Shoestring Press, 2012. £6.00
Reviewed by Simon Currie, Helen Evans and Matt Merritt
Gregory Woods’s pamphlet comprises over forty poems, of sonnet length, in trimeter. The latter gives a feeling of paring down but the contents are not insubstantial. Rather, this means less explication (which makes for better poetry).
A poem often leaves a resonance rather than being a finished narrative.
The subjects are varied, in time and space, though there are repetitions, for example of bed scenes, figures observed in mirrors or in art-work, sometimes with narcissism. Thus, ‘From The Life’ starts:
Coming from the life
a work of art: from this
embarrassed face, this pale
and slightly trembling body
This is followed in ‘Truth to Life’ with
The youth who’s passing for
the figure of himself
regrets the work of art.
He sees himself. The mirror
is accurate for once.
The effect of endless trimeter is well offset by the mix of short and longer words though the latter are sometimes a bit oppressive, as in ‘In Dialogue’ with “and nothing in our voices/ had contradicted the/ integrity of our/ compatible physiques". or in ‘The Kiss’ with the line “voraciously severe.”
The subjects are varied, in time and space, with several recalling Greek myth, others having a hint of more modern conflict, as in the Balkans. In ‘Visitors’ there is a rifle, a poor meal, and the last two lines are “She touched his shoulder when/ the partisans arrived”. ‘A Place in History’ has the feel of a border area in recent conflict (though the sestet suggests the events might have happened at any point in time.) The octet in entirety runs:
in these disputed forests
where boar and wolves still thrive.
The road between two points
meanders through an era
unvisited by reason.
From every lay-by you
can see the middle ages [sic].
On the same page is a sonnet ‘Leander of Abydos’ about the dead man’s body responding “to every current”. This brings to mind in its simplicity MacCaig’s ‘Sea Change’ about the drowned Lycidas; this prompted me to read the two alongside.
On first glance Very soon I shall know looks daunting. I happen to like sonnets. But 41 of them? Two per page? In unrhymed iambic trimeter? Won’t it all get—well—a bit boring? There’s no extravagance of language here, only the hard graft of tight, short lines. People who admire a showier style might even call it . . . flat.
Not me, though. I was half way through this pamphlet by Gregory Woods when I noticed I was trembling slightly. Poems that have this effect on me don’t come along often. What was going on? The full answer, of course, is beyond rational explanation, but the following two pleasures must be part of it.
Firstly, Gregory Woods has the knack of coming up with memorable similes:
He took his boots off at
the door—they shone there like
the noses of a pair
the flattened grass will soon,
like bedding hurriedly
put straight, deny its past
Secondly, the form is impressively flexible. It can express claustrophobic stasis, as in ‘Orders’:
Eleven strikes. Then twelve.
The officer consults
his watch. He grabs himself
and rearranges his
The cigarette burns down
to his unfeeling fingers.
Or, like a camera panning slowly out to take in more of a scene, the sonnet can move from the received to the unexpected, as in the voracious kiss which delivers a twist of drugs to a prisoner (‘The Kiss’) or the innocent trip up the funicular to view a cityscape, which turns out to be anything but innocent (‘Preparedness’). And while many of these poems offer a glimpse into a moment of someone else’s life, they can open up disconcerting internal space, too—as with the mirror which looks at the narrator “routinely like a line/ of squaddies on a bench/ who’ve seen and done it all” (‘Image’) or the sinister wardrobe, which “looms above/ the bed, sarcophagus/ of nightmares, silent and/ forbidding” (‘Wardrobe’).
I would have preferred one sonnet per page, not two, and in just a few of them I felt the commitment to the form forced the addition of a superfluous last line or final couplet. But these are minor niggles. There are more pleasures to this pamphlet than I have room to detail here. Buy it and see.
If I rarely talk too much about form in reviews, it’s because I don’t really feel qualified to analyse it too closely. Here, though, it’s hard to avoid—Woods presents 40 slimmed-down sonnets, written in unrhymed iambic trimeter. In lesser hands, it might look like a gimmick.
It’s a tribute to his skill, then, that this pared-down form is made to work so well with his subject matter which, for much of the collection, seemed to me to be tensions between opposites.
There’s the separation between the physical and the mental, for example. The mirror crops up more than once—in ‘Image’, for example, it is “accurate for once . . . it strips him/ unbiased and without/ desire”, while later in the same poem, the window is “more indulgent . . . applauds/ his sensitivity,/ arranging landscape and/ the clouds as if to please him”. Woods writes about the human body and its appetites better than most poets around today, and the lean, honed nature of these poems makes them the perfect vehicle for that.
The conflicting appeal of rationalism and the less tangible is there too. The setting of the poems is often broadly Mediterranean, Classical maybe, with all its metaphorical temptations for a poet, but Woods remains determined to resist them. In ‘Not Worth The Risk’, after eight lines establishing “A day of thunder and / foreboding” comes the turn, and:
If you believed in symbols,
you’d spend a day aghast
at its significance.
You’d stop at each event
to crack its code and risk
not taking part in it.
Stark as it is throughout the collection, Woods’ language remains quietly musical, and if the characters in the poems are for the most part struggling against adversity, the many extremes of life, there are flashes of salvation, or at least survival. ‘Farewell’ ends the book with the narrator “walking into darkness/ along the grassy path/ that ends in lasting spring”, and the reader goes with him, carried along by that insistent metre.