Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Dai George reviews Moor Music by Mike Jenkins and Zen Cymru by Peter Finch

Moor Music by Mike Jenkins and Zen Cymru by Peter Finch, two volumes put out by Seren last year, share a lot in common. Both contain visions of dead international celebs moonlighting in unlikely spots across south Wales (Elvis at the Splott Mecca bingo hall for Finch; ‘Einstein at the Comp’ for Jenkins). Both use music to inspire the subject matter and forms of their poetry. Both are hopelessly in love with the narrow corridor of the world from Cardiff city centre to the Heads of the Valleys Road. Most importantly, both collections are object lessons in how to pole vault the complacency that can set in for poets once they’ve been on the scene for forty-odd years.

Of the two, Moor Music represents a greater departure from its author’s usual methods. Writing in open form, Jenkins has hit upon an expansive new mode for his demotic sketches. To demonstrate what I mean, here is the beginning of ‘Came the Ram’:




from a side lane came the ram

This ‘step’ effect characterises the volume: a line of what would ordinarily be about six or seven beats is decomposed, with each successive fragment placed one line down and a little further to the right. As a result, this book feels windblown. It is as though it has been composed directly on the gusty commons, moors and lakes of the poems’ settings.

One sometimes gets the feeling that Jenkins has chosen these forms in order to slip the leash of the copyeditor. (Why does he end ‘Chipoil Avenue’ with an unfinished parenthesis? This is not a collection for even the borderline obsessive compulsive.) And, to be sure, there is little true innovation here: Jenkins is not the first poet to untether his work from the left margin and regularised punctuation. Nevertheless, he is an adept convert, using the unusual space opened up by these forms to hint at the topography of his beloved home patch.

To say that it’s business as usual for Finch might sound like an insult. It shouldn’t. Finch has never been anything if not agile and improvisatory, and he remains both of these in Zen Cymru. The volume takes in many styles, from lists and dyspeptic bilingual experiments to fragmented sound poetry (the eponymous centrepiece of the collection owes more than a little to Edwin Morgan’s barmy ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’) and longer prose poetry (‘Clinic’, a panicked memoir prompted by a visit to the urologist, is particularly fine).

Among Finch’s usual varied fare, Zen Cymru sees him take a moving step into the terrain of conventional lyric elegy. There is a handful of superb poems about his aging mother and deceased father, including the closer, ‘Now You Can Again Be Your Father’. As if to underline where his poetry overlaps with Jenkins’, this last poem contains the following lines:

He never liked the moors, my father,

but I did

full of space and incessant air

Ironically, this is perhaps the best single line about moors in either collection. Indeed, it could double as an inadvertent blurb for Moor Music, a book which exploits this sense of ‘space and incessant air’ to great effect. Unusually, perhaps, for Finch, this phrase applies equally to some of the delicate elegies in Zen Cymru.

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