Reinventing the Landscape

Polder, Chris McCully (98pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
We Needed Coffee but...
, Matthew Welton (100pp 9.95, Carcanet)

To begin with a brief aside... When I am not reading and writing poetry, or scouring London for book launches that offer free wine, I am an English teacher. Ask any English teachers you may know - a lot of our time is spent drilling into pupils that poems do not 'flow'.

     The writer uses lots of rhythm to give the poem more flow...

they all say. I don't know where this phraseology originated, but it appears to have been around forever. Every pupil, it seems, at some point has to be helped over this stumbling block of literary analysis. It is perhaps for this reason, that a similar literary phrase has begun to stick in my throat. I am referring, of course, to 'ebb and flow'.

On the surface of things, there is nothing exceptionally bad about 'ebb and flow' as a poetic image. It is phonetically beautiful and presents readers with a vivid enough image. My problem is that it is everywhere. In literary criticism and poetry alike, I cannot escape it... it is as though there were no other way of engaging with life's rhythmic movements; 'so and so has successfully captured the ebb and flow of nature'; 'it is through this masterful imagery that we get a sense of the poet's ebb and flow through life'; 'no other poet has better captured the ebb and flow of a sandwich.'

I am no angel in this matter. I've used it. You've used it. We've all resorted to festooning our language with Orwellian dead metaphors at some point. I urge you now though, join me in a new movement. This will require little effort, just return to your draft-books, facsimiles, manuscripts, pending reviews, etc. and remove every mention of 'ebb and flow' you can find. Let this be the dawn of the post-ebbflowvian era as that bland, ubiquitous phrase joins literature's jetsam.

In this cause, I call the fisherman poet, Chris McCully to be our spiritual leader - his latest collection, Polder
, deals extensively with life by the sea, and not one single mention is made of that particular tidal descriptor which shall now no longer be mentioned.

is a deceptive collection of poetry. On a superficial level, there seems to be no formal cohesion. Other than the two lyrical pieces, 'The Thorn Carol' and 'On Greenfield Station', there are no two poems which employ the same structure in this collection. Add to this the fact that the book is broken into four distinctive sections with the poet employing myriad voices, ranging from the ascetic intellectual voice of the prose-poem, 'Dust':

     I have looked into dust.
     Dust is in the Bechstein, the dahlias are dust, the tray horse under
     its clouded moon is dust. All the somewheres where everyone once
     was combed the future for someone particular and found nothing
     but dust.

to the McGough-ish lyricism of 'The Fat Girl':

     The fat girl's drinking diet stuff,
     She thinks E-numbers make you thin,
     imagines if she drinks enough
     she'll have a life and get a chin.

With such incessant shape-shifting, one could be forgiven for not immediately seeing the subtle threads which hold this collection together. Let us return to the boldly bleak beginning, 'Dust'.

     ... there are those from the future who will, with a calm sneer,
     inform you tomorrow that everything becomes the night. But
     that's not right.
     I'll tell you about dust.

The six pages that follow are a terrifyingly reasonable exploration of how all returns to the dust we create from the moment of our birth:

     You became without your solitude, and left dust.

To begin this collection with such a methodical assertion of futility is inspired; before we get to the rest of McCully's work (none of which is as nihilistically macabre as 'Dust') our synapses have been slowed down to just the pace the poet wants them. As we progress through the various character-studies and scenes which follow, we still have the echo of 'Dust' in our minds, reminding us of the absurdity behind the fact that any of us bother to do anything, knowing that we will all return to a powdery nothing.

The poet's most effective device is his use of the 2nd person. The majority of these poems include an extensive use of the word 'you', but to shifting effect. A 'you' in a poem is a finger pointing from the page, sometimes at the reader, sometimes over the reader's shoulder to a specific addressee, and sometimes as an informal replacement of the aristocratic 'one'. Consider the opening of 'Minoan':

     You imagine them speaking
     In a broken row of exclamation marks
     Whose purpose was a temple.

It is this ambiguous 'you' which gives this poem such a beguiling hook. Is the poet purporting to know the secret of the reader's imagination? Is he talking to one whose mind he knows intimately? Or is he making a generalisation about how people's minds work?

This unsettling triple-threat of the 'Poetic You' is used to irreproachable engaging effect in the collection, and ensured I read the thing in one sitting (or two venti lattes to translate that into caf terms).

As I have mentioned, the collection is divided into four distinctive sections: 'Dust', 'Polder', 'Masterpieces' and 'Torquatus'. Whilst I enjoyed the lyrical exuberance of 'Polder' and the engaging demi-dialogue of 'Torquatus', it is 'Masterpieces' which shows McCully at his best.

Composed as an exercise in ekphrasis in a series of visits to Amsterdam's Rikjsmuseum
, McCully provides us with an astounding sequence of vignettes in reaction to various paintings. Whilst the idea of writing from paintings is well-trodden ground, McCully has a real gift for embracing the impositions we make when attempting to engage with a piece of art:

     ...of course, the meanings I was looking at, and listening for,
     might not be the readers' meanings - everyone will read the
     paintings differently, just as they will these poems - but
     never mind.
          [from introduction to 'Masterpieces']

By turning  the world into a Rorschach slide, McCully forces us into awareness of the interpretive processes at work in an art gallery. One poem in this section, 'The Drinker', illustrates this well:

     He composes himself among the janitors,
     flush of the security lights,
     the smell of wax and yesterday -
     for company.
     Daybreak hurts.

Just as McCully blurs the parameters of the 'Poetic You', he erodes at the frames of a painting and allows them to interact with the gallery-space and create communion with all who view it. 'The Drinker' leads a double-life in the poem as a lonely figure in an art gallery who 'smiles - for company', as well as a reference to the poet's own struggle with alcoholism. McCully's 'Masterpieces' are a fine portrayal of a persona unable to concentrate on a fixed subject without catching his own reflection. 'You' becomes a masterfully masked 'I'.

The collection ends with a sequence of epistolary verse called 'Torquatus'. As McCully communes across the centuries with the Ancient Roman figure, we get a real sense of McCully's clawing for companionship in a world which so often leaves us alone. At times, Torquatus becomes the poet's confidant, as in 'Bed':

     I have this urge
     To run out naked on the roads
     And scream.

The most touching of the sequence however, is 'Trade', where the poet attempts to console Torquatus on the loss of a lover:

     You're well out of it, man. Think.
     Better to behave
     as if she'd never existed
     than like a slave.

It is at this moment that Torquatus' function as a friend becomes clear - we use our friends when they are in times of need to assure ourselves of our wisdom and togetherness. McCully hereby resurrects an imaginary friend with depth and humanity - and as the poet's dust settles and mingles with that of all who have come before him, he gains a sense of existing at all times and places.

Also from Carcanet this season, comes Matthew Welton's highly anticipated follow-up to The Book of Matthew. I shall get this out of the way now - the collection is called We needed coffee but we'd got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we returned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind

The audacity of this 101 word title is a good indicator of what to expect from Welton. He does not want his readers to settle into their comfort zones - his work is profoundly defamiliarising, at times even oulipian in construction, and undeniably the bold work of a visionary.

The sequence 'Virtual airport' begins:

     And the moment it takes to blink your eyes and stare, and feel
     as if you recognize the place you are in, is just long enough for
     the air to cool off again or the lights to dim, and for the entire
     feeling of familiarity to drift away to nothing.

Whilst this passage is an apt evocation of an airport's genius loci, this could just as well serve as a mission statement for Welton's work. As we inquisitively navigate the looking-glass universe Welton constructs for his reader, we are always catching glints of the familiar, before being plunged back into the weird and beautiful verbal traps the poet lays for us.

The snatches of observation in 'Virtual airport' contain some of the most effective evocations of light and colour in contemporary poetry:

     The light is like a gesture not everybody is going to understand.

     The colour of the light is like new aluminium.

     The light is a  colour like sugar or aspiring; the light is a colour like still lemonade.

All at once, oblique yet instantly understood, Welton conveys all the exciting soullessness, the vivid blandness and the foreign familiarity felt by all who have spent time in transit from terminal to terminal.

As with McCully, Welton has arranged his collection into a series of distinct sections which, taken in gestalt, contribute to a staggeringly accomplished whole. The section 'four letter words' is a highly oulipian sequence, in that it is made up entirely of 'four letter words'. Welton makes himself comfortable and seemingly unrestricted within these parameters as he is able to achieve perfect coherence:

     Push your door ajar. Fill your guts with good, weak wine.

    Play with your hair. Flip open your head.

as well as the vibrant eccentricity which characterises the rest of his work:

     Push your, hush
     Push your pour your beer your door
     more beer more here your more
     more push-pull lush-hull hush-mush-mull

Welton also hilariously incorporates the most obvious connotation of the phrase 'four letter words' in 'vier':

     funt funk fuse fume fusm fuss futs fuss furk fumn full furd cuck
     wack want cunk cuck wack cuck wack cuse wase cume wame
     cusm wasm

That barrage of nearly-swearing goes on for a whole page. It is such moments which show us how acutely aware Welton is of how he can manipulate his reader by setting a honey-trap of connotations. The poet's primary concern in this collection seems to be a deconstruction of these semantic fields which writers and readers use to illuminate the mysteries of a text.

Consider the wryly titled 'Got loose and let some':

     Here's Jesus late last summer when he shows up at
     the beach club where the gin's rough and the wine's rough and
     the slow things the band play fills your head with sludge.

This could easily be a passage from a Richard Yates short story about a city-slicker falling on hard times, were it not for that name at the beginning. Do we therefore interrogate the poem as an allegory for the life of Christ? Does that alter the significance of the wine? Or do we take the stance of noughties rock-band Frightened Rabbit
, that 'Jesus is just a Spanish boy's name'?

Throughout the collection, Welton has us interrogating our own schemas of connotations and, like McCully, forces us at all times to be aware of what we as readers bring to a poem:

     In her trainers and jeans she looks like a narrow-faced Alastair
     Burnet. In her trainers and jeans she looks like a sad-faced
     Albert Einstein. In her trainers and jeans she looks like a wary
     -faced Albertus Magnus.

     Getting into the car on the south side of Main Street, 'It's just
     a lot of cold treacle,' was all Filippino Lippi would say. Getting
     into the car on the south side of Main Street, 'It's just a lot of
     lumpy treacle,' was all Flanagan and Allen would say. Getting into
     the car on the south side of Main Street, 'It's just a lot of bad
     treacle,' was all Fontana would say.

     Karl Marx, sober and alone, standing at the window with the
     phone in his hand. Kate Adie, tearful and alone, standing at the
     window with the phone in her hand. Katherine Hepburn, indignant
     and alone, standing at the window with the phone in her hand.
           [all from 'Dr. Suss']

As we consider the shifts in meaning as words are replaced with other words, we start trying to draw connections between different semantic fields. Is Einstein somehow related to sadness? Is Katherine Hepburn somehow related to indignation? The seemingly endless barrage of historical figures and subtly tinting adjectives is like being caught in a perpetual redrafting process.

Reading this sequence I am reminded of Ted Hughes assertion that certain words are 'meaningless hieroglyphs unless the stories behind the words are known' (Myth and Education
). In these baffling bombardments of famous names, Welton makes us as readers constantly skip from story to story, congratulating ourselves when we recognise a reference, scratching our heads when we are stumped, and eventually realising that the poem is deliberately entirely meaningless without the meanings we already possess.

This idea is taken to its logical conclusion in the most audacious section of the collection, Six poems by themselves'. Allow me to transcribe the entire of the first poem in the sequence 'The poem in itself':


The rest of this sequence more or less follows suit, with the lines rearranged into different structures. This sequence makes a bold and necessary point about art - we are never entirely reading
something, so much as we are looking for something based upon our previous experiences. These 'poems by themselves' invite the reader to do just that - we cannot help but create our own meanings from the most basic of stimuli; why not literally give us an interpretive carte blanche?

In the hands of any other writer, Welton's approach to poetry may appear gimmicky, but what saves him from this accusation is that he is relentless. He never appears to be trying something different to create the illusion of progress, but rather out of a belief that the only true meanings left to uncover exist in nonsense - apophenia never seemed so beautiful.

Both McCully and Welton admirably create a freshness of expression which should cleanse the palate of any reader. They have thoroughly captured the ebb and flow of poetry.

       Phil Brown 2009