HappenStance Press, 2006 - £3
To call a book The Theory of Everything rather gives hostage to fortune, especially when it’s a thirty-page pamphlet. James Wood’s pamphlet certainly covers a lot of ground, from the urban grind to religious epiphany via polar exploration. Whether the collection coheres enough to offer any sort of theory is another matter: the poems draw on twenty years of writing, ranging widely in terms of tone and style, with varying levels of success.
The poet has left the London rat-race to enjoy a gentler life in Scotland, and his poems go some way towards reflecting this move. Poems like ‘My Replacement’ and ‘Money’ are firmly rooted in the commercial, material world; they are robustly realistic, conversational, snappy. Here Wood writes with authority and deftness about modern life; he references school fees, mortgages, the photocopier and fax.
At the other extreme his poems have more than a dash of magical realism. Some, like ‘Black Pearl’, are dreamlike and fantastical; some, like ‘Seven of Wands’, veer off into surreal nightmare; and others, like ‘Fantasie des Fruits’, are confused and hectic. In the title poem, ‘The Theory of Everything’, I couldn’t work out what he was trying to do: it’s one of his more abstract and ‘brainy’ ones and it didn’t take me with it.
The best stuff comes when Wood stops trying to do so much. In ‘Carpentry’ he displays a lovely lightness of touch:
Sunlight spilt through
windows, through the dust and shavings,
and caught his hands
as they smoothed the wood.
Wood has a real feel for cadence and the way internal rhyme holds a poem together. His words have a good heft to them; they land well. This is most convincing in the last poem of the book, ‘Departures’. It has a quiet gravitas which builds from the opening lines: “Then one time point your car towards the shore/ to where the ocean grey swells skyward/ among the rocks” all the way through to a beautifully plain yet resonant finish:
So set sail for life,
Keep steel in your eyes. Hold hard to your course
and let the storm clouds rise.
The Common Reader says of The Theory of Everything:
My introduction to James Wood’s writing came in the form of one poem as a flyer along with a bundle of other pamphlets. I put the other pamphlets aside and read ‘Departures’. I was hooked. There is such determination and inspiration in the final words:
…each journey ends in remembering
how we excuse failure with the defence
that the route changed from what we were planning,
the heavens shifted. So set sail for life,
keep steel in your eyes. Hold hard to your course
and let the storm clouds rise.
Wonderful. Just wonderful. I wanted to read more, and more came in the pamphlet ‘The Theory of Everything’. I really liked the cover. With a title like that an intricate, complex design is required so I thought that worked beautifully.
Most undervalued employees would connect with ‘For My Replacement’. I liked the way Wood moved from grudging compliance to cheeky defiance:
the computer, with its cursor winking cheerily -
at least you can screw them by wasting electricity.
I can’t pretend I understood every poem. Wood is too clever to be commonly reviewed but I found more than enough to interest and entertain me. ‘Fantasie Des Fruits’ is quite a delight. You don’t have to think, just read and picture:
…It’s so good
you dream you live on a juicy pear
that whirls around a hot custard bowl, racing
through oceans of dark chocolate
and coconut milk.
I’m sure the poem is more complicated than describing food but I didn’t care. I like food and I like Wood.