator.

     Rising on the forgotten strata
     Our art is how to survive

     Into the next future,
     the landscape crackling beyond the mist

a metaphysical tendency in his work that is balanced by a nice wit: 'Today will be new / And not in the old way either' (from 'Panels'). Welch also balances a humanistic exuberance - 'And we will do wonderful things!' - with the nostalgic sadness that can sometimes tinge a life:

     The swifts a long way up
     are swimming in a warm stream
     of air and insects

     sometimes descend
     to garden and house level

     while down here we hold
     a vigil of all the pieces, afraid
          (from 'What He Said').

In such poems, Welch seems to hint that he conceives of consciousness as 'a trick of the light'; something to which we can duly attend but, perhaps, never fully understand or get a grip on:

     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
         (from 'The Good Things').

In a later poem in the book, we read some lines which, perhaps, encapsulate the poet's lifetime ambition, to pay attention to the real world, but to render it in words:

     it is as if I've moved
     Among discarded things
     Growing into the world
     Taking so many meanings into myself
    the language a calling to itself,
     It brims its depths
          (from 'On Orkney').

Attention is the poet's true task, as many writers have reminded us. John Welch reinflects the notion, asking us, 'Is there a reward for all this watching?' The reward is, of course, the attention itself; a 'seeing emptiness':

     There cannot in the end be any explanation for happiness.
     Days of such strong seeing, in the abrupt end-of-summer light,
      irregular stain of love, and a brief smell of blood on the wind
        (from 'Here').

As the poet notes in his excellent poem 'Out': 'It is hard to stay wordless. / Description, I'd say that it's like / Laying siege to an empty fortress'.

At times this
Collected Poems can feel a little like a fortress - it is very big at 451 pages! and, as with any poet, and any Collected, there is a certain amount of sifting and selecting that a reader will inevitably have to do to find the real gems amongst the rest. With John Welch, however, the task of scaling the fortress is definitely worth your attention and effort - in this case it most definitely isn't empty.

                Andy Brown 2008