-Reviewed by Charlotte Henson–
Echoes, Ghosts and Others With Futures Ahead of Them by Steve Van Hagen, and Orchestra & Chorus by J.T. Welsch (both published by Holdfire Press) have unimpressive covers (though the artwork is great) but a better interior design, which is what matters, really. Both average around 30 pages and are priced at a reasonable £5.
Steve Van Hagen’s pamphlet is a little longer than the other at 34 pages, compared to 28 pages of J.T. Welsch, and seems to follow a linear discourse. It’s never explicitly stated, but then it doesn’t need to be – it starts off with poems about life, golf courses, psychology experiments and inflatable aliens, and ends with poems describing funerals. There are multiple characters, so it doesn’t just follow one person’s life, but rather, the pattern of life. Publishing poems is equivalent to publishing your autobiography, and that’s never truer than here. With no previous research on the poet I can tell you he’s passionate about psychology, either has German roots or is interested in the culture but currently lives in Liverpool.
Van Hagen’s poems are grounded in reality, drawing inspiration from the mundane with a twist of the witty, quirky, and sometimes downright surreal. For example, in “Dog Lover’s Evening”, Van Hagen states he “brought in the hammer / in the tool bag / crimson stain on the handle / was scrubbing nearly till dawn”. Much of modern poetry is character-driven or descriptive. Because of this, characterisation is no longer just a prose-writer’s tool, and is a blade that has to be sharpened by poets too. Van Hagen’s blade could slice through steel. There is no point at which I think “that seems out of character” or “why would they do that?”.
The second pamphlet – Orchestra and Chorus by J.T. Welsch – is different in every way. Where Echoes, Ghost, and Others With Futures Ahead of Them tells a generic story of life, in a series of individual poems which are very different to each other, Orchestra & Chorus almost reads like a long prose poem. It is more “at one”, and cohesive as a narrative. That said, where Hagen thrives off accessibility, Welsch’s poems are something else, something which requires more work. Every poem leaves a haunted feeling like there’s something I’m missing, something I haven’t quite figured out yet that I don’t fully understand. This is poetry to chew on and savour slowly. I would recommend it to those who favour the experimental, but not extremely so, poetry. You need to take your time with it to fully appreciate it. As previously mentioned, Welsch favours the experimental – at first, subtly, but later more blatantly. The last poem in the pamphlet, “Sonnet”, is simply a grid of words. Conversely, the poems also seems to let up a little on the heavy metaphor before the end, becoming a bit more “plain language”, for example, in “Wahnbriefe: Madness Letters” he states “I’m God, I tell them straight out. / God, yes, and this is all my doing”, taking the form of a dramatic monologue which nowadays seems to feel like a leaf out of the book of Duffy. That said, he does it well and the poem is my favourite of the pamphlet.
Van Hagen’s poetry is abstract, yet mundane – extraordinary, and yet commonplace. It fits squarely into the frame of contemporary poetry. Conversely, Welsch has an almost ethereal, ghostly quality to his verse. Both pamphlets are worthy additions to any bookshelf. And both pamphlets are excellent reads.