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Blog Review 15: Tony Williams Reviews Alec Finlay’s ‘Be My Reader’

Alec Finlay writes mainly short, fragile poems, using lineation to draw attention to the felicities and poky bits of language, leaving things unadorned, cutting away everything but the nub. More than anything he seems to be interested in people speaking. His practice as an artist might lie behind his knowing when to step back and leave well alone, although sometimes this reticence means the rewards are rather slim. Be My Reader is a funny, odd, formally curious, easy yet elusive book.

The book opens with by far its longest poem, the sequence ‘The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden)’, about a hut on Norway where the philosopher stayed in 1914. The sequence is formally various, but at its heart is the tercet, used sometimes with an indented third line which recalls Horace’s odes. That seems apt, given the subject matter of rural retreat and contemplation:

All the small fields meet up
in corners, each with its
        own suitable barn—

stone huts, wood shacks
or corrugated lean-tos;
        stacks of felled trimmings

like pencils in a box
and neat xylotheques
        of peeling birch logs.

Wittgenstein’s thought is never directly addressed, but that in itself seems apt: the close attention to details feels rather like his attachment to individual thoughts and propositions in opposition to larger theories. The poem’s subject (sometimes I, sometimes you) is visiting, perhaps on a pilgrimage:

You’ll see the walled harbour
where his row boat anchored.
        Follow the spray-marked ‘W’s

Accumulating alongside these immediate details is a sense of the context, in terms of both the speaker’s and Wittgenstein’s personal lives. The two figures become entangled; it’s partly a poem about how the searcher intrudes on and even becomes what he is searching for; and it’s partly a poem about, yes, place, but place as a blank space in which thinking and being can begin.

After this long and capacious poem the mind is well prepared to approach the generally much shorter poems which follow. There’s a four-word poem with a 22-word title, a one-word poem, plenty of only two lines, and several where the whole poem is simply the delivery of a single phrase or idea or utterance. There are some ‘fitba’ poems very much after the style of Tom Leonard. Sometimes the very short poems simply made me smile (‘The Scottish app’: ‘i-dears’), and it’s a delicate question whether this is enough for a poem; I think can be, but not always. ‘The Prime Minister has given us his word’ reads in full, ‘This is going to be/the best worst time/that we’ve ever had,’ and not only the political playing to the gallery, but also simply the shortness, prevent the development of a poem which is surprising or challenging or breathtaking.

On the whole much more rewarding are the poems which are given space to become complex and demanding, at the level of both content and syntax. ‘The Wait’ is a wonderfully delicate elegy (actually it’s so delicate that it might not be an elegy; it could just be about waiting for someone). Perhaps my favourite is ‘Glad Gould’, a variation on Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for the beauty of what it’s tempting to call its musical phrasing, the interplay of lineation and syntax. Here’s the first paragraph:

Since you asked
      there was an alluvial
          this morning
the leavings of
      the storm—
          red winter berries
shiny & wind blown
      in the cracks of the paving
          and in the gutter
markings of wind
      & of rain.

Very much evident throughout is a spirit of formal and procedural adventure. ‘I Know a Poem’ recapitulates Creeley’s ‘I Know a Man’ through the memories of eight people; ‘Hid in a Tale: a Folio of Leaves’ uses that crossword device where the answer is hidden in the clue as a formal device. In the latter case, I’d rather we weren’t told: whatever the procedure, the poem should stand or fall as poem. Most enjoyable of this sort of poem is ‘Some Island Views’, in which the same texts are rearranged and delivered five times, with minute and not so minute variations in effect and meaning. There will be those who can’t bear that sort of thing; for the rest, find a quiet room, and listen.

Tony Williams
Tony Williams’s first poetry collection was The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street (Salt, 2009). All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head (Nine Arches Press, 2011) was the PBS Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2011. Salt has just published his debut collection of flash fiction, All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten.

Be My Reader by Alec Finlay is published by Shearsman Books, 2012, £8.95.

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)

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