Terence Winch’s latest collection, Lit from Below, is not for the faint-hearted. In ninety ten-line sonnets, he weaves together elements of what at first read like dreams and whimsy, before going off at a tangent into even more surreal imagery. Just as you think you might be able to make some sense of it, he’ll completely wrong-foot you.
Winch’s work is at once humorous and deeply serious, experimental in language yet contained in form. He’s writing about human experience and his own perceptions of the world, though not in an immediately accessible way. His juxtapositions of ideas and images often seem odd and arbitrary. In the opening poem, “Blind Date”, for example, the second stanza reads,
I wish you didn’t feel compelled to spray everyone
at the gallery with the aerosol version of Wordsworth’s
Prelude or pixelate their emotions into tiny red balloons
of melancholia, which you know causes weight gain.
Many of Winch’s poems – about people or places – set up a narrative line in this way, which is then in some other way derailed. On first reading, I found this intensely irritating; on the second reading, my brain insisted on struggling to find some coherence to the narratives; and on the third reading, I was more willing to let the poems work in other, more sensory, less cognitive ways. So, for example, “Any Way You Want Me” opens,
We were never there, we were always here.
We never have enough to go on. We remember
the future, pulsing in the silence. We flatten out,
then fill the empire with insurance policies.
These lines defy logic and coherence at a strictly rational level and yet they evoke a sense of disappointment, frustration and time passing purposelessly.
Winch is a musician and, as in the above lines, there is a musicality of rhythm and repetition to his writing which carries it into strange terrains. He has clearly been strongly influenced by the New York School and the Language movement, dedicating poems to his friends, John Ashbery and Charles Bernstein among them. In “Thinly Disguised Fiction”, the repetition at the beginning of each line provides a rhythmic container of familiarity for the vastness, impossibility and futility of what follows:
If you had chosen differently after the war
if you had learned the names in Latin for the black dwarfs
if we want to know what happened during the first three minutes
if the distance between any two objects in the universe…
It seems to me that these poems are as much about the process of writing as the communication of ideas or the provision of conclusions. The collection has to be taken as a whole – it’s not for nothing that Winch sustains a version of the sonnet form throughout. And in its entirety, the collection is urbane, concerned with the existentialism of modern city life. Some lines make a little sense only to slip into absurdity, in much the same way that city life can act upon us. This drift from sense to no-sense allows an exploration of paradoxes of the human condition: that we can live with happiness and unhappiness at the same time and that we can be both young and middle-aged concurrently.
These are surreal, often playful and dream-like poems, best appreciated and savoured over several readings. Give them a go…