Review: Collected Poems by Peter Finch, Volume Two
In the introduction to this second doorstop-sized selection of work, the poet Ian MacMillan suggests that ‘If and when the great poet and performer Peter Finch reads this intro he’ll stand up and sing it in a falsetto voice which will be all the more startling and liberating because he’ll be on a mid-afternoon bus in Cardiff. He’ll then sing it backwards and then he’ll just sing the vowels and then he’ll just sing the consonants. He’ll encourage his fellow passengers to join in and many of them will although some will get off before their usual stop.’
Macmillan goes on to imagine his fellow poet cutting up the pages of his own book and rearranging the strips to make a new sense which he dubs Finchsense. You get from this a real sense of the energy, gusto and restless sense of invention which are typical of Peter Finch, both as poet and performer, as editor and literary entrepreneur.
Indeed such is the energy of the man that Ian Macmillan suggests that there is more than one Peter Finch and that all these Peters are working to create many different kinds of poetry at the same time.
Those poems invariably have plenty of verbal crackle, snap and pop, exuding a sense of fun and adventure. But in this second volume there are more personal poems which map out some of the poet’s life. A poem called “Urology” evokes a visit to a hospital department and yet manages to keep the Finchian/Finchist/Finchesque humour very much alive as these sample stanzas demonstrate:
On the screen it’s like miniature DynoRod
hunting my house drains
water running so it slides
headlamp camera scouring plunger
At twenty meters they found a ring-seal loose
have to dig that out.
On the notes when I browse them
while the nurse is out
the sketch looks like a sea anemone
still life: bladder with flower
done in biro
sideways on the urine analysis
Red cells present: too
many to number.
Finch can find the stuff of poetry pretty much anywhere. He doesn’t need to scale mountains or wait for visitations by the divine. One poem concerns a cancelled trip with Winston Rees Travel. There’s a poem made up from “Words Beginning With A From The Government’s Welsh Assembly White Paper.” There’s a lot of stuff about Wales as you can see in quirky titles such as “Llywarch Hen SMS with Fault,” “Ysbwriel,” Rhai Caneuon Cymraeg” and “Mid Period Anglo Welsh Endings.” In “The Student House” he just calls round to his son’s abode and finds a poem among the disorder:
We arrive through thin snow to
my son’s student house where
no one has been for three weeks.
The ice has turned the air to knives.
I find a ketchup-smeared plate
frozen at 45 in the unemptied
kitchen sink. A river of lager
cans flows down the hall.
As I stamp into the lounge
keeping my feet alive the ghosts
of dust come up around me like
children. The stains across the
sofa look like someone has died.
Meanwhile a visit to a house in “Ty Draw” road in Roath in Cardiff, where the poet had previously lived, brings with it a different sort of disappointment:
Round the back where the past might
still congeal among the rust and residue
they’ve renewed almost everything.
I once painted my name on
the lane tarmac in front door green
but the rains have long washed it. In a life
how much do you have to do to outlive it?
They kept chickens next door and I
loved them but today no sound
A door opens and a face asks me
what I’m doing here where housebreakers
would walk. I say chasing the
past. I used to live here. Do you remember me?
He shakes his head.
But at the top of the hill there’s
smoke from the train, still rising,
as it trucks its coal to the dockland sea.
I can see it, smell it, hear its gouts of grey
and black. Smuts. Steam. On and back.
I’ve written it now.
And you’ve read it. So, something remains.
In a smashing poem which follows the poet’s odyssey into language and effect called “Shock of the New” Finch asks ‘How have we got so far/On foot? Long hills full of light, /towers of distrust, /the music of falling trees…’and explains how ‘when we/began it was a matter/of dealing with demons…’and goes on to detail the tasks a poet faced, such as understanding the land or the human condition and the challenges faced when ‘Our educated peers outran us.’
The poem ends by pondering ‘Does much matter/when it all ends.’ This fine collection doesn’t answer that question perhaps but shows us with enormous zest and energy how much it does matter -as we go through life – to be alert to it all, to the joyous, raucous possibility of language, of paying sharp attention to what’s around us and inside us.
Peter Finch enjoys revelling in verbs and making nouns fidget, cutting up texts and even making brackets interesting. The two, huge volumes of his Collected Poems show how he helped transform the poetic landscape of Wales, set up crazy skyscrapers among the booths, how he shook it all up.
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