Tuesday, 22 September 2015

'A Fright Of Jays' review

Flattered by the following review in Canto Poetry magazine 21/9/15:


Marc Woodward:  A Fright of Jays
Maquette Press, 2015
£4.00     16pp
This chapbook by Marc Woodward invites the reader into a dark rurality. These are beautifully crafted poems, interweaving ideas of freedom, constraint and expiation, in a depiction of the pastoral that, as a fellow Devon inhabitant, I found simultaneously very recognisable and strangely defamiliarised. Death is dealt in almost every poem, and a walk in the countryside is a dangerous undertaking – the landscape holds darknesses, and not just those of the night.
The first poem, ‘Eel Catching’, takes us into a double darkness where ‘midnight fog […] whispers from the river mouth/the fetid smell of marsh decay’ and obscures the moon and stars. All seems held in stasis – until the eels come. ‘Sliding through underwater grass, current tracers in the blind depth’, the eels are ominous, precursors of something inexplicit but threatening. When the speaker catches one, ‘thrashing fiercely in the torchlight/ as if in tongues before the priest’, we start to believe that some kind of mystical sacrifice is going to take place. But when he does ‘the act’ on his own ‘back door step’, that liminal place between wilderness and civilisation, there is ‘so much dark blood, like thick red oil’, that the killing has become an obscene contamination – the blood that will not wash off the murderer’s hands, and an industrial pollutant that poisons the earth.
These poems are rooted in very real places, and this enables them to bear their cargo of metaphor with ease. In ‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’, the reader is asked to imagine being stranded in the rural night, a night which is both meticulously observed and metaphorically freighted: here is ‘a justice of darkness’, ‘the weight of condensation/on a vast ocean of bending blades’, where ‘there is nothing to save you’. Do you lie down and let ‘this wet ditch/ […] be your decomposing place?’
This question is answered, in a way, in the next poem, ‘Crisis’. Here the speaker does indeed lie down upon the ground, after yet another act of violence – this time against his mobile phone and all that it signifies. And signification is part of the problem; he sees too much. He says ‘If I could drive blindfold I could go/ …where all the signs are free of symbols’. But he can’t escape that way, so he has to go home and free these particular signs from their symbols by using lies.
One of the things so enjoyable about Woodward's collection is the way in which the poems interact with each other. ‘The Crossing’, in which the speaker steals a dog from a cramped backyard and releases it ‘ten miles from town’ inverts the capture of ‘Eel Catching’. In a later poem, ‘Revival’, the speaker revives a lizard he has found frozen ‘at the red mud edge of a Devon lane’, a place that echoes and refashions the eel-bloodied doorstep.
The idea of escape is a thread running throughout these poems. The stolen dog might or might not survive, but at least it has escaped (unlike the speaker in ‘Crisis’), and been given a freedom to be re-wilded and to ‘howl among the trees/ some ancient dog-breath song’. It is a vicarious escape for the poet, but also, perhaps, an atonement.
In the final poem ‘Sing of the Mountain’ we are, however, returned to imprisonment. The countryside is dark and irresistible, and, having travelled their hard journey, ‘the children of the mountain are tied,/ twisted in bindweed, creeper and ivy’. And, of course, ‘then there’s the wolf-owl night’.
This is a collection which concedes that you can’t escape your own landscape, external or internal, but that you can at least sing, even if only of ‘tangled isolation, / dog-in-the-thicket thoughts’. These are poems that sing in the dark, of darkness.

(Sally Douglas read English and European Literature at Warwick University. She lives in Devon. Poems and short stories have appeared in magazines such as Smiths Knoll, The Rialto, Envoi, Orbis and Interpreter’s House, and in anthologies. Her first poetry collection, Candling the Eggs, won the Cinnamon Press 2009 Poetry Award.)

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