Saturday, 16 April 2011

Two Reviews - Anna Woodford's 'Birdhouse' and Kenneth Fields' 'Classic Rough News'

Anna Woodford - Birdhouse (Salt, 2010)

What is immediately striking about Anna Wooford’s Birdhouse is that it manages to pull off the difficult trick of managing to be both sexy and sweet. An undercurrent of tension runs through many of the poems in this collection, tugging the lyric in new and exciting ways, but its restrained in an cocoon of delicate intimacy. In the title poem, Woodford starts with:

You fiddle with the catch
between my legs until my mouth
springs open and I am
crowing like an everyday bird that has
entered the heights of an aviary.

This is of course a poem proclaiming not too subtly that the characters are having s-e-x. But the expertly-enjambed first line break turns what could be merely an engaging mundanity into a captivating image, while the poem’s climax of “my next cry / rests on the tip of your tongue” leaves the poem bridging the gap between intimacy and intensity, fragility and strength.

A lot of the poems in the collection are infused with a fragile lyricism while maintaining an engagingly chatty tone in its free verse. For example, the opening two lines of ‘Taking in the Washing’: “Next to your boxers, my bra / is undone, how vividly” are both lyrical in the best sense of the word, distilling the excess of lust and seduction into a perfectly-placed image, while still retaining a sense of looseness, of freedom with language and form.

Many of the poems in Birdhouse operate like this - beginning with an image of the familiar (but still rendered startling) domestic, before transcending them with colourful imagery and fanciful metaphor. A washing line becomes a timeline, diamonds become a memory box, while time itself is undone in ‘Looking Back’ where the narrator wishes:

If there was a master tape
of our night
I’d get my hands on a copy
and set it to rewind,
so I could watch our bodies
unmaking love

Here Woodford is playing with time, with the essence of being. Yet rather than boring us with ontological navel-gazing, she instead launches us on flights of fancy with thematic seriousness and linguistic playfulness - “unmaking love” being one of the best examples of this invention. It’s a fantastic line; cold, hard and tersely conveying so much while saying so little.

This then is a collection which operates within the boundaries of the lyric and is respectful of them, while seeking to go beyond them, teasing the gaps and fractures in the verse. If some of Woodford’s less ambitious pieces fall flat because of their failure to escape the everyday, her linguistic play and the elegies to her grandparents reveal an understated, intelligent and genuine poetry. Woodford has achieved the unthinkable - a collection about sex and death which makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Kenneth Fields - Classic Rough News (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

There is much to admire about Kenneth Fields’ Classic Rough News - the construction of an intelligent, sceptical and resolutely cosmopolitan poetic presence, an interior dialogue which manages to resist navel-gazing, and a finely-crafted verse. A collection of sonnets and sonnet-like lyrics, Classic Rough News makes it immediately clear that Fields is a polished writer, adept at the technicalities of writing - although this does seem less impressive when you consider that Fields has spent 40 years as a Creative Writing professor.

Still, these are well-crafted lyric poems Professor. Fields’ clear and concise language allows us to immerse ourselves in a world of memory, reflection and doubt, juxtaposed with the delights and the strains of the everyday. Fields also has a nice line in snappy epigrams: “The melancholy man laughs last, / Not necessarily, no, not necessarily best” - the surface effortlessness of Fields’ language combining well with the abstracted melancholy of the verse.

Fields’ collection seems wholly unconcerned with giving impressions, and, given the prevalence of ‘impressionistic’ pieces in the mainstream poetry scene, this could be considered a good thing. And it would be, if the alternative vision which Classic Rough News offers wasn’t so bloody boring.

Fields has then written a collection which is easy to admire but hard to love. He is obviously a master of the sonnet form, and there are times when his perfectly-enjambed lines create a dance with the narrative imagination while giving sensory pleasure, a sense of things unfolding. Witness these lines from ‘Before Sleep‘:

“This room goes on forever. The dark hush
Glows like departing love that will not go.
There are no edges; here everything is rounded
By light and its companion. As if dazed,”

Unfortunately intimate moments like these are few and far between in the collection. Too often Fields resorts to the knowing and the arch, which, when contained in a sonnet form so naturally predisposed to the delicate and the personal comes across as jarring and forced. There seems then an unfortunate disparity between Fields’ content and his form.

Many of the poems take the form of fictions, and the same characters often crop up from poem to poem. However, the rigidity of the sonnet form does not allow time for Fields to develop his fictions or his characters and so we are instead left with snatches of a poetry that feels incomplete. This sense of there being something lacking, rather than being tantalising and suggestive, becomes, due to the flatness of Fields’ language, frustrating and in the end quite dull.

Classic Rough News is then a rough draft of a poetry that could be much better executed. If Fields abandoned the sonnet form which does not allow space for his ideas to develop and showed more of the humour promised by the blurb, then he could have a great collection on his hands. Unfortunately, as it stands, it is neither classic, nor news.
by Robert Van Egghen

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