POEMS OF THE INFRA-EXTRAORDINARY: Alec Finlay’s Question Your Teaspoons

Alec Finlay Question your teaspoons: Stonypathian memories (Dunbar: Calder Wood Press, 2012)

by Calum Rodger

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text. Is the aleph, that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces (1974)

Alec Finlay – whose Question your teaspoons borrows its title from Perec – has long been something of a portolano-maker, using poetry as a means to explore space – ‘to name it, to trace it’ – and in so doing, to inhabit it. ‘The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden),’ the opening poem of 2012’s Be My Reader, documents the poet’s experience visiting the philosopher’s house in Norway in a series of sparse modernist and off-concrete lyrics, interspersed with quotations – little found poems – from Wittgenstein’s own writings. Finlay’s poetry establishes a dialogue with the past, augmenting old voices with phenomenological reflections from the imagistic (‘Luster fjord is black / lake blue river / eddies copper-green’) to the corporeal (‘The damp makes me / rheumy, glandy /eyes gone bleary’), breathing life into both by means of quiet reverence and unadorned formal exactitude. More remarkable still is ‘the road north,’ a year-long project undertaken between 2010 and 2011 with fellow poet Ken Cockburn. Inspired by Japanese haiku master Bashō’s seminal work Narrow Road to the Deep North, both men travelled Scotland for a year, composing poems and artworks occasioned by their surroundings. Blogging the results as they went, their goal was to create a ‘word-map’ of the country (interested readers can now explore this ‘map’ in its entirety). In the autumn of 2010 the poets and a few others visited Stonypath, Finlay’s childhood home, and better known today as poetry garden Little Sparta. Several of the poems from that blog post appear in print for the first time here, and set the tone for a remarkable collection in which Finlay becomes a portolano-maker of memory, tracing moments of childhood with a delicate and loving precision. For those who are familiar with the garden and the work of his father, Ian Hamilton Finlay, it also offers a fascinating and lyrical insight into the other side of Little Sparta: Stonypath, the homely and familial base from which the ‘sacred groves’ of the garden were constructed.

In 1966, the year of Alec’s birth, his father sent home-made Christmas cards to his friends and correspondents, among them fellow poet Edwin Morgan, in Glasgow. Typical of the elder Finlay, these were not Christmas cards in the conventional sense; less season’s greetings as gifts, they were lovingly conceived, meticulously composed, published by the poet’s own Wild Hawthorn Press and delivered – via the postie, over road and sea – with a measure of sincerity and candour that no nativity scene could hope to match. They were called ‘poem-cards’, and that year they featured the following poem:

     Arcady

     ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

What is this poem? Is it Borges’s ‘aleph,’ as Perec would have it? Almost: the poem presents an entire world, if not the entire world. Nor is it any ordinary world. The poem came appended with a series of questions, the second of which reads:

“Roam” is a verb we associate with Arcady. Can one roam among the letters of the alphabet? Might it be that the letters are compared to the fields and forests, mosses and springs of an ancient pastoral landscape? If so, why?

Morgan’s response to the question was contentious: ‘[T]he word Arcady does not have for me quite all the delightful associations you are perhaps assuming it will have.’ For the Glasgow poet, it connotes ‘artificiality, conventions, classicism in the bad sense.’ ‘The word Arcady,’ he concludes, ‘chills me, whereas the word Metropolis – even as I type it here I feel it – stirs my blood.’ Good for Morgan. But Finlay, despite the expressly modernist mode of his early concrete poetry, was never a metropolitan poet: ‘I quite understood that you would not FEEL about the old Arcady in quite the way I do – for some reason, though I don’t BELIEVE in it, the idea of a Golden Age, etc. has always been extremely vivid to me…’ It was to become more vivid still in the years that followed.

Ian had settled at Stonypath with his wife and collaborator Sue and the young ‘Eck’ in September of that year. Today, it is the site of Little Sparta: neoclassical poem-state, ‘strawberry republic’ and, according to a 2004 poll in Scotland on Sunday, Scotland’s greatest artwork. Then, it was an Arcadian tabula rasa, as Finlay describes to Morgan: ‘[t]here are 3 rooms, linked by a long narrow corridor. Very Scottish, and severe. There are also nice farmbuildings and hills all around, with beautifully poor and stony ground, and wild blackface sheep. Except that there’s no sea it is very like Rousay, in Orkney.’ It is fitting that the poet invokes Orkney; the Orcadian and the Arcadian are deeply entwined terms in Finlay’s poetic vocabulary, and it is here that the poet at last found a space in which to ‘roam,’ unfettered (for a while, at least) by metropolitan imperatives. The poet refused to accept Wittgenstein’s famous proposition, tacitly endorsed by Morgan, that ‘[w]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,’ instead offering an alternative that serves as a guiding principle for his entire body of work: ‘whereof one cannot speak, one must construct.’ Stonypath became the ‘blank page’ upon which signs were not simply traced but constructed – composed, carved and cultivated in stone, wood, bronze, burns, bridges, flowers. Here, Ian, Sue and their collaborators became as Perec’s portolano-makers par excellence, wrestling culture from nature and giving particular form to the infinite aleph presented in the enigmatic ‘Arcady.’ Today, the artefact that remains is an Arcadian Gesamtkunstwerk, a monument to roaming, and to the alphabet – to language itself, to poetry, and our shared linguistic and cultural heritage – that makes it possible.

This invitation to imaginatively roam is celebrated in one of the first poems in Question your teaspoons, an elegy for a recently fallen ash tree titled ‘Fraxinus’:

finlay 1

As ‘s’s audibly hiss through the taut verse, they recall the wind itself hissing through the ‘dark-tipped / branches.’ It was this wind that brought the sea to Stonypath, as the elder Finlay, in a letter to his collaborator Nick Sloan quoted on the Stonypath blog post makes clear: 

“Except on very calm days, (which are few, as you know), the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound. When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea.”

Ever the portolano-maker, Finlay asserted this equivalence with a stone plaque affixed to its trunk, inscribed with the words ‘MARE NOSTRUM’: our sea.

The ash tree stands (or rather, stood) as synecdoche for the garden as a whole. As both tree and ocean, it is at once rooted and expansive, fixed and free-floating, real and imagined. It thus emblematizes an opposition that is the very essence of the garden. For the contemporary visitor, it is easy to forget that the site always had a double-identity: not only Little Sparta, a constructed Arcadia, an invitation to ‘roam’; but also Stonypath, a domestic space, a home. While traces of the domestic are easy to come by, particularly nearer the farmhouse – watering cans, beehives, allusions to sewing and domestic chores – they are all metaphorically transformed in some way, and so transposed into the realm of poetry, of art. So powerful is this Little Spartan metamorphosis that penetrating the particularities of the lives behind the work presents more difficulties than sourcing the esoteric allusions to literary and philosophical figures of hundreds, even thousands of years ago. As if to demonstrate the point, a tombstone for a buried pet provides no name, only the inscription ‘OUR CAT,’ the unnamed feline’s dates and the obscure epitaph ‘HERE I REST / HERE I STAY.’ Today, it requires only a quick Google search to reveal that the epitaph is a quotation from 11th century theologian St. Anselm. The cat’s name, however, remains out of reach; one might surmise that it is not only the cat, but its name too, that is buried at the spot.

This refusal of biography in the work is characteristic of the elder Finlay, who stated as early as 1962 his desire for a poetry ‘without the lyric-I,’ and it contributes in no small way to the stature and endurance of the garden. But as the poet’s ghost has joined those of Heraclitus, Virgil, Robespierre and Saint-Just among the ‘sacred groves’ of Little Sparta, the danger of losing the man and his memory to the myth becomes real. As Alec Finlay puts it on ‘the road north’ blog, ‘[t]he Stonypathian is a recuperation of the domestic, so crucial to IHFs work, so that Little Sparta is not an act of Imperial overwriting, as The Roman ‘Mare Nostrum’ was for the Mediterranean.’ In other words, we must not lose the ash tree in the ocean, an imperative that strikes with renewed urgency now that the former has fallen. Much of Finlay’s critical work on his father, most notably his excellent introduction to Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, published 2012, serves as a necessary corrective to a body of criticism that has long emphasised the ocean over the ash tree. In some respects the present volume works in a similar vein, giving the reader fragmentary glimpses of the home-spun Stonypathian motor that powers the imaginary behemoth Little Sparta. It can be seen whirring in the starkly quotidian ‘summery history’ (‘he makes the paths / she plants the flowers’) and this wonderful brief piece, both lyrically practical and practically lyrical:

finlay 2

Question your teaspoons lifts the Little Spartan veil in order to trace, for its readers, the Stonypathian face behind it. A contemporary visitor roaming among the garden is invited to experience time in its cosmic, cyclical, mythical, or grandly historical sense, a pointed contrast with the chronometric time of Morgan’s (and our own) metropolises. But as this collection reminds us, chronometric time existed here, too. Without it, nothing could have ever been constructed; moreover, it is the habitat of memory, of the lives that played out here. As the subtitle Stonypathian memories intimates, it is not just the ash tree that Question your teaspoons celebrates, but the wind that awoke an ocean within it, before eventually blowing it down.

In Perec’s 1989 essay ‘Approaches to What?,’ from which the title of the present volume is taken, the author asks: ‘How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?’ The answer, as he suggests above, is ‘to name it, to trace it’: to be attentive, to compose and record the minutiae of everyday existence with both pleasure and discipline; to recognise that among what Coleridge called the ‘numberless goings-on of life’ it is the trace, the mark, that creates value, that gives definition to the infinite aleph. It is a craft at which Finlay excels, as in ‘fishing’:

finlay 3

A single phrase spoken by father to son, set in the poetic reality of the page, makes an object of a memory, capturing a Stonypathian moment among Little Spartan monuments. Yet for all its particularity, the poem is strangely non-specific. Such is the infra-ordinary: it is not so much about writing on the lines as writing between them. At Stonypath, however, nothing is as ordinary as it first appears. The front cover of the book shows an old photograph, with a young Alec on the right and his father Ian on the left, stooped over a wicker basket; in the front-left of the image a lochan (presumably Lochan Eck, named after the poet, found to the north of the garden) is just visible. Short of an Irn-Bru bottle, it might well serve as an illustration for ‘fishing.’ But as the notes at the back of the book inform us, ‘the basket contains toy sailboats, not fishes,’ one of many understated reminders that even the most trivial Stonypathian moments are coloured with uncommon hues. Such is the home-spun beauty of Question your teaspoons: infra-ordinary reflections upon an extraordinary childhood.

At times these reflections approach something like reverie, made manifest in a palpable delight. One such example is ‘sailing the little boats,’ a charming poem that unfolds like a game, as the young poet and his sister Ailie ‘are let / pick one sailboat each,’ with Alec’s ‘job always / to race around the path // fetch them both.’ Games; toys: these are commonly cited analogies for Ian Hamilton Finlay’s poem-objects, but here they are brought to life and made animate, demonstrating that there is nothing abstract in these analogies and, more importantly, that they serve not only art, but also life, love, and family, as brother and sister ‘watch together.’ Elsewhere, this childhood joy is counterpointed with the parents’ labour – whether ‘the gardener’s trug’ or ‘the poet’s wheelbarrow’ – in a ‘recuperation of the domestic’ that encompasses all of its facets. For such an enterprise, formal precision and lightness of touch is preferable to saccharine nostalgia and sentimentality. Note, for example, the infra-ordinary resonance of the poem’s final stanzas:

finlay 4

Later in the collection, darker elements begin to intrude upon the childlike joy that characterises the poems of the middle section – songs of experience that cast a gnomon’s shadow over the echoing green. A group of definition poems entitled ‘family’ uses the classic Finlayian technique of esoteric quotation and transposition to allude to domestic strife, while ‘life during wartime’ shows the elder Finlay caught in the machine-gun ‘rat-a-tat’ of his typewriter, composing the ‘excommunications’ that characterised his most violent offensives against those who jeopardised or betrayed Little Spartan ideals.

This shift in mood precipitates another with the final poems of the collection, as the ‘petal-by-petal’ plucking of those Little Sparta would ‘guillotine’ eerily foreshadows a Stonypathian death; the very next poem, ‘broken dishes,’ traces the week in which the elder Finlay was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fixed upon the haunting repetition of ‘and the flowers broke that are now in shards,’ it is a fragile, tremendously moving piece, in which the son responds to the father’s encroaching mortality with his own immobilizing sickness (‘we each had our bottles of antibiotics […] the week I decided to stay in bed’). The ‘rat-a-tat’ of the previous poem is made suddenly trivial by the diagnosis that shatters all markers of domesticity, as the teapot leaves its ‘pieces scattered over the floor.’ It is a stark reminder of chronometric time, its impact redoubled by the fragments of childhood idyll that precede it. As Nicolas Poussin would have it, in a motto that echoes throughout Little Sparta and Stonypath, Et in Arcadia Ego.

But time goes on. ‘broken flowers’ is followed by ‘inheritance,’ in which Finlay pastiches William Carlos Williams in a direct address to his recently deceased father. ‘this is just to say / I have taken,’ he begins, enumerating several objects – boats, socks, books – before closing ‘the rest of what’s left / is the world’s to keep.’ Yet what Finlay takes, he gives back. Like the poem-cards of Wild Hawthorn Press, this poem – and, indeed, the whole collection – is a gift, from poet to reader. Its tracing of the moments between the monuments rescues them from the chronometric void, leaving this collection – a little bit of Stonypath – in place of what has been ‘taken.’ By virtue of his eye, ear and craft poems are made of infra-ordinary moments, and so given durable form in the world. Whether playful, pithy, meditative, or elegiac, they exude a charm that may long bring fresh colour to the flowers of the garden. And charm, says the elder Finlay, ‘is a disguise for that explosive atom, Art.’

As the collection draws to a close, a prose meditation on ‘The Valley’ – Stonypath and the surrounding countryside – is juxtaposed with this, ‘a child’s alphabet’:

finlay corr 1

Like ‘Arcady’ before it, it appears to be nothing but the alphabet, presented as a poem. But look a little closer, and one discovers initials buried there: ‘IHF’ and ‘RLS.’ Always a favourite of the elder Finlay’s, Robert Louis Stevenson here occupies the same territory as the poet himself, each leaving their indelible mark upon the page, much as they did upon the young ‘Eck’ and the ‘beautifully poor and stony ground’ of Stonypath. This is the collection’s own aleph, the ‘entire world’ of Alec Finlay’s childhood: an extraordinary cosmos of ‘skimming / swallows,’ ‘model glider[s],’ racing tortoises and the ‘rat-a-tat’ of the typewriter. Its legacy is encapsulated in the final poem, ‘bynames’:

finlay corr 2

This act of ‘nicknaming’ alludes to the double identity of Little Sparta/Stonypath and some of the contradictions therein. But more importantly, the poet’s wordplay demonstrates a reconciliation with chronometric time, a recognition that the legacies of older generations inhabit the new, and push them on to ‘roam’ further. Or, as Alec Finlay so succinctly puts it in ‘family’ (and doubtless the father would agree):

finlay 7

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