The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament,
poems by Colin Pink and woodcuts by Daniel Goodwin
Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2019 £10.00
The form is the poetry
It is near impossible, and probably undesirable, to make a definite claim about what ‘we’ look for when we come to poetry. Every reader, every poem, is different.
That said, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to suggest that, when reading poetry, surprise is always welcome. As a reader, I want to be surprised not only by what a poem is saying, but also by the way it’s saying it.
Viktor Shklovsky wanted art to ‘defamiliarise’ us. Poetry, in a way, is surprise.
In The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament, a series of twenty-one villanelles by Colin Pink with accompanying woodcuts by Daniel Goodwin, it is the form — rather than the language or content — that brings this surprise. If it weren’t for the ekphrastic nature and formally challenging edge of the whole publication, the poetry might be of less interest than it is. On occasion, phrasing can seem a little direct or archaic — for example, ‘it’s hard to believe God walked in this midden’ (‘They Don’t Say It Do They’).
However, Goodwin’s woodcuts often bring another layer to Pink’s poetry. In the case of ‘Reclining Figures’, the poem might seem a straightforward love lyric were it not that Goodwin’s rigid depiction of two blocky figures draws out a more sinister edge. Suddenly the couple ‘beneath a white sheet’, ‘carved in timeless effigy’, assume undertones of mortality.
Similarly, the villanelle form, with its repetition and circularity, often adds notes of panic and urgency to the socially conscious poems. In pieces like ‘Sedate and Suffocate’, the lack of end-line punctuation creates a breathless build-up of lines, one stacked on top of the other:
Every evening we flip the channels on TV
We live the universal illusion that we are free.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a work which grapples with the difficulty of controlling your own words should find poetic expression in this straitjacketed way. Through the rigid formal villanelle and the hardness and abstraction of the woodcuts, the barriers of language are both emphasised and overcome. Here, the form brings the surprise; the form is the poetry.