Scotch Broth and Gumbo

Be My Reader, Alec Finlay (82pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Sheer Indefinite, Skip Fox (200pp, $22.95, University of New Orleans)

Alec Finlay's Be My Reader is at first glance a mass of incongruities, Wittgenstein and Creeley rub shoulders awkwardly with Alan Shearer and Robbie Savage, landscapes give way to small detail, the sublime jostles with the prosaic; John Cage is namechecked, so are the Ramones. There is the constructed and the found, the painstaking and the happily accidental. It's a rich mix, leavened by Finlay's spare, light style.

The opening 'The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden') is a teasing, gradually unfolding exploration of the physical and mental landscape surrounding the Norwegian hut where Wittgenstein worked on the
Tractatus. Shifting between forms as the poem unfurls Finlay writes with an enviable clarity and precision, barely a word is wasted:

     where what I find
     is shown in
     how I think and live

This is poem as travelogue, and as meditation, and the reader steps behind Finlay as he walks through it assuredly.

Elsewhere brevity reigns. Some texts are shorter than their titles; there is a danger with pieces like these that they can sound too much like punchlines, drawing a weak smile from the reader and no desire to revisit. It is to Finlay's credit that this doesn't occur very often, his deadpan responses more often provoke thought than fall flat, such as the one line response to the title 'If You Ask An Orkney Fireman What He Does When There Is a Fie on Hoy This Is What He Will Say'

    Wait for the ferry

There's a dedication here, one of many throughout the book. Their frequency gives rise to the irresistible idea of Finlay as wanderer, wandering through lives, wandering through forms, meeting people, picking things up as he goes, he touches them and they touch him. He is at all stages involved and interested in what he is doing. If sometimes the poems feel like a private joke we're not quite in on it doesn't last long, and next thing you know you're stood on a beach as he tells you his 'known cures for melancholy' ('Cove (Kilcreggan'))

     a faint path winding
     through each sea meadow

Edwin Morgan and Robert Creeley both receive their due. 'E-D-W-I-N-M-O-R-G-A-N'  with its title a visual echo of the language poets, and its quasi-oulipian constraint of repeating the letters of the poets name manages to neatly combine a tremendous breadth of reading into a touching memorial, though I could have lived without the capitalisation of the letters, which felt rather like labouring the point. The text itself though is lovely.

     redEfining scotlanD's Weeness wIth soNnets
     Mercurial visitOrs, hoRsiemen, starlinGs And chaffiNches

Creeley's 'I know a man' is neatly re-worked as 'I know a poem' stretching the poem and stretching the point into something which seems even more like the original than itself.

     As I said
     as I sd to my
     As I sd, to m y friend
     As I said to my friend John

If a poet's job is to engage with the world then Finlay does a better job than most. Football, politics, philosophy, punk, poetry, each accorded the same level of care and attention. And as he wanders, it's a treat to wander with him.

It's difficult, however, to level accusations of brevity or simplicity at Skip Fox, every text in Sheer Indefinite reels with verbosity; lines stretching to overlap, titles running into first lines. As with Finlay it's a lot to take in at first reading, but for different reasons, this is the poem as sensory assault:

                                                                 Around the next
     bend, the sheer lake, colors tighten in the wind, voices
     from the earth blow off, and the air  that blurred arms and
     chest moves at last like unmelodious whistling of indefinite
         (From 'Reading a letter from')

For a collected stretching over a twenty-year period (1991-2011) ,
Sheer Indefinite displays a consistency of voice, but not a rigidity of style, Fox is flexible, supple, even as he wanders cheerfully between sacred and profane in the space of a couple of lines. The opening poem, 'Angels' says that they live in the gloves of boxers and

    the boxer shorts of great lovers (no
     names, please)

yet they also 'prepare the synapse between lightning bolts'. There's a lot to take in, these are widely read poems, I wasn't sure whether to feel annoyed at or grateful for the notes at the end, the poems wear their learning lightly, and I prefer not to become embroiled in a game of spot the quote. That said the reader doesn't need to be told about the preponderance of Charles Olson. These poems are exemplars of Olson's energy transferred. Creeley and Ginsberg are mined, too; but before he be accused of parochialism I should point out that these are three voices amongst many.

Many of the poems are textually and visually is as dense as all this information flooding into them would suggest, as though the poem has to fill every inch of space. Even when the poem isn't a solid block lines stretch across the page, poems with lower word counts explode outwards

     Four hours later                    a crop duster               unseen in
                The distance                   weaves               thru mowers       near
                    And far                              cars          on the curve
                 Cicadae and crickets
          (From (one of many called) 'sic transit')

The more lineated pieces off space to think, this isn't a book to be rattled through quickly, at least not from where I'm sitting, it'd be too difficult to keep up. This is not to say 'difficult', the texts are open and accessible, with Fox's ear for a musical turn of phrase and ability to pin an image precisely leaven the barrage of allusion, season the gumbo of the text. It seems unsurprising that this book's emerged from New Orleans, that most raucous of towns. Like a good jambalaya, there's a lot in it.

         Matt Fallaize 2013