The Machineries of Joy

Peter Finch
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 17, 2020
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Peter Finch, noted performance poet, boundary pusher and psychogeographer based in Wales, brings us The Machineries of Joy, his 26th poetry collection, chock-full of acute observation, pointed asides, startled reactions, formal dislocations and structural inventions.

First, Finch gives us the poem as road movie, taking us over the Severn bridge and onwards to the western fringes of Wales and then over the oceans to America. Europe shimmers. It is a different place in Finch’s hands. There are encounters with giants – Don van Vliet, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Cobbing, Thomas (Bob, RS, Dylan), Gustav Mahler, Andrew Loog Oldham surfing Phil Spector and Ali Farka Toure lit by John Lee Hooker.  

America is represented by plausible outliers such those found at  the Democrat’s booth at the South Carolina State Fair: an over-heard exchange: ‘You a Republican, I ask? Sure and even if I wasn’t, I would be. Place names: Canton, Ohio, Bethesda, Alaska, and the names of evangelical churches on highways in the southern USA mirror those of Welsh chapels while hinting at the troubled state of the nation: Church of the back-sliders/ the wrecked and forlorn; Church of the Pouring River; Ebeneser on Kingston Pike.

Reflecting the author’s love of music there are trips to blues shrines as in ‘Clarksdale’ near the fabled cross-roads where Robert Leroy Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the devil for a batch of blues classics.  There are pieces inspired by feuds between long-dead modernist poets, a prescient reminder of how any movement can fracture into factions. Likewise famous poets appear in places you least expect them to, such as ‘John Ashbery Visits Lidl’. A Dylan Thomas poem is demolished and re-fashioned in ‘Alter’. In the title poem, J.S. Bach confronts a disgruntled and indifferent public as he tries to flog his sonatas in a supermarket.

Finch’s poems about his native Cardiff are inspired by his careful re-mapping of intimate territory, informed by his habits as a relentlessly curious walker.  In ‘Death Junction’ ‘City Regions’ and ‘Psychic Triangle’: ‘Where the lines of Cardiff’s waters cross and the leys and roads intermingle-the past and present of the city’ the poet creates densely woven verbal tapestries that evoke the peculiar tone, pace and feel of the city, past and present. There are also smaller moments of domestic angst and fervor: doctor’s visits; encounters with ‘Crap Builders’; a poem about divorce that is an adept anti-epithalamion.

Later in the book, a larger intention appears, long poems of epic length and maximum experimentation, such as ‘hammer lieder helicopter speak’ and ‘Crow’. These poems start out ostensibly about coherent subject matter and then artfully disintegrate. They are sometimes, as in the Welsh Assembly poems, slyly aimed at the inherent flaws of institutionalism, but they are also supremely playful and are dazzling performance pieces, fizzing with dislocated music.  

In The Machineries of Joy, the reader will find a poet of wide experience, who uses it as grist to a furious mill where language is never allowed to sit still but is cut-up, re-shuffled, interrogated, parodied, collaged, part of an ongoing project to reject cliché and to reflect contemporary life in all its complexities. 


You can listen to some of the poems from The Machineries of Joy in this podcast from Alternative Realities: (Make sure you subscribe if you want to hear more from them)


Watch Peter read from The Machineries of Joy as part of the Seren Stay-at-Home Series. 



Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Friday, July 10, 2020

It was only after I had read all 88 pages, jotted down my notes, and sat at my desk to write this review that a fog lifted: I had met this poet. Years ago, when we were neighbours, Peter Finch had made me a cup of tea. What a small world Wales can be. Though, actually, this is a point of contention. “Bigger than Texas”, Finch writes of Wales in the first line of his first poem (‘Wales’). Ah. Much as I’d like to vouch for my once-upon-a-time neighbour and to ‘big up’ my homeland, we are – at 20,735 km² – far, far smaller than the 695,662 km²-sized state in the US. Is this to say I should take the apparent (post-)truths of this collection with a pinch of salt? Yes. He closes the poem: “Wales, hard to know. | Just when you think you do. | You don’t.”

Perhaps the only thing you should take at face value is the book’s title: Machineries of Joy. Finch does indeed seem to be having great fun tinkering with the mechanisms of poetry and, let me tell you, it is immensely enjoyable to read. This is Finch’s first poetry collection in a decade, and a reader could easily spend another ten years trying to decipher it all. Cut to page 38, ‘I Have No Idea What The Answer Is’ – but I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing that the questions are being asked.

The collection is intrinsically Welsh. There’s no hiding Finch’s obsession with Wales and, more specifically, Cardiff. The city is omnipresent. There’s even a direct nod to the field of psychogeography that often preoccupies the poet (“Last summer in a storm of psychogeography | I brought the bike tour here”, ‘Hendrix Island’). The collision of place and people is an ongoing preoccupation. In one of the early poems, ‘Ty Draw’, Finch wanders into his childhood by Roath Park. He scours it for traces of his younger self – carved initials, marks of damage, “some ghostly motes floating still…” and goes on to ask, “In a life | how much do you have to do to outlive it?” Chasing the past here has turned up nothing. It’s a little melancholy, but Finch ends on a quiet note of optimism: “I’ve written it now. | And you’ve read it. So, something remains.”

The famous Finchian experimentalism is everywhere, of course. From ‘The City Region’ that lists street names in Cardiff, closing with “The Plaza, The Plaza, The Plaza. The Plaza.”, to the liquefying epics in the second half of the book, there isn’t a dull moment. I felt a growing awareness of the inevitability of disintegration – unravelling takes place in the psychological, the physiological and the poetic. There runs a series of poems from page 29 to 36 which addresses this in terms of the mind and body, from mental health to disease to ageing to death itself. It’s not quite as bleak as it sounds.

The collection is also very much of its time. Finch touches on race (“the only blues | on live tonight is white stuff”, ‘Clarksdale’), anxiety (“she gets | panic attacks even bringing in the milk”, ‘The Tree’), gender (“Well, we ain’t got her elected yet, but we’re certainly gonna try”, ‘Vote’), and much much more. Naturally, the poet’s love of music pops up throughout. The titular poem, in fact, imagines Bach trying to flog his music at the end of the Sainsbury’s pet food aisle until the focus shifts to “a bald, bent man” writing:

    He knows it is all ultimately pointless

because the kids don’t listen anymore,
if they ever did,
but he doesn’t care.

Is this striking a note somewhat closer to home? There is much self-mockery to be found in Machineries of Joy as well as many barbed comments about the poetry landscape. Both feature heavily in ‘Fish’, but for this I’ll refer you to Carol Rumens’ meticulous review for Poem of the Week.

Finch is a performance poet, and the poetry on these pages is crying out to be read aloud. At a time when gigs and festivals are a no-go, I guess we’ll have to settle for virtual performances. I looked up one or two, and discovered just how much ‘The Psychic Triangle’ is quite the mouthful. I’m holding out for a YouTube rendition of ‘Crow’, one of my favourite poems here, which runs from page 43 to 47 and is the first of many to lapse into breakdown. The poem begins relatively coherently with “is the desert deserted | is the Mojave green | is the radar realistic” and gradually dissolves into matter along the lines of “is sflossfgssssjss sssss ssss sshgs |  is ssssjs sss sssskss ssssksss” until we reach the last line: “Peter Fin sh sssssss s o”. This is in contrast with the neat brickwork of ‘Institutions of Wales #1’ several pages later, built with the word “assembly” in 24 rows of five columns. What’s the meaning (if any) of it all?

I could continue with thousands more words on this intriguing collection, but to wrap up I’ll go back to ’I Have No Idea What The Answer Is’. In closing the poem, Finch writes: “Hopeless. Yet somehow | out there in the grey world | things are still going on.” In this surreal moment for society, not even this is wholly true. Who would’ve had any idea just months ago? In any case, the poetry holds some essential wisdom: “Avoid miasma. Do not walk in fog. Avoid worldviews.”, (‘Getting to the Head of the List’).

Ultimately, I took away this: if there can be even the tiniest element joy or surprise found among these often nonsensical times, seize it. And seize this extraordinary book too, while you’re at it.

Review by Rupert Loydell, International Times

Thursday, June 25, 2020


The Machineries of Joy is a collection of short stories by American writer Ray Bradbury, a studio album by British indie rock band British Sea Power, and a new poetry book by Peter Finch, noted performance poet, boundary pusher and psychogeographer based in Wales. It helped me to evolve as a student and made me realize the beauty of the vocation I chose.

It’s regrouping and consolidating time: in this book you will meet a Hollywood monster-maker and two-tone apparitions shaking maracas to more glacial indie that beautifully belies their reputation as owl-collecting kooks.

To be perfectly honest, we will always have a lingering suspicion that there could be something dark and dreadful going on. Whether the author’s vision turns toward the future or peers into the past, his worlds of characters and their situations skitter all over the place, from the uplifting chorus, cheerful rhythm and bright guitars of the title poem to the gloomy thud of work, work, work, true work! Pain, pain, pain, sweet pain! Mein Muskeln sich verschoenern (My muscles are improving).

Coming to terms with our instinctive yearning for the future is a good recipe for making the most of the only time during which we are alive: speak to Syd at the mission and shop for the 1989 vinyl release. Take a moment to look at the cover, this author is in better condition than most examples of his age. We all know what this game needs, there are no solutions beyond yourself. The whole family is keenly interested.

Round the back, where the past might still congeal, his ingredients come together. Although these texts started off as nothing on a sheet of paper, Finch shows no sign of reining in his eccentricities. The artist spreads his arms as if to embrace them, somewhat becalmed in a very British cocoon of noise with a hearty vocal melody and sparks from elsewhere. Poems arrive in droves.

There is no opposition between restricted and general economies, the seal stands for quality and performance. This is a work of art made by altering darkness and space, used to best advantage by a skilled operator. It is a joy to behold, with all the warmth of a fresh baked cookie, fixing emotions on the altar of tradition.

Please refrain from climbing outside. Endure a sparsely populated week. We care about your safety. Is it the idea or the realisation? No one else wrote, or will ever. This is true.

Review by John Forth, London Grip

Thursday, April 23, 2020

If you wanted to identify Mr. Cosmopolitan Poetry Wales you’d look no further. Anything that happened during the past fifty years, Peter Finch was either only-begetter or, if it was bigger, chairman. His direct influences are traceable everywhere from Bob Cobbing to Captain Beefheart, and if his were a whistle-stop train there is nowhere it won’t stop. Everyone will find things to love in his latest collection, and some that pass like a train. William Carlos Williams said that a poem is a machine made of words and Finch has been for two generations making every different kind of machine he can lay hands on. So it’s a little surprising to find the title poem of a collection of his last ten years’ work somewhat mainstream, if a little edgy:

Bach and his student assistant have set up
their machineries of joy at the end of
the pet food aisle at Sainsbury's...

A woman customer complains that, costing less (especially in bulk), Bach’s work is outselling her husband’s, a man driven by an obsession to carry on writing:

He knows it is all ultimately pointless
because the kids don't listen anymore...

So the purveyors of joy contend, with varying success, to survive in a market economy. Nothing to see here, as the police say, except a surreal opening bid pitching Bach beside pet-food. There’s a hint that we know the price of everything and nothing about value, and an inference or two of cliché being at its best when buried under several fathoms of received wisdom. Apart from that, just some run of the mill disjunctions and a topsy-turvy take on the everyday. But hang on a minute…

When Carol Rumens selected ‘Fish’ as her Guardian Poem of the Week she was able to use it as a guide through Finch’s long career by giving us a cautious tour of its innards. This was a must for one, like me, ‘flailing in the Welsh fog’. The first section is a romp through the poet’s early reception beginning with his own assessment of the kind of catch he’s famous for:

Dada hake, Bauhaus trout, Schwitters skate

which was shown to John Ormond: “You’ve energy, Finch, but / they’ll not put that on your grave” and ending with the anonymous “Beer mats, they read better, boy”. We see that the words of even onboard critics are to Finch like water off some fish’s back. To Chopin’s You are a poetic nation without competition, the speaker replies “this is / an incorrect claim. Wales is a nation of / standard-stoppages / engaging with pasteurised modernism / forty years outside the frame.” The standard stoppages apparently allude to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘experiments to imprison and preserve forms’ to which the speaker concedes:

I sound now like Kingsley Amis,
it has come to this at last.

Since Amis wrote much claiming that formal standards have been falling since the Greeks, it seems to me there might be more anger here than Rumens is identifying, the self-accusation being more bitter than it seems at first sight when you consider that it ends the poem:

Asked him once to send in a poem.
Got a postcard back reading
Mr.Amis regrets but he
cannot do as you ask.

Rumens finds this ‘terse dignity’ to be ‘wholly unobjectionable’. I’m afraid it looks to me like someone might be forgiven for assuming that Amis was taking the piss, otherwise why give the quotation such prominence? Yet she is surely right to imply that there is good will here. What else might he have left to prove?

Finch is always quick to justify his methods. His note on an earlier poem drawing on R.S Thomas would serve as a manifesto for most of his collections including this one: “With so many words why make more? These resources exist and need to be proclaimed. There is a thin line between data and information and another one between information and art. I am in the business of crossing these lines.” A perfect example of crossing any number of lines is ‘Hendrix Island’, a myth which appears to have begun with fake news initiated by Finch himself in ‘Real Cardiff One’ and published by Seren in 2002. A fictional 1970s visit was supposed to have resulted in Hendrix waking up lost on the island. In 2014 Made in Roath installed a blue plaque and in 2016 a writer in the Western Mail speculated about which of Jimi’s two actual visits to Cardiff (both in 1967) resulted in the stranding. If I’ve misunderstood any of this the story will grow of course, but in the meantime here is the poem:

Near the lake island in what was once
a malarial swamp
the fallen tree is fenced
its pollarded bulk like a broken car.

Last summer in a storm of psychogeography
I brought the bike tour here
told them about Hendrix waking on that islet
no idea how he arrived
or where he was.
There's a plaque now fantasy memorialised island edge
they all nod I read a lyric
the past a palimpsest fictioned
into fashionable fact

I read the event reported later
internet somewhere
as if it happened
real now (slight return)
yes yes

It will become evident, if it hasn’t already, that I’m selecting poems that interest me and leaving others of the 64 included here on one side. Any review works this way, but a Finch collection can only ever work in this way, because of his huge range of games and mock-ups. List poems, prose poems and poems combining visual & textual elements are interspersed with poems I referred to earlier as ‘mainstream’ (for want of a better word) – but wherever there is a clear surface the sharpness of direction is unmistakeable. The road movie that begins the book in Wales heading west might be the work of a latter day Beat Poet:

I got there.
Pulled in next to the gas station where the homeboys
snap their fingers, stopped
in the forecourt of a wrecked frigerator store,
fogged after five-hundred miles down 61
expecting a monument found a
cut-out guitar on a road-island pole.

If he’s seeking a celebration of Robert Johnson, one of the founders of modern blues music, he’s soon disabused because now the blues men are ‘dead-end history. Ghost riders’. In Wales there was a plaque for an event that never happened. Here in Johnson country,

They've got his guitar in a museum
next to Charlie Musslewhite's shoes.

Accounts like this of the way artists are unremembered even as we try to remember them are numerous now, always chastening even as they become less and less surprising. I’m told you can tramp the whole of Boston without finding anyone who’s even heard of Robert Lowell. That’s how it is. And it’s in reporting how it is that Finch really hits his stride, time and again. He won’t put a foot wrong even when the threat of coochy-coo is at its peak:

She couldn't smile then, couldn't focus
could only cry and she did that.
With blue eyes and a furious face.

Later, she'll fix it, the world,
and fiercely she'll love it,
sunk or not it'll be hers not ours.
That's the way it is.
('Scarlett 3.6.2010')

Scarlett as a poem obviously predates Greta Thunberg’s fame but as a baby she’s right in there with the fixing generation. There have been other unsentimental takes on the baby photo, but this seems to nail it, and in a visit to Capodimonte (‘the Italian National Gallery’) there’s a startling equality of kitch and passion:

Christ the medieval television.
He glows on the walls
as real as Jade Goody,
ignored by the footballers
in the car-park,
a superhero ghost
badly remembered by
those whose faith was once unending.

Jamie Wilks describes an earlier poem ‘Fold’ as being ‘poetry as origami, a folding that is also an unfolding’ and there’s a similar sense of unfolding in ‘Capodimonte’ which presents a long series of artists and figures to get to the closing lines quoted above. It’s a kind of exfoliation in reverse producing a similar outcome. Of another earlier book he wrote, “Aficionados of technique will find the found, the extracted, the bent and processed, the recycled, the cut and pasted, the masqued, the flailed, the rubbed, the ripped and the repeated here.” Same as here, then. But there are enough poems I would return to if only for the sheer range of his interests, and of course it would not be only for that.

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