by Jon Woodward
Wave Books 2006
Reviewed by David Sewell
Don’t Go Away
Jon Woodward’s second book, Rain, comprises either six poems, sixty-one poems, or one poem. Though, either/or perhaps isn’t the most apt construction. Likely, an attentive reading will reveal that the book comprises not one of those options but all of them. There are six titled poems, each containing a number of poems (one per page) that
function both discretely and within the context of the larger poem/poems. Each line has five words, and each stanza has five lines. (There are a very, very few exceptions: a couple one-line stanzas, a few of those with fewer than five words.) The other major formal element: There is no punctuation in any of the poems, and only proper nouns are capitalized.
The stage set, let’s get to the action. Er, hold on. There’s not that much actually happening in these poems, which are, more or less (no, certainly more), ruminations on the day-to-dayness of daily life, or else enactments thereof. In one poem, he orders a cheeseburger; in another, he sees a movie. In others: buys fruit and finds a broken egg, sees two birds, thinks about masturbating, rides the bus, takes a shower.
But not so fast. There’s an arithmetic working in the book (that is, the poems are adding up to something), and, anyway, the poems are not all merely chewing the mundane. There’s something dark and huge lurking behind the second poem sequence, “Rain, Ocean” (and likely, in a more general sense, behind all of them). The poem is mainly about the speaker and his relationship with his friend Patrick, though, naturally, rain and the ocean also figure in. In the first poem in the sequence, he and Patrick are sitting at a bus stop, one presumes waiting for a bus. They
were talking about how some
things look like other things
it’s one of the seven
basic conversations then he said
a thing here reproduced what
a brutally fascinating world it
was stirring if a little
extrapolatory he could only have
been able to see a
tiny part of the world
from where we were sitting
From that pithy thesis on poetry/life/being, the poems recount different scenes with Patrick. (He’s absent from some poems in the sequence. Of these, we might just assume that Patrick has something to do with them or, rather, we might assume they have something to do with Patrick.) Anyway. There’s this idea that Patrick is dead or dying
that keeps recurring. One poem begins,
it’s not that he died
it’s that he won’t stop
dying and reemerging fully ordinarily
through ordinary doors saying in
his own voice hey brother
The same poem/door ends, “it won’t help / him untwist from his rope.” The next poem in the sequence begins with “don’t know why he keeps / dying.” Later in the sequence, “two / black dogs are staring at / me and Patrick is dead / again.” The reason Patrick keeps dying is that his death is being enacted and reenacted in these poems. The poem is an attempt to make sense of or at least to deal with his death and is a powerful portrait of a life stuck in grief. Both a Platonic-love poem and an elegy for Patrick, the poem ends on a lyrically tense note: “Sic / Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic / Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass.”
Rain is fairly short for a collection, which seems to reflect Wave’s interest in publishing books of poems that work fully as books. The remainder of the book features the following poems: “Attempt” is a funny poem about relationships and sexual desire, full
of self-doubt and self-awareness (“in a terrible / accident I hope you’re not / in a coma at the / hospital hope you just blew / me off); “The Long Night of Ezekiel,” referencing, it would seem, Chris Elliot’s character in Scary Movie 4, takes more of a dreamy tack, perhaps appropriate to the poem’s ostensible point of focus (my late grandmother / sat on top of the / dam it would’ve been unsafe / for a person but she’d / come back a sunlight finch); “Leap,” rooted in the humdrum, is a fine little encapsulation of a slightly askew
personality (“I / wonder if all my currently / living grandparents are still alive”); and “Love Poems and Myopia” is a fitting title for the last sequence of poems.
From the quotations included above, it should be clear that the formal constraints add a certain kinetic energy to many of the line breaks, which in a nonformal poem would be, simply or not, self-conscious enjambments. As is often the case with formal constraints, here they’re not really constraints at all, but quite the opposite.
Though it rains throughout the book, the poems never really slip up. Their simple language captures what is beautiful about a life in which not much happens (most lives, by the way)—that is, we’re alive to see, and hear, and touch, and contemplate it, whatever it is. It’s not so much that there are things hidden in these poems that rereading will reveal but that there’s something so spot-on (and interesting and entertaining) about the personality and world the poems evince that rereading the collection illumines what it means to be human. At times, one has the feeling of reading a, say, somewhat inchoate Dream Songs. I’ve read the book through three times, and I see no reason to stop there.