Peter Finch: Reviews of Antibodies

Claire Powell: Planet #130. Hutchenspiel.

Antibodies is a collection of Peter Finch's more experimental, edgy, less accessible pieces - not recommended for the poetically conservative. Convention has it that the arts and sciences occupy two very separate and antipathetic spheres and never the twain shall meet. Science is the traditional province of beardy-weirdy boffins not beardy-weirdy poets. Finch, however, challenges this segregation and asks why science should not be the stuff of poetry. Thus "Lunch Time" is a parody of Einstein's theory of relativity and in "Chemical war Cries" what occurs on a micro-cosmic scale at cell level in the immunological process of antibody development occurs with the interaction of language itself, as well as on a macrocosmic scale in human warfare. A further relevant aspect is the decisive role of chance in immunology, by which billions upon billions of antibodies are produced to match any incoming alien. In Finch's view, the scientific fraternity is far more receptive to automatism as a legitimate principle than the literati. The three tumblers on the cover are reminiscent of the German street game Hutchenspiel in which a volunteer has to guess which upturned tumbler the coin is under. It's a game of chance, as this collection is more generally concerned with chance operation, possibilities, alternatives within language. Think process, permutation, gestalt, think Gertrude Stein, think Xerox of Chinaman jammed in photocopier, think spell check on your PC, and you're some way there.

July, 1998.



Jake Berry: Muse Apprentice Guild

"Since the early 1970s, Finch has been the principal innovator in Welsh
poetry. Finch deserves a Welsh knighthood."
Richard Kostelanetz

The above quote is from the DICTIONARY OF THE AVANT-GARDES, and quickly
upon entering Finch's volume of poems and collage we begin to agree with Kostelanetz. Finch is a skilled technician of experimental approaches. He is able to persuade with scatological verse, glossolalia, and a variety of his own inventions. That alone would be enough to make this book worthwhile. But Finch is also an excellent poet in the more traditional sense, that is, he understands the musicality and muscle of speech, he turns a phrase beautifully. His work also makes a strong case for the relevance of experimental poetry beyond the purely modern. Though he constantly surprises and even perplexes, he is not slavishly bound to the new. Which is not to say that he doesn't always "make it
new", as Pound prescribed. Witness this short piece:


by chukkers
rocks and dream
my babysitter
my face
two remaining
these things
blood stirs

in alarm
this gorge
its work
the fingers
the nerves

As with much of his poetry, Finch works the modernist vein one step on, He also is no stranger to sly humor. The above poem initially invokes an ancient past of hunters in misty green hills, a sense of human predation, lust for survival, but obviously another lust is at work here. Survival perhaps, genetic survival. One imagines the poet driving the babysitter home, he allows us to read his thoughts, no less predatory than the lust for blood: "eyes/ these things/underwear/ blood stirs." Or is this a masturbatory fantasy? Is the gorge a vagina, his "fingers" working the "nerves"? How much of it is in his mind only? Then too we remember that giant hunter in chalk on a hillside, with his giant erection. This poem says all these things, and says none of them exactly. The language remains open, but nonetheless as imaginal as most formal verse.

Neither is spirituality or religion alien to Finch, as it sometimes is among contemporary avant gardes. In a wonderful sequence of riffs on haiku, "Buddha of Boundless Light Haiku", he merges the clear vision of Buddhist poetry with an almost shamanic chant, by way of repetition of letters/sounds:

and light
rip ripple again rip
light face be hind
the moon

so huge moonlight
a light ng
light ng on

ripple rip rip rip
ip rip ripple ip ip le
rip rr ple ple

One thinks of the use of the moon as metaphor for mind in Buddhist poetry, and there is also a play here on Basho's "old pond" haiku. Yet this is a thoroughly "western" poem. Its wordplay is reminiscent of Stein and cummings (though this poem would be more easily sounded than some of cummings' poems). In other places his wordplay is reminiscent of Joyce and once feels the spirit of Samuel Beckett hovering about.

Still, Finch never loses the since of poetry as something much older
than the 20th century's innovators. He manages to strike an almost perfect balance in "Shock Of The New":

These landscapes were big and real
with nowhere to hide.
I can remember the first exorcism
failed benzendrine inhalers
cough-mixture outlawed morphine
no methedrine not enough speed
reduced to 50 Pro-plus no
idea of how the bones should sit.

In these lines he seems to cover the broad sweep of everything from the American landscape to Jack Kerouac's use of Benzedrine inhalers to write his novels, to possibly William Burroughs to what? is that last line somehow connected to ancient burial practices among the pre-Celtic people? does it connect in someway to the "exorcism". Is Kerouac's work an exorcism? Is America made up of those "exorcised" from other parts of the world? All of these things are possible, and the associations seem designed to provoke those possibilities. Yet, this is only one passage through the lines. Another passage is even more open and provocative, and to my ear, even better music:

Ages protect themselves with grease
in the paper-mills a bloom on the
whiteness which won't take ink they
own the forests they supply the bears
Kill them. For twenty-five years
in the streets we met with
malcontents, revolutionaries, sellers of tracts.
Peace is milk. War is acid.
But the centre always holds.

It is very easy to visualize features of the industrial revolution in these lines, with a variety of other, disparate elements, turning round at the end to oppose Yeats. The beauty of lines like these, and they are plentiful in ANTIBODIES is that they are highly experimental without being ungrounded.

There are many other things to respond to in these poems; for instance, the connection between the collages/visual poems and more traditional text in the long sequences "The Cheng Man Ch'ing Variations" and "Five Hundred Cobbings". And this work merits an extended critique, but it would be negligent not to mention that Finch is a performer of his work and that these works cry to be performed. Indeed, one often feels compelled to read them out loud, for both sound and meaning.

If Finch is any indication of the state of poetry in Wales then that land, legendary for its poetic tradition is also, obviously, equally modern, without sacrificing its music, its naturalism, or heritage.

Jake Berry 12.02

m.a.g. January 2003

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