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We needed coffee but ... by Matthew Welton
Carcanet, 9.95

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I have a dilemma here. Much of what I'd like to say about this book is going to sound like Emperor's New Clothes syndrome - features I have 'identified' with my ever-confabulating poetry reviewer's eye which ordinary readers will seek out in vain. But it isn't the case! When I talk of 'repeating patterns', for instance, I'm not referring to subtle rhythmic or thematic needlework, but this sort of thing:

The one thing you can't do is approach it like just another poetry book.

"A slow summer breeze through the first-storey window, Groucho smoking at the bathroom sink. A delicate summer breeze through the first-storey window, Guglielmo Marconi smoking at the bathroom sink. A sudden summer breeze through the first-storey window, Gummo smoking at the bathroom sink. A fresh summer breeze through the first-storey window, Harpo smoking at the bathroom sink."

You don't need a literary degree to understand what the poet is doing here, and so it is for much of Matthew Welton's follow-up to the prize-winning Book of Matthew. Take the 101-word title, for instance. Is it a joke? A statement? Why 101? I don't know either, but you can't miss the destabilising effect - publisher and critic alike forced to trim it extensively for their websites, cover art made to grapple with the words themselves, debate on whether it goes 'too far' or undermines Welton's seriousness as a poet. It compels you to adjust your methods of engagement, or else fortify your reasoning for why you should expect anything different, or else shut your eyes and refuse to participate altogether. The one thing you can't do is approach it like just another poetry book.

There is, naturally, a similar spirit of creative confrontation in the poems themselves. At least three of the six sections of the book ('Virtual Airport', 'South Korea and Japan 2002' and 'Dr Suss') are effectively panoramic poems - not long poems in the usual sense, with a narrative thread or a string of motifs running through them, but poems whose full impact is only appreciable when taken in all at once. Each runs to more than ten pages and might have been suitably published in the form of a fold-out poster. 'Dr Suss', for instance, quoted above, consists of 13 parts, each a single sentence rewritten again and again with a couple of words (usually a name and a qualifier) changed each time. Look again and you'll notice that the vast cast of characters - saints, philosophers, pop stars et al - are arranged in alphabetical order throughout the section. Look a third time and you might notice that they are divided into discrete categories, and so on ...

It's similar to Oulipo (Welton lists Raymond Queneau as an influence) but distinct in that each poem relies on its own particular set of rules, while Queneau's group effectively developed their mechanistic forms in order to fire off screeds of similarly-structured pieces, something evidenced by the fact that today's Oulipo practitioners employ the old methods but rarely seek to develop new structures and patterns themselves.

Welton is not of the same school. For one thing, while the technical aspect of his work is apparent, it doesn't set out to explain itself. I found myself puzzling for some time over the formal stipulations that drive 'South Korea and Japan 2002', before figuratively slapping myself on the forehead once I'd worked it out. There's something of a magic eye effect to poring over the patterns of words - stare (or rather, mull) for long enough and a new shape starts to emerge. This isn't something that needs to be fully understood, any more than conventional poetry needs to be interrogated or the 'Making of' documentary needs to be scrutinised in order to enjoy a film. What emerges from simply reading and rereading this book is refreshingly, almost jarringly unfamiliar, sometimes strangely sterile, and mostly beguiling in the way it seems to utterly avoid the pitfalls of an affected 'voice'.

JS

dr f writes:

I suspect that 'Matthew Welton' is nothing more than a name, and that this is the result of an experiment carried out by a rival of mine on an array of unwilling test subjects. I'm inclined to accuse him of pilfering my research, but if I'm honest, some of these techniques are new to me. The sequence made out of four letter words is of particular interest, though sometimes there appears to be some cheating going on. To whit: "Pour your self some coke".

I decided to see if I could reproduce the book exactly by capturing a score of children and using the Urkum-Bartloch technique to 'paper over' their conventional throught processes with those of an institutionalised mathematician's, then forcing them to watch all the major events of the twentieth century condensed into a 20 minute film. I then gave them a handsome notebook each and encouraged them to express themselves freely. Alas, the results will not be in for about thirty years or so.