Gerard Woodward, The Vulture – review

The poems of The Vulture don’t make small adjustments to our perception of the world, like those in Hannah Lowe’s The Kids, they present it in radically strange and dislocated terms. Sometimes this happens with startling abruptness. For example, ‘The Fish Head’ opens “I found a fish head / With the face of Elizabeth the First”.  Sometimes the machinery of estrangement revolves in a more gradual way and sometimes (as in ‘The Fish Head’ itself) what opens in the one way may go on to develop in the other.

Such a kicking loose from common perceptions offers the excitement of radical originality but forgoes straightforward drawing on established attitudes and emotions.  Although I always admired Woodward’s ingenuity, inventiveness and intellectual control, there were times when the brilliance felt cold, even mechanical, or simply piled on too thickly. At times, far-fetched analogies multiplied in ways that dissipated a poem’s imaginative energies. For example, ‘The Piano Stool’ starts with a leap of surreal fantasy that is both exhilarating in itself and gives the mind something emotionally suggestive to work on –

Black wood, as though the piano had calved.
Four straight legs , thin and unmuscled

It ends in a way that returns to the idea of a new-born calf but now also suggests a stunted, neglected human child:

Still with its secret cache, it stood awkwardly,
Looking as if it might cry out for its mother,
Massive and immoveable in the next room.

Between these points, though, there’s a volley of distractingly different comparisons and the final effect suffers as a result.

The poems that seem to me to work most triumphantly give the surrealist impulse more restrained or more focused play. At the lighter end of the spectrum, ‘Tommy Noddy’ evokes the idea of an elusively living being out of what was once a common sight and is now much less so, the quivering of light reflected on  the ceiling from a mobile surface like water in a sink. The tone shimmers beautifully between pathos and humour, describing an experience that’s being lost as the way we wash up changes, and evoking a life that isn’t really alive. The sonnet ‘Carpeting’ uses a series of images of fish and water – starting with a comparison of a rug to a skate’s wing – to create a hauntingly elusive meditation on the ultimate vanity of the attempt to impose stability on the flux of life, and on the obliquity and difficulty of human relations. Most powerfully, ‘Frog Deaths’ compares spawning frogs to human scholars, scientists, gardeners, architects of a culture, then describes them dying under the freezing of their spawn. The grave tone, the slow pace and steady rhythmic march seem to me to tease us into giving a certain sombre weight to the parallels to human achievement and decay as we read:

The frogs in the pond have read deep
Into their history. Scholarly, they hold
Seminars, conferences. Their writing
Comes to life, bubblejets of print,
Clusters of it. Oh – they have wired together
An artificial brain!

The true brilliance of the poem, though, is in its elusiveness of tone, in the way it flickers between suggesting these things and making a joke of its own whole series of preposterous analogies (the fleeting suggestion of Elizabeth Bishop’s voice at the end of my quotation adds to this feeling).  We’re left unsure how seriously to take them, and it seems to me that being made to register the poem’s possible seriousness in this oblique way, having its dark intimations hovering in peripheral vision rather than being looked at squarely, gives it and them a more intimate, lingering effectiveness, like that of James Fenton’s superb sixteen line poem ‘Wind’, which is superior to this in its conciseness and swiftness of operation but is the same sort of achievement.

Behind the difference between the way Hannah stays close to common ways of seeing the world and Woodward kicks radically free of them, there’s a larger contrast between a poetry that is essentially concerned with people’s interactions in daily life and a poetry driven essentially by ideas and visual associations. I enjoyed both books in different ways. Some readers may feel more at home with one than the other.

The Vulture by Gerard Woodward. Picador Poetry. 128pp., £10.99

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 104

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