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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Raewyn Alexander reviews
by Jon Woodward

74pp $US14 Wave Books ISBN 978-1-933517-14-8 paperback

This review is about 5 printed pages long.


Bravery may be the ability to find humour where there is little reason to smile. Or courage is the determination to stay engaged with whatever experience you are caught up in, with the aim of understanding it, then moving on in better heart because of that, especially if you find your times difficult.

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These somewhat disjointed poems offer some profound imagery, but they may read at first as somewhat light-hearted and everyday. Odd moments appear to shock or puzzle the reader however, and the verses demand another reading. Then I gathered a deeper sense of grief and confusion, even hysteria, from them.


The poems are in sections, each section has a title but the poems do not. They could be read as one long poem in each section, but then the gaps before each one seem to rather indicate silence, thought or nothingness, then words appear briefly again. Each is a new train of thought, if somewhat related to the next by their mood or certain words. After each poem another space, more silence, more thought or whatever you want to imagine in the void.


Some slightly longer poems almost reach the bottom of the page which appears to be a fault in the design. All pages are supposed to have more space at the bottom than the top, or they appear unbalanced. Then again, maybe this collection is meant to look awry?


Faced with the loss of someone dear to us, we may seek to create a memento or tribute to them. Action tends to channel some of our rage when grief feels overwhelming too. These poems could be created for such a purpose, since a name is mentioned in the book, Patrick. This man seems to be ill or gone, it is difficult to tell at times, then I gathered he had indeed recently passed away.


One of the stages of grief is denial however, and these poems could illustrate that most clearly. Deciding up is down or that a fire extinguisher is really a thermos of soup, or anything absurd, serves as a diversionary tactic. Woodward possibly delayed accepting the inevitable by writing his way through, pretending things could stay sunny and fine, by proving he could write whatever reality he chose.


The verses use free form, some stanzas and no punctuation. This gives the impression they are notes or casual in some way. Lacking titles they could also be lost poetry: words wandering in the blankness, no one knowing their names. Again, a device to give us a sense of bewilderment.


Occasional bitterness or annoyance sharply accentuates the poetry at intervals, and without warning. There are also some cryptic lines I could not make sense of, like the last stanza of this poem.


walked up to the car
began cleaning the windshield saying
as he did so Sic
Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic
Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass


Only later after much thought did I gather the ‘Ocean’ part of this section’s title referred to how words became meaningless, and surged like the sea. Or perhaps he imagined a hymn with his friend’s name in there somewhere, uttered by a windscreen washer guy, muttering something muffled by traffic noise? The mood of the poetry overall felt jittery and alarmed, with undercurrents of wishing things to be amusing or at least ordinary. Then too, each section of the poetry does move along through different moods or stages.


It is just as well the poetry is not set in some formal way, since then it could seem forced and repressed. As it is, the writing gives a real sense of dislocation, bravery in the face of loss and also a playfulness with words that could in the end save the day. Woodward seems to be reminding himself he likes language, and finds a deep satisfaction in arranging words as he pleases. He sees double meanings in many situations, and the power of interruption to disturb certainties. None of the jerkiness in the poetry is annoying or at all out of place, it suits the themes and moods.


it’s going to rain I’m
going to see Spider
Man by the time the
theatre lets out it’ll be
raining I won’t have seen

it start I’ll have been
watching a boy turn into
a spider I saw something
on TV last night a
sort of round window admitting


The poem goes on to present us with a pile of discarded metal. Woodward makes these profound journeys into a dreamlike state with such a light touch, it is tempting to disbelieve him at first, but then something compelled me to pay attention. It felt real. Care has been lavished on these lines. Attention to detail is not as evident as it is for example in the way an expensive car looks engineered, but the poems are magnetic and intriguing. They beguile like a puzzle that begs to be played with, or in the way an odd sound outside makes us want to find out what it is.


The pleasure of a book like this is in discovery. Could it be true that the rain or Woodward’s grief washes some things away, and we replace the spaces with our own meanings, our own losses? These works appear to leave room for more than the obvious, and more than what is written. Something else begs to be added, and that could well be whatever the reader finds they did not have the time or space for, previously.


I read the book twice to take the work in, to feel at home there. The odd formatting and incongruities made me feel uncomfortable, which meant I needed to learn something. Oddities tend to take us out of our usual frame, and that may be good for our thinking as far as literary experience goes. New ways of formatting poetry can inspire fresh ways to read, and to muse on the themes and ideas.


Each section has a name, but the poems conform to a similar style and form throughout, but the words themselves can be puzzling or odd. In this poem about a house that is only half haunted, the writer speaks of finding a pink bra. His observations swerve and dive, from apparently unrelated object to unrelated object.


bra I guess it also
could’ve been black and lacy
or that colour they call
nude there was a lamp
with a bright green shade


Woodward names each section according to the mood or stage of grief he explores, as far as I can tell. The sections are; Spring (Comprising Further Music); Rain,Ocean; Attempt; The Long Night of Ezekiel; Leap: Love Poems and Myopia.


The section titles are helpful to give the reader a reference for what follows, even if some of what they will read is peculiar or a mild shock. The first section does refer to springlike images such as flowers, eggs and strawberries, even though Woodward mixes in swearing, fast food, illness and crying. The ‘further music’ may be how in this season of rebirth there are clues to eventual ruin, and that may be a personal opera.


Then, with the Rain, Ocean section I gathered there could be some kind of flood. I recalled phrases such as those in the song about crying a river, when I saw those two words rain and ocean together. Indeed, his friendship with Patrick is shown in shared experiences, but only as fragments, also his friend’s dying seems to repeat itself in mind. Then waves of grief wash the sense of lasting friendship and togetherness away. What results is something close to surf sounds and rushing water.


Naming anything after someone from the Bible tends to make me think there is a spiritual or mysterious element involved. He speaks to the prophet, in the fourth section and asks him if all he does is put things back together. Ezekiel says God does that, not him. There is a sense throughout this stage of seeing the writer on the brink of complete disintegration, but finding strength in imagination, other realms and questions seeking good results which help him find new, useful information for rebuilding or changes.


The poems maintain lightheartedness nevertheless, even when they show us the saddest or strangest things.


on my bed a real
live angel he skips the
be ye not afraid stuff

son of man he says
may I try on a
pair of your running shoes
big surprise they don’t fit


Mortality and accepting inevitable imperfection seems to be a main theme, never more so than when contemplating the divine. Woodward’s humour tunes the words, so many times the phrases float and dance like they are some kind of miracle. Lines like this from that same poem, asking if he can be made to stop missing, take the reader into simply enjoying the play of meanings and word sounds -


yanking into clarity this galaxy
of droplets stop these snapshots

a whip of light lashes


The flaying (lashes) then turns into illumination, not as it appears to be at first an actual whipping. Seeing clearly is however obviously painful, in some cases.


Leap could be named since all the poems in this section seem to be about making a leap of faith, sustaining belief in the world and in living, perhaps.


temporary black flak marigolds blooming
and dissipating into air you’re
always falling even inside the
plane into wide awakeness the
lights the wide aperture to


Although the poem stops there seeming to miss a word, I get the idea that even under fire and knowing there is ruin everywhere, you are bound to be wakeful, aware, (knowing beauty too you could say).


I most enjoyed how I grew closer to the work and the meanings through reading the poetry more than once, then carefully considering why some oddities were so. Finding answers became my treasure hunt. Just as someone bereft may search ruin for meaningful things to go on with, in good heart.


In this small book about enormous ideas and overwhelming feelings, Woodward presents a satisfying collection. He is victorious in adversity, while also paying tribute to someone who must have been great to know.


I got involved, I wish I’d known them both when they were friends and talking together. Now, I also miss his friend in a way, but I have to admire what Patrick inspired by his passing, and of course mainly by his living, too. This prize-winning collection holds much to enjoy.