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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

pushing from the riverbank: Janet van Eeden talks to poet Alan Finlay

Janet van Eeden - 2011-01-26

Title: pushing from the riverbank
Author: Alan Finlay
Publisher: Dye Hard Press

For details of where copies can be bought, contact Dye Hard Press or send them an email.



Review by Janet van Eeden

pushing from the riverbank is Alan Finlay’s latest collection of poetry. It deals with, amongst other things, the sensitive underbelly of a life in transition, of a man in the fluid space between identities as partner, father and writer. As such, the poet resonates with universal emotions, dealing in his poetic exploration with the intransigence of his own role as it moves into territories which are not so much unformed as they are unexplored.

The poems which move me the most are the ones dealing with Finlay’s experience of being on the extremities of his partner’s/wife’s attention after the birth of their child. This is definitely something every new father has experienced, but it’s rare for a man to write so honestly of the alienation he feels when excluded from the tight bond between mother and newborn. It is in these delicately expressed poems that Finlay shows his gentle sensitivity. It is rare that a poet is so honest about such a personal and seldom spoken-about experience. Finlay’s words in these most heart-felt poems bleed on to the page. This makes pushing from the riverbank a remarkable collection with searing yet tender insights into the depths of the human condition.

From “to leave you”:

It’s in the dead end of sugar
where it’s burnt. I find you

at the bottom of my coffee mug.
            (you are in the
other room, feeding, feeding …

i turn to you         my hands soap suds


return to you weave

to you who have become
another room

grope through the dark to
the house where I switch           on the light:

                   leave me on the rock, my still lover
                   in my still clime

                   cold is the answer of the rock

Q&A with Alan Finlay

Alan, could you tell the readers of LitNet when and where you started writing? What is it about poetry that keeps you coming back to it, especially as it isn’t exactly a lucrative profession?

I don’t really feel comfortable answering your first question. As much as my poetry is “autobiographical”, it remains poetry – there is something necessarily objective about it. I think poetry has over time just become something I do, in the way that I do other things – rather than something I go back to. In the past I used to be more anxious about not writing poetry than I am now.

Your style of writing is very unusual. In many ways it often feels like a stream of consciousness, a connection of a random set of images which strike your inward eye. Is there a particular way you go about writing poetry? Do you set out to make a deliberate form or does the poem dictate its shape to you? Could you define your poetic style, or do you dislike putting labels on to such a creative enterprise?

There are a number of different styles in the book. I guess you could say I write a kind of associative poetry: sometimes the “leaps” are through sound or idea or implication, and so on, rather than specifically between images. I don’t think the connections are random at all. That would probably be a very different type of poetry. I generally try to stay true to the form of the poem as it emerges in the writing. But of course, form can come afterwards – there are no rules. I do agree with writers who say that sometimes you can see the shape of the poem before writing it or knowing what you are going to write.

I loved the poems which were written apparently just after the birth of your (second?) child. “song in the reeds” is one of my favourites. This poem resonated with me especially, having been in the same position but on the opposite side of the equation. From “song in the reeds”:


night sleeps at the window
a beaten dog in a basket of cold.

baby of the basket
we put you in a river
of cotton & love

we want to sail you down the stream
just for a day, your hourglass

your black salt
screaming sails.


Exhausted, pale
you douse
cold bath water, edge of your hair

your heart thumping
pink splodged baby grow

 I wait by your unwound

your deflated body
suture of your sex

i wait by its inflamed flower
that resuscitates towards sunlight

How do your poems find you? And is there any particular subject matter that appeals to you most?

I think there are issues of place and displacement. And this is a thread that runs through the poems in the book. Whether in relation to a partner, a child, the neighbours, society as a whole … The poem you mention tries to capture something of the experience the father has when the mother turns away, emotionally, physically, after the birth of a child. The father suffers his own kind of abandonment, and how he deals with that becomes important. I think it was Bly who pointed out that mythologically, or psychologically, it is important for the father to “seize” (or maybe retrieve) the child from the mother, taking it elsewhere – an act that can be quite terrifying, on an unconscious level anyway. The mother’s instinct retaliates against this invasion. But for the boy-child, it is critical that he is “taken away” to a safe place, even if it is populated by werewolves, and darknesses, and other fantasies. If that doesn’t happen, for the child it is distressing, and I think probably for the father too. Many of my poems (like “Shadows” and “the child goes out”) try to deal with this phenomenon. These poems also deal with my own failure in completing the father, in being able to be with my sons.



i’m telling my three-year-old child
that the world is not so safe
but he knows already: he’s fighting

dragons with his sword, shooting
down dinosaurs, closing the door so
strangers don’t come in. he’s picked up

on the shadows – they’re real enough
for him. He sits on the edge of the bed,
waiting, watching me get dressed.


Some of your poems, such as “The dream of the tiger” and “hotfooting”, are long enough to qualify as prose pieces. Does it matter to you that they are called poetry and not prose? Do you think there isn’t much difference between the two forms of writing?

The questions I pose about form by including the different poems aren’t necessarily unique or original, but these questions are worth re-asking. I do at least want to try and keep the doors open in my own poetry.

Your poem “pushing from the riverbank” seems to evoke the sense of being overwhelmed by the desire to write while coping with the mundane demands of life in the form of family and tedious business. Can you explain how this image came to you?

You mean the image of the title? I don’t really think it is about writing; maybe. It is about separation, and if writing is that, which it probably is, separation with the desire for reintegration, then yes. There is something archetypal in the title: the pushing away is, in many ways, from the womb, for the child; for the father, from work, to work, the family, the relentless loss and re-emergence with the “other”, whatever form the other takes.

pushing from the riverbank

why do I wake up at four
in the morning and think:
“Now is the time to work

to finish the day before
it starts”? what day is it
just night sweeping over

us: as my little boy climbs
into bed beside me says
daddy i can’t sleep i want to

talk, and i’m lifting my eyes
heavy as doughnut from
my own thoughts. Ok …

I am sure that you admire the surreal poets, because your style of writing is resonant of many other surreal works. “The dream of the tiger” in particular strikes me as quite surrealist. What is it about the stream of consciousness style that appeals to you in particular? Do you think the style defines the content of your poems or does it work the other way around?

“The dream of the tiger” was written with several other similar prose-poem or short story experiments specifically threaded together in that way, led by the movements and shifts between the images. Yes I would say that there is an indebtedness to surrealism in that piece of writing – perhaps even something of a homage. Poetry, perhaps more than any other way of writing, seems to deal most successfully with transitions from one space to another, or one moment to another: it can contain the tensions implicit in those transitions. It is a writing that is closest to time, I think; or “timing’ – in the musical sense. Kelwyn Sole’s poem comes to mind here: “Think a note/ don’t play it// […] if you want to be/ a jazzman, no.” Which is, of course, as much about writing poetry.

Do you ever think you will write a novel? Is so why, and if not, why not?

I’ve written a few in draft form. I tend to approach prose in the way I approach poetry, which inevitably means there are challenges around form, around being able to contain the movement of the writing in a meaningful way (mostly or easily this seems to end in failure, and is a pretty exhausting process). I admire a writer like Ondaatje, because in books like Coming Through Slaughter and Running in the Family, he writes with his erotic poetic temperament and allows that to shape how the book holds together.

How long does it take you to build up a poetry collection? When do you know a collection is ready to be published? Is there another one in the pipeline?

I need a long distance from my poems before I can see them clearly. I have poems to go back to. But, no, I don’t have another collection ready at the moment.