Friday, April 13, 2018

Some Music And A Little War

Peter Finch (right) with members of Cabaret 246 outside the London Musicians Collective, May 1985

[Image source:]

One of the pleasing things about Peter Finch's Some Music and a Little War (1984) is that you can’t pick out a poem that typifies it. Your way of reading is subject to review; it’s one of Peter Finch’s instruments. Here's one of the central pages of Instantaneous Magnetism:


 t        lps
      nd      re
Thus many
          from the
is the union
we do not
mag       m,
  as a study
sup  stucture


This doesn’t look as good as the book by a long way, and it really isn’t supposed to be in a table, but I couldn’t get it to line up around the crucial central column of “magnetism” otherwise.

That central column is in part unseen but no less felt, just like the real thing. The palimpsest of academic, perhaps scientific, writing is also discernible, but comically disrupted by a vein of demotic and perhaps accusatory comments

(“...(fuc)king mag(netis)m..”?). “tude” is part of “student”, I think, but it might also be part of “attitude”. “nal” and “nat” suggest – by a sort of rhyme with “animal magnetism” – “natural”, and (just as potently for a Welsh author) “national”. But there are no right answers, only good questions. It is curious how a poem that you can’t precisely read aloud nevertheless has a distinctive voice. Or you might call it music, like the title of the book; but if so, it’s music with a lot of space through it, like Cage or (an acknowledged influence) Trout Mask Replica.The whole page shimmers. One has a palpable sense that even in the original book Instantaneous Magnetism doesn’t really fit on the pages. The visible part is a section of a trailing knot of energy, that is eventually likened to the pattern on a tie-dye shirt.


Bright Wind, the companion-piece to Instantaneous Magnetism, is concerned with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, another invisible play of forces. The “and” in the following passage comes from the sixteenth-century doubling of epithets beloved by the translators who made the prayer-book and the bible. But Peter Finch keeps one mundane eye on the incongruous break-up (or break-down) of a charismatic service into modern, urban men and women.


motives and desires

gas and electric

rushing and struggling

faith and godly

distinct and convincing

strenuous and occasional

week and many

bed and found

uneasy and disturbed

methods and results

city and people

frowned upon and imitated

fingers and bade

life and opportunity

god and they


sinners in the hands


The poem allows fingers to be pointed.


The “little war” of the book’s title is (of course at one level only) the Falklands war of 1982. Sometimes foregrounded, it is more pervasively there in the background and in fact it’s no part of Peter Finch’s purpose to spell it out. He is dismissive of attempts to do that: “The full story is bent like soft plastic. It fits the contours of the newscaster’s head.” So what seeps onto the page is in various ways oblique. Thus we find a nineteenth-century empire-builder subduing an empty part of the dominion (and pinning down its creatures as lists of names) in An Idea of Empire. Or a piece with this title: I wanted this piece to have a title which mentioned Warsaw and the Ghetto and perhaps connotated the press, the illegal press. But all these terms mean something else now. I won’t bother. It starts like this: -  (I’ll quote some of it in a minute).


We carry a lot of questions around with us:


            is plastic alive

            is blood forgotten

            is air emulsified

            is an ant a giant to a microbe

            is an atom a star

            is chess a product of bicycles

            is seawater evil

            is rubber hollow

            is double vision the result of rainwater

            is fishfood not really food


                                                            (Some Blats)


They’re funny, and more intelligent than they might seem at first, but we have no answers. We need advice, but in this book advice leads in unwelcome directions:


            Grasp the grenade in the throwing hand

            no gloves, no rings,

            with the fingers holding the lever tight

            against the body

            tremble, let the blood flush under your nails,

            pull out the arming pin,

            do not relax grip on the lever before throwing.






                                                            (Strategic Targets)


That’s exciting, but it’s obviously not right. Or perhaps this good advice appeals:


            Keep quiet, you can betray –

            but not everyone can.

            Don’t talk in the street.

            You must not make notes,

            code it, destroy it,

            the less said, keep quiet.


You listen:


            all the time the water running,

            rolling together, confluencing,

            swelling out from the thickness of your arm

            to the size of your thigh. Large it’s large.

            It makes more noise. It goes

            splartsch splartsch splartsch


Quiet comes to this:


            They entered the Umschlagplatz, scrubbed,

            hair flat, clean clothed, four by four, four by four.


                                                            (I wanted this piece to have a title which...)



Advice is one thing, and then there’s testing.


                  tevt tevt

            tawfully tsss

            ting what

            tevery it

            ting ting

            ten tag tag

            tsst ting

            tevt tint


When this eventually streams into a less clotted sound it becomes like this:


            then you know

            it is awfully hard for anyone to

            go on doing anything because

            everyone is troubled by everything.

            Having done anything

            you naturally want to do it again

            and if you do it again

            then you know you are doing it again

            and its not interesting.


                                                            (Gertrude Stein, Doing It Again)


If the line about blood flushing under the fingernails caught your eye you might also appreciate this:


They wanted the salt, the water to cleanze them. To take all the flames from out of their souls. They had died in their hundreds. Half sunk in sand, their flappy mouths filled with sea. He looked across them, saw the remains of an ambulance – its red lettering still showing faintly as it rusted back into the coastline....


The dusk was coming. He wanted all his energy for the sea. He touched his forehead, felt the bone flex sponge-like under his finger...


                                                (Strategic Targets)


It’s with the sense of touch that the book ends, an artist’s account but no more purely “autobiographical” than any of these other poems:


You know what I’m doing. I’ve told you.

Smoothing, planing, rubbing, rolling.

Each time I look at it its less,

smaller, rounder,

like a pebble you’ve had in your mouth and kept in your pocket and taken out and sucked and rolled under your tongue and spat out and dried on your shirt and put back in your pocket and thought about and then tried sucking without it and felt what its absence might mean and touched it, the actual pebble, with your fingers at the same time, niggled it a bit, down near where the rip in the material at the bottom of the pocket is, so the pebble touched your skin, not too sharp because you’ve softened it, not cold, and you take it out, palming it, suck it again.

It’s like that.


                                                            (If Marcel Duchamp had been writing this...)



The Peter Finch Archive, an essential resource for his poetry and a lot more:

Claire Powell's informative essay "The Art Of Noise: Peter Finch Sounds Off":

Peter Finch's blog (almost dormant but very good):

From Peter Finch's Antarktika (1973)

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