Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Smith/Doorstop, 2009   £4.00   Sphinx High Striper



Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Liz Bassett and Rob A Mackenzie


Anna Woodford is a rarity: a youngish poet with considerable talent, something to say, and a voice unique as a fingerprint. And she is being recognised, officially at least: her previous mini-collection, Tracks, was a PBS pamphlet choice in 2008, and she won an Eric Gregory Award in 2003.


There aren’t all that many words in this pamphlet, and Woodford is yet to publish a full collection; the poems come slowly, it seems. No matter. Never over-long, always finely-wrought, exuding honesty whether the subject is sex or family history, she packs a lot of attitude into these small verses.


Take ‘Epithalamium’, for example, a perfect octave of not-quite-defiance, not-quite-resentment, unlike any epithalamium I have read before:


I will stand at the foot of the umpteen steps

to the church among the mucky doves,

I will bring your letters, shredded into confetti,

when the bells spill over with your joy, with your joy,

I will wrap my arms around myself

and dance: no one will mind me

when your bride comes down the steps.

The sky will fall in after her like a train.


This is brave, tight poetry. The singing repetition soars and aches.


There are some falters. A number of the poems are simply too slight for their own good. ‘Feral’ vividly describes the street cats of Rome and their domain, “from the wrought iron gates of this cemetery/ to the broken heart of the Coliseum”, but the point is either lost or missing. And ‘Travelling with Isaac’, a short poem in free-verse triplets about looking out of a car window with a young child and teaching him words, is cutesy but little more.


A considerable proportion of these poems, however, exquisitely transcend commonplace experiences with an inimitable, warm, critical panache. Woodford is from Newcastle upon Tyne, where she still lives and works, and she has strong links to Durham. Unsurprisingly, the North East and its heritage is a strong presence in her work. ‘The Blackie Boy Roundabout’ is a typically understated, typically multi-faceted sinewy little block of verse about the modern roundabout in Durham City, “Standing in place of the pub where the pitmen drank” and as “dependable as my grandfather” (though presumably unknown to him for most of his life), which she transforms into “a stone wreath/ laid to rest in the rush hour”.


She can be funny, too, in a wry and novelistic fashion. In ‘Desk’:


[. . .] the delivery man

left no stair uncursed

as he dragged the desk like a cross

to my room.


For what it’s worth, these often exciting poems are presented beautifully, as is every other Smith/Doorstop pamphlet. And whilst the collection is slim by any standards and the poems are all very short, the best work here rewards multiple readings. At their most powerful, Woodford’s poems can give their readers new eyes.


Liz Bassett:

In the title poem the inverted roles of mother and daughter are evoked with wonderful understatement through the image of the mother trying on her daughter’s high heels, and tottering about like a young girl. This poem demonstrates Anna Woodford’s accomplishment in refraining from explaining too much to her readers:


[ . . . ] I raise a glass

at her gathering. Now I can’t hold her

back or follow her.

Woodford does end lines well. They’re just good. I don’t want to give too many away or reduce them by plucking them out from their context, but to the ones quoted above let me add the ending of ‘Epithalamium’ where the narrator prepares to watch her old lover’s new bride leave the church and predicts:


The sky will fall in after her like a train.


Clever wordplay is another strength of these poems. Perhaps I should say ‘intelligent’ rather than clever, as there is nothing of the quip in lines such as these from ‘Journey 14/34’ in which the history class and the history of the girls’ lives are evoked:


Leaving the other girls to get ahead

of her in History, she ran

into the real world

without sitting an exam.


Another strength of Woodford’s writing is the setting up of equivocal meanings. ‘Six Weeks’ at first appears to describe a serious illness such as cancer:


You swallowed the pills then walked as far as you could

away down the hospital corridor. The nurse kept your bed

knowing that sickness would overtake you.


The other women on the ward are described as “throwing up/ into a cardboard dish” and “contracting behind cubicle curtains”, evoking images of patients undergoing chemotherapy. But the second stanza opens with “It was six weeks since you’d fallen” which, due to the references to Catholicism in preceding poems, also evokes the notion of falling from grace or indeed into pregnancy.  These evocations are confirmed by the next line: “. . . you told me about him/ on the morning after.” Through her ability to describe one thing and simultaneously evoke something else, Woodford sets up a metaphor for the domestic order that is threatened by the women’s bodies that escape its containment: “Water was dripping/ through the holes in our living room ceiling.”


This is an accomplished collection from a writer who deserves a wide readership.


Rob A Mackenzie:

An Anna Woodford poem often looks as if it is about to recount an everyday event, but this is usually twisted out of shape in the course of the poem. The text reveals what might be going on beneath the familiar surface, and this tension between the apparent and the real is a fruitful source of energy.


The opening poem, ‘Party Piece’, concerns a New Year family party at which the mother puts on the narrator’s high-heeled shoes and sings after a few glasses of wine. However, the poem’s dangerous undercurrent is apparent from the opening lines:


My mother is taking a turn

in my killer heels

—they could topple her


Woodford chooses her words carefully. Firstly, “turn” has connotations of display and of illness; then the word “killer” is followed up by a threatened collapse. The mother subsequently “sways” like a “Madonna/ shouldered out of a Spanish cathedral.” There’s an element of ritual about this, an image which could resonate with either a celebratory or funereal rite. The “crown” of her mother’s voice has “slipped,” an image of deterioration. The mother is “getting carried away”, a phrase indicating drunken celebration, but which also recalls the Madonna image from earlier. The poem concludes enigmatically:


I raise a glass

at her gathering. Now I can’t hold her

back or follow her.


The phrase “her gathering” suggests everyone is there because of her, as if the New Year has become a kind of wake. The narrator’s reaction isn’t what might be expected if describing an ordinary New Year party and it’s this skilfully handled tension between the bare facts and an underlying sense of mystery and threat that makes the poem a success.


Some poems weren’t quite as successful. ‘Taking in the Washing’ was little more than an over-extended metaphor and I felt that ‘Engaged’ and ‘Condensation’, while well enough written, lacked impact. However, generally, this collection was an enjoyable, thought-provoking read and many poems left a bittersweet taste in my mouth, ‘Big Bed Scene’ in particular, which concludes a description of a past love affair with:


but we were great

together, the way

I remember it.

Every time I look back

we’re getting better with age.


There are at least two ways those closing lines could be understood and both are subtly devastating, a phrase that might sum up the best of Anna Woodford’s poetry.