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In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

Tony Frazer’s opening comment on the back cover of this new collection of poems by John Welch raises a central point that is immediately felt when one opens this new volume:

“…there is throughout the book a recurring preoccupation with the ambiguities involved in the business of being a poet and above all the sheer oddness of us as a species inveigled into language and unable to get out of it.”

The opening poem is titled ‘Carpenter Build Me a House’ and it confronts the reader immediately with the difficulties of writing:

“As if in translation eating the bread of existence
In here is a creaking voice, turning the handle
And it does so happen sometimes just before sleep
With that slight awkwardness of language
When it takes you to another voice
As if inhabiting a seizure.”

That difficulty felt by the poet who wishes to communicate a thought but who is also constrained by the language in which the thought can be communicated is there in the “creaking” of a wheel which needs to be moved into smooth action by use. As the handle is turned the intrusive nature of self-doubt is set in motion: the “slight awkwardness” of language raises the question of words that have been used before. The poet translates and perhaps seizes the voice of another to bring his thoughts to the surface and is left wondering “Is it all done in imitation?” Each step the poet takes, word by word, or rock by rock as Gary Snyder might have said sixty years ago in ‘Riprap’, requires there to be “some purchase” and the pun on the word combines not only that acquisition from the language of others but also the firmness that permits one to move tentatively forward. In the second poem of this collection, ‘A Provision’ we are privy to the poet’s isolation:

“Sitting in an upstairs room he is trying to arrive some-
where, making his own silence on behalf of something he
can almost remember. In those odd corners of being where
still he waits for himself, a fountain playing in the desert. He
watches the water fade, dissembling, into the ground.

‘The words’, he said ‘were to gain me a purchase on it,
their empty grip on the page like a bird’s claws’ – and how
neat the whole thing’s workings, like the insides of an old-
fashioned watch.”

Samuel Beckett confronted the difficulties of artistic expression when he was in conversation with Georges Duthuit:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

Duthuit relied that this was “a violently extreme and personal point of view” to which Beckett did not reply. The rest as it were is silence. Except of course that it isn’t and that Beckett knew well when he came to write Worstward Ho:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

John Welch recognizes the profound truth of what Beckett was saying and the humanity, care and civilized concern for the need of the artist to express himself can be felt throughout these pages of In Folly’s Shade. He recognizes that “The paper was an invitation” even though the “book I take with me…is everywhere unread”. In the poem ‘Translated’ he is “a man with his words stranded hallway over a bridge” but as ‘A Provision’ provides

“Over to here is where it now comes, nearer by far, a
language, something that empties itself full. In the end
there are only the words to smooth the thing.”

This is a very important volume of poems and as the everyday devaluing of words seems to be confronting us we would do wisely to take heed of that cautious and careful voice of concern: I trust the voice in these poems.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2018

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