Sphinx High Striper
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Tia Ballantine, Karin Koller and Helena Nelson
In an angry world made mad by war and greed, it is always a joy to read poems that offer with quiet confidence the gentler rhythms of human relationship. Anna Woodford’s chapbook Party Piece contains many graceful poems that speak of women in the world, men and women, and men alone. Woodford is a rare poet who without any pretence or artifice celebrates life. Like George Herbert, she chooses her words with such care that these delicate poems retain a steely strength that is neither threatening nor alienating. Instead, we are reminded of our own humanity and assured of its goodness. Many of her poems locate both the centre and the edges of everyday events—yoga class, taking in the washing, car trips—but these more casual moments are never sentimentalized. Instead, they expand to a graciousness made possible by Woodford’s lilting humour and her acute awareness of just what it is that makes us human, reminding us that when we stop and look—really look —the world is a delightful place more capable of offering love than hate. If we can allow our minds access to our hearts and those small vibrant moments that bind us together in the human family, we will live peacefully and joyfully, embracing the past and moving towards the future.
Woodford reminds us that as the world grows ever more crowded and demanding, the power to stretch wide the fabric of human society without tearing it to bits can be found in those quieter memories so often shoved aside to make room for other grander memories of celebration, ceremony, or even disaster. In ‘Blackie Boy Roundabout’, for example, a traffic roundabout is at once as dependable as a grandfather and also “a stone wreath/ laid to rest in the rush hour.” This utilitarian circle transforms to a memorial for long departed miners who drank at the pub that once stood where now traffic roars, but the connection made between the present-day rush of traffic and the erased rumble of past drinkers’ songs is neither artificial nor overtly ‘poetic’. Instead, the poem reveals a necessary present built upon a past overwhelmed with necessary work relieved by the oh-so-human communion of the pub. The past is not reinvented, the present remains uncelebrated, but neither is degraded. The crystalline clarity of that connection provides us with a window that opens not only onto the poet’s heart but into our own. Those who are aging—the grandfather—and those who are dead—the miners—are honoured but so, too, is the rush-and-tumble present. The poem gives us breath.
I enjoy so many of Woodford’s poems, but one that I find profoundly moving is ‘Exchange’ where the poet offers a small moment of joy, stretched between a man and his baby.
He is the Adamest man in the Garden
holding the bonny branch of his baby above him
where she extends his grasp on fresh air
Raised above the tumbler doves, she
reports back from on high in a baby tongue,
lifting the day with her idioglossia.
Again, we breathe deeply, knowing the idioglossia will give way to dialogue made useful by the love given by the father, by the world, by the air, and so it may for us all.
Party Piece is Anna Woodford’s second pamphlet. Her first pamphlet was published by Five Leaves in 2007, and was a Poetry Book Society Choice.
I thoroughly enjoyed this pamphlet of sparkling short poems. As a woman, the optimistic poems made me smile, while the sadder poems made me nod in agreement. As someone who enjoys good quality tight writing I admired her poetic skills. These 23 poems cover a wide, some would say disparate, subject range, including abortion, school teachers, infant language acquisition, parents, roundabouts, sex, dying pets, the Northumberland mining industry and yoga classes. Woodford is at her best when using contemporary sources as metaphors. Condensation on the inside of a window is used to write about relationships; a roundabout (in ‘The Blackie Boy Roundabout’) is used to write about miners:“It is a stone wreath/ laid to rest in the rush hour. It is a flat cap thrown/ down by a hewer or a wailer at the end/ of the working day”).
This is bold brave writing, not afraid to tackle topics such as female orgasm head-on as in the short poem ‘Birdhouse’. I make no apologies for including the joyous opening lines:
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.
I’d have preferred to see a slightly different arrangement of the poems within the pamphlet, pulling together those about her grandfather, or about her school experiences, but this is a minor quibble. I look forward to her next pamphlet with interest. Woodford is certainly ready to tackle a themed sequence. I don’t mind if it’s about roundabouts or war or sex or the demise of coal mining—on her current form I’m sure that whatever she turns her hand to will be a refreshing take on the subject.
What appeals to me most about these poems is their clarity. In a few, often startlingly simple lines, Anna Woodford captures an experience in precise focus. There is always plenty of white space around the lines. The poems themselves are often shaped on the page – into stanzas or patterns that connect with the subject in some way. She doesn’t use rhyme or regular metre but the work feels formal. Her use of line-break is accomplished: very few poets accomplish this kind of pacing without either looking self-conscious or losing the reader in a muddle of syntax. Here are the first few lines of ‘Grounded’, for example:
I have drifted back into
my body like a clipped
angel; a slip of a girl
got up in a nightie,
my head has recalled
its place on the pillow
at an ungodly hour.
The odd enjambment here after ‘into’ and ‘clipped’ reinforces the drifting; then the line break after ‘girl’ allows the lovely cadence of ‘a slip of a girl’ to sound fully before the equally lovely ‘got up in a nightie’. Even the shape of the poem, a thin left-justified rectangle, connects with the phrase “long stretch of sleep”.
It is extremely pleasurable reading such poems. They are intimate with their reader. They invite you in, they make you welcome, they trust you with their insight and tenderness.
This is a lovely pamphlet. Like all Smith/Doorstop chapbooks, it fits neatly in your pocket or bag. It reads well on the train, in waiting rooms, just before you go to sleep. A Crashaw prize winner in 2009, Woodford’s first full collection, The Birdhouse, is forthcoming from Salt. The publicity says it is ‘dazzling’. Woodford is extremely good, although to my mind she is completely lucid, rather than dazzling. Reading her is like looking through clear water.