Salt Modern Voices, 2010   £6.50

Sphinx five and a half striperReviewed by Gill Andrews, Ross Kightly and Fiona Moore

Gill Andrews:
‘La Grande Guerre Façades(1964)’ concerns a painting by René Magritte. It begins by describing the painting (of a woman holding flowers before her face).  It then speculates that the woman is Magritte’s mother who—according to some sources—Magritte saw drowned. It finishes:

............................They unwrap
.......the dressing gown gathered its face, as again, my hands
.......fall silent on you in the dark.

The poem does not explain the relationship (if any) between the painting, the boy and the narrator. My interpretation is that this is about a dream, with the narrator haunted by the painting, and perhaps also by the fear of losing the person sleeping alongside him. Of course, this might not be Welsch’s intention; still less the interpretation of another reader.



Does it matter that I can’t be sure what the poem’s about? I think the answer must be no—it doesn’t matter, provided I take enough from the poem, consciously or subconsciously, for it to have some meaning, resonance or aesthetic pleasure for me. And that is my problem with much of this pamphlet—I am given too little to go on.



‘Coppice’, for example, seems to employ the coppicing of trees as a metaphor for economic cutbacks. I follow the poem until the third stanza:

.......The sign calls coppicing an ancient art,
.......but that doesn’t make it common sense.
.......Cutting back to help grow? Admit it,
.......invisible hand: Diversity’s a hard sell.
.......If nothing else, who’s your target audience?

This stanza seems to be putting forward an argument. But I don’t understand it:  what does ‘diversity’ have to do with coppicing? In the political/economic sphere, I understand ‘diversity’ as tolerating people from different backgrounds, or else a business focus on a range of product lines. But I can’t make either definition fit what I thought the poem was about. It ends—

.......So what if the Mayflower is a barn in
.......“Buckinghamshire”? Recycling’s cheap.
.......Cut the canopy, let the underwood breathe.
.......God can whip up a zillion new trees.
.......I’ll bet none of them can come up with poems.


I register anger on the part of the poet here, but is Welsch really complaining that trees can’t write poetry? I think he must be on a completely different wavelength to me. I just don’t understand much of this collection.

Ross Kightly:
This collection comes with a big wrap-up on the back cover, which when finally deciphered from the messy background photograph of impasto oil paint on which it is printed in small white type, tells us the poems are "clever but emotional, ingenious but affecting" (Andrew Motion) and "rapid, surprising and unlikely . . . spin brilliant variations . . . hammered out in stanzas which show an inviting formal authority and are a pleasure to read."  John McAuliffe goes on to add: "
Orchids re-routes the work of his great St Louis predecessors for the 21st century."


I was annoyed that I could bring to mind only one 'great St Louis predecessor' but I guess, after some research, either Mark Twain or Marianne Moore could also be referred to in addition to T S Eliot. Distinguished company, indeed.



So how does J T Welsch stand up? I have to say, after at least three pretty close readings, there is not one poem in the collection whose choppy waters I have been able confidently to navigate, closely-packed as they are with foaming reefs of oblique and hermetic, personal, allusive and arcane references. Rarely did I feel sure I could identify who was speaking and/or to whom, or be certain what might be meant, often by single lines, stanzas or whole poems.



The most likely cause of this 'problem' lies with my own shortcomings as a reader, or perhaps with the choice of subject matter to a greater or lesser extent unfamiliar to me: the Pelagian Heresy, Star Wars, Sal Mineo and James Dean. But even in very familiar locations—Rievaulx Abbey, Helmsley Castle, Castle Howard, Formby or the paintings of Monet, Magritte and Caravaggio—I find myself struggling.



So is the answer—as it is with favourite poets as disparate and yet similar as John Ashbery and Tomaž Šalamun—to forget about knowing where you are, where you're going and how you're travelling? Possibly. I'll never be sure what “there are orchids/ looking after man's already/ fragile systems” means; but if I can accept that fact, I can try to enjoy the experience of the rest of the title poem as a ride from a 'wobbly station wagon' hanging over a bridge down



........ . . into the drink
.......—stealing past the idle air,
.......icy air, ice crust surplus and . . .
.......spl-gulp before the shh.

Fiona Moore:
American breadth mixes with British plaintiveness in these poems. J T Welsch is an American living over here—we could do with more such, to bridge the gap that sometimes feels like a canyon.


Many of the poems address relationships in their physical and emotional surroundings, though in ‘The Mirror Stage’ the relationship (on the surface at least) is with a painting, a foot-of-bed poster of Lord Leighton’s Flaming June:


.......Back from where our toes meet,
.......urged by the kiss in every crease
.......of that eponymous silk flame,

.......I expand into thighs drawn up
.......toward such a torso.



I wonder how many poems about paintings have the poet lying in bed. This perspective, and the sense that the poet may be half-asleep while imagining his metamorphosis, work well. Welsch’s best poems don’t try to do too much. My favourite, ‘Meditation on Washing Up’, lives up to its title. It starts:



.......I feel no duty toward these dishes, even if
.......I’ll be the last to read them, or their splotches,
.......and quickly, till each re-surfaces,
.......more complete than I ever hope to be.



In the best tradition, after a few stanzas we get this:



.......That’s why I like washing you even more
.......than dishes: insane jealousy of your microbes.



In other poems, Welsch creates a sense of underlying unease by throwing lots of stuff together. The tone is often dry and clever and the content tricksy, as in the title poem, first in the book. I felt the form and language of ‘Orchids’ and some others wasn’t always interesting enough to sustain them. Welsch herds his free verse into stanzas, always of equal length whether couplets or seven-liners. There’s very little rhyme, which suits his style, often close to prose. Several poems use models, or otherwise refer back in time—to Caravaggio, Magritte, Hölderlin, Eliot—as if to anchors amid uncertainty.



He can be ambitious and carry it off. ‘Coppice’ juxtaposes recession with “the ancient art” of coppicing, mixing up English and American vocabularies and blending them in the language of the market:



.......Cutting back to help grow? Admit it,
.......invisible hand: Diversity’s a hard sell.



I also enjoyed ‘Formby’, which exults in British nature words with an American twist:



.......Individual mudflats and sandflats, embryonic
.......shifting dunes. Fixed and mobile dunes
.......of the mobile dune system . . .