Dense Poems and Socratic Light: The Poetry of John Martin Finlay, edited by David Middleton, Wiseblood Books, 2020
To say that the poet John Martin Finlay has been forgotten is not quite right. He was never “remembered” — read by a significant number of people — in the first place. But his best work is as good as the best work of many of the poets of his time, and Wiseblood Books is hoping to set things right with a two-volume collection of his poetry and prose.
Born in southern Alabama on a peanut and dairy farm in 1941, Finlay went to university in Alabama and Louisiana, where he graduated with a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 1980 and converted to Catholicism that same year. He returned home in 1981, where he read, wrote poetry, and called friends until he died ten years later of AIDS. In a poem on his experience as an AIDS patient, Finlay writes:
Nurses who come near you wear masks,
As if your flesh breathed fatal germs.
They act absorbed by routine tasks,
As if there were, for them, no terms
For what it’s now your eyes that ask.
Finlay was an eccentric. David Middleton, who edited both volumes and knew Finlay, writes that he never cooked. He ate out every meal when he lived in Baton Rouge, amassing a huge credit card bill, which his mother paid off at the end of the semester. His apartment “contained books, a typewriter, cigarettes, instant coffee, and small pan to heat water.” When his apartment was broken without anything being stolen — because he owned nothing of value — Finlay was ecstatic, claiming it showed he lived a life of the mind.
His interests were ancient cultures and modern life in the South, which makes him sound like a late William Alexander Percy, full of Stoicism and high-minded pronouncement. He wasn’t. His language is direct and restrained, which gives his poems both simplicity and power. He was a traditionalist who had a keen interest in Flaubert and Arthur Rimbaud, who loved the South but despised its moral failings.
In one poem, “Elegies for the Immigrants,” he describes in horrific detail a lynching his great grandmother witnessed. In another, he writes about how a white man kills a Native American chief in cold blood. In one of his few explicitly political poems, Finlay writes presciently about the fate of the “traditionalist” who “learned what tougher masters can impart” and “found the style for plainest naked truth”:
And what was his reward in all the lights
Of magazines, rock-stars, and Reaganites,
Of liberal cant about the good, safe id
That only needs the State to screw its lid?
We cannot even say he had one rotten lot
They absolutely treated him as he was not.
But his primary interest was the division of the mind and the body. For Finlay, the elevation of pure reason divorced from any religious faith leads, ironically perhaps, to a kind of animalism. In “The Case of Holmes,” a poem on the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, we have a Holmes who “doesn’t let instinctual grief that warps / The vision cause him not to find that fact / Which later hangs the murderer.” However, this complete trust in his mind leads him to feel an “erotic brotherhood” for his nemesis, who also places great trust in the power of reason. In “A Portrait of a Modern Artist,” a writer of “hard fiction, all belief now gone,” writes in “brutal slang and filth that’s purified / Of thought” to create “a rotless plastic of the mind”: “She craves cool surfaces of some black god, / Nietzsche’s dry savagery immune to pain.”
For Finlay, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation provides a solution to this division of mind and matter, reason and feeling. In “The Autobiography of a Benedictine,” a monk voices what was Finlay’s own response to modern Gnosticism:
I teach logic to would-be priests,
The subtlest training of the Schools.
A keen, well-bred old hound unleastht,
I track down fallacies of fools.
I read dry Horace, drink wine deep,
Though never yet to drown my wits.
Old Cock is cooked, and so I sleep
Long nights unshaken by his fits.
I feel at ease here on this earth
And love the dogma of God’s flesh.
Why should we see a poisonous dearth
In what God still creates afresh?
My favorite Finlay poems, however, are his epigrams — a forgotten art today — and what better way to conclude than by sharing his pithy “Go Little Book”:
Go little book to the party,
But hide your moral crumb.
Be cunning. Act as if to say,
I’m hungry, Sir, and dumb.