Strange and Beautiful

Zen Cymru
, Peter Finch (Seren, 8.99)
A Cure for Woodness
, Michael Haslam (Arc)
Internal Rhyme
, Scott Thurston (Shearsman)

There books, three variations on the non-mainstream, three roads to go down looking for that elusive animal, enlightenment.

Peter Finch's collection is probably the most easy-reading, except the more you read, the more you realise that there is a melancholy core to this collection that belies the often jaunty experimentalism. This is a collection about aging, about seeing your own body betray you:

     On the notes when I browse them
     while the nurse is out
     the sketch looks a sea anemone
     still life: bladder with flower
     done in biro
     sideways on the urine analysis
     Red cells present: too
     many to number

Along side this more serious subject matter are poems in the form of indexes, about Ikea and Elvis seen in Asda, all done with his usual wit and brio. If there's nothing as experimental as his tribute to Bob Cobbing, there is plenty of playful innovation here as well as a warm humanity and humour.

But what makes this a more than interesting collection for me are all those undercurrents of mortality. Finch is a poet of celebration, but one who also sees the darkness of 'The Trial of Phil Spector':

     There's a wall of guns.
     Spector puts one to the dark head of
     Leonard Cohen. Fires one at Lennon while
     making Rock'n'roll. Another at Dee Ramone
     when he won't play bass. Waves one at Ronnie when
     she says she's going. Shows her a gold coffin in the basement.
     Glass lid. Says you'll be in that if you
     so much as speak to anyone,
     you infidelious slap.

These are poems lived in the modern world of the modern man, who lives in urban Cardiff, in the present but with memories of a lively past.

Michael Haslam is a very different poet, much more rural on the one hand and much more linguistically challenging on the other. I compared his last book to folk music, and certainly in subject matter, there are echoes of folk themes, ballads and the like in his work. But it's as if a folk singer were being backed by a free jazz saxophonist: the music of his poems is often dissonant and driving forward, while he talks about sexual encounters on the moorland ('Running to Meter') or goes wandering round an old hall long since fallen into disuse ('Old Hall down in the Hollow; Spring up Sunny Bank').

The best way of reading Haslam is to read him aloud, to roll your tongue round his sprung rhythms, his internal rhymes and alliterations, his wild music:

     Much must the English love the mulch and slush
     that issues from the mouth of miry rough,
     the stench of silage from the mix of herbage
          verbiage and roughage, sour queach
     given off the rushy moss, mephitis of
     a ferrous sump with quaking crust
     and all that trickles into tracklessness down valley bottom.
           ('The Love of English: Haslam's Folly')

This is not an urban wit, but one with its roots in the poet of Plowman's, of the uncanny woods, hills and valleys of Northern England. This is a radical landscape poetry that challenges the comfortable picture of English rolling hills and cricket matches, a music of the deep uncanny. I don't always understand it and I don't always feel comfortable in these poems, but Haslam is, along with Maggie O'Sullivan and Geraldine Monk, among the best visionary modernists in England.

Scott Thurston is another visionary poet, though his vision is much less focused on a particular landscape than Haslam. His poems are slower, more contemplative and feel much like the process of a mind thinking. His form in this book, with its short lines and two columns, allows for connections to be made vertically, horizontally and even sometimes diagonally:

     internal rhyme                      a species of adder music
     I can feel your                     badge by my side
     eternal flask                        leave out those signs
      of relief at the end of            withdrawal symptoms

     pleasure you can't                 measure the hybrids
     stand at the gateway             the larger the logic that makes
     possible dynamic                   critical constructions
     you will terribly                    well un-read

This makes for an almost endless series of re-readings, juxtapositions, connections and questioning of the text. For instance, is this one poem in 4 sections divided into 20 parts, or four sequences of 20 poems each? Philosophical question occurs throughout, linguistic turns of phrase that lead to further questions, and a kind of agnostic spirituality arises from these pages like an atmosphere.

I have seen Scott Thurston perform before now, and if he has the freedom, he has the tendency to pace the stage in a kind of circle, like a man thinking aloud, while performing a kind of dance. Though there are suggestive hints at events and narratives, this is not a book that can be said to be 'about' one thing or another. And yet these poems are strangely moving, affecting and beneath-the-surface emotional in ways that I rarely see in English poets. One of the strangest and most beautiful books I've read in a long while.

      Steven Waling 2010