Reviewed by Gina Wilson, Rob A Mackenzie and Matthew Stewart
From his pamphlet’s first poem, ‘We all have our problems’, Frank Wood sets out to share life’s ups and downs with the reader. He makes this easy and enjoyable with his up-beat, wry style, poking fun painlessly and yet with point, as in ‘The poet travels’ and ‘Steam’.
Beneath the surface, though, flows a strong and sustaining emotional current, one that has seen the poet through a lifetime of challenge (‘Stardust’) and joy (‘Cherries in Montmartre’) and enables him to write particularly tellingly in ‘A child shot dead in Ulster’ (where the constraints of his rhyme scheme provide formal containment for potentially unbearable material).
He brings a tender beauty to ‘Bells at midnight’, moving from the sound of ‘‘the black man’s breath/ sawing into his lungs’’ to ‘‘all was strangely quiet/ for a hospital at night’’ to
a soft contralto voice
that sang the same hymn
over and over again
Wood is a family-minded poet, and the same compassion shows in his poems about the reticent men in his life – his grandfather (‘Grandfather: an unreliable biography’), and his father (‘The Great War’). Affection and a light touch characterise ‘Words to eat’ and ‘Morning song’, poems about the experience and language of young children.
But the poems that reach most deeply, almost painfully, into shared human experience are those about absence and loss, and what it all means. In ‘Letter from home’ Wood traces the day of a spouse, bravely keeping things going: ‘‘Everything is house-shaped this end [ . . . ] I’ve made the Hoover my own’’ but by night he is overwhelmed – ‘‘the emptiness of the bed/ reaches inside me’’.
In the last line of ‘Gravestones’ he speaks the seemingly inevitable: ‘‘We’ll be as anonymous as the grass.’’ And in his final poem, ‘Reflections’, contemplating the palimpsest effect of the reflection of his lit room superimposed on the night garden outside, he watches his own reflection and wonders ‘‘what he’s saying with his pen/ but he turns off his lamp and disappears’’.
But Frank Wood hasn’t disappeared. Racing the Stable Clock, his first pamphlet collection, speaks with wit, wisdom and warmth.
Rob A Mackenzie
First time through, I read Racing the Stable Clock inside an hour. It isn’t difficult material and one of the reasons I often enjoy poetry is because it taxes my brain. If I wanted to switch off, I’d switch on to ‘Match of the Day’ instead. Why is then, I ask myself, that I nevertheless enjoyed Frank Wood’s pamphlet?
His diction is plain, his syntax generally uncomplicated, the forms free. If you’re going to write poetry like this, you have to be sure what you say is extraordinarily interesting or readers like me will fall asleep. Fortunately, Frank Wood has an unusual and humorous angle on the world, compassion for the overlooked and clear sympathy for human limitation. His poems follow the advice from a hen-keeper to Wood’s verbose preacher-father in ‘Writing the Sermon’:
When you go out to feed them, you don’t
have to give them the whole bucketful.
‘Up from the Provinces’ (wonderfully ironic title) has him talking to two girls in London’s Earl’s Court Square about the northern moors, which seemed
very far away
and awesome: places
where wild men
roamed by night
dumping old mattresses.
I really like the deflationary ending, the fact that he finds such natural positivity in it, and with perfectly timed line-breaks too.
Some poems tackle themes like mortality and loss. ‘Reflections’ and ‘Letter from Home’ are moving and well paced. The absence of a loved one fills the latter (“the dishes dry more slowly” is a great line – they don’t really, of course, but seem to). I felt “. . . the silence of the kitchen/ pervades the house” in the final stanza was a clichéd picture, “pervades” also being one of those words that too often sounds awkward in poetry, but the closing lines that follow haul the poem back from the chasm of ponderousness:
and the emptiness of the bed
reaches inside me.
This is heartbreaking, visceral stuff, an image both surprising and spot on. It reshapes grief, which felt tediously familiar in its previous kitchen-silence guise. Similarly, while poems like ‘The Great War’, ‘Blood on the Floor’, ‘Bakehouse Bakewell’ and several others failed to break fresh ground, Frank Wood’s weird imagination and human empathy enlivened many poems, more than enough to make this pamphlet a rewarding experience.
The teller of jokes or tales often takes the reader/audience on a journey before coming to a satisfying and satisfactory conclusion. That’s very much what Frank Wood’s poetry does in Racing the Stable Clock.
In this respect, my mentioning above of the term ‘reader/audience’ is intentional, because these are poems that sit broadly astride the two media. I can easily imagine Wood delivering them, leading his audience towards his punch lines. Of course, like with any joke or tale, the punch line can either fall flat or light up what comes before. What’s more, one person might grimace while another bursts out laughing.
Let me take a couple of examples: ‘Letter from Home’ ends beautifully with an image that both startles and yet fits to perfection, illuminating the rest of the poem:
and the emptiness of the bed
reaches inside me.
This image manages something that only the best poetry achieves – it casts a fresh linguistic perspective on a recognisable experience, enabling the reader to view his or her own feelings anew.
In common with most poems in the collection, the ending to ‘Letter from Home’ aims at a satisfying yet unpredictable bringing-together of strands. However, some others don’t succeed in doing so with the same sense of surprising familiarity. Instead, they simply seem familiar in expected ways, as in the final lines of ‘The Great War’:
Had we known the truth, we might have understood.
But we were the next generation
and had to learn everything again.
Nevertheless, I do admire Frank Wood’s ability to bring poems to a close without necessarily feeling the need to open them out beyond: he is the storyteller and we’re riding the course with him. Racing the Stable Clock is an unusual pamphlet. It might be anecdotal and accessible, but that doesn’t mean Wood isn’t taking constant risks. When he pulls them off, his verse is terrific.