Friday, 27 June 2008

Review: 'Inextinguishable' by James W. Wood

What is inextinguishable in James Wood's third chapbook? The Carl Nielsen quote on the inside cover, repeated in the final poem, suggests two things: music and life. The majority of Wood's poems, however, don't take their cue from that at all; instead what is inextinguishable is loss, pain, memory. Music and life are instead defiant forces, life in particular easily doused. This seems pointedly clear in Catherine Wheel:

"in that silence, only trees
and blackness and your mind
like a firework, wheeling crazily

in the middle of that sunless wood
where you stopped the car, full of pills ..."

While the immutability of suffering is succinctly reviewed in Self-Help:

"Her failure was not a path to the future,
her pain was not discovery. It was failure,
it was pain."

Raw stuff, and to the point. Inextinguishable has an I.M. dedication to Robert Anderson Wood, while another of its poems, The Craws, is in turn I.M. Alexander Wood. Though only two of the poems deal directly with death, it is foreshadowed in many of the others through bleak contemplation of lost opportunities and time passing, most pertinently in Afternoon Nap, in which the protagonist's ambiguous loss of consciousness is preceded by lines like "knowing that this day was done, or wasted" and "He should have written letters/but didn't". Time is played with here the same way it is in Simon Armitage's 2006 poem Evening, and again in After She Leaves where the 'after' could be anything from a few moments to decades.

As with his last collection, The Theory of Everything, Wood's lucidity is one of his greatest strengths. Contemporary poetry is flooded with collections that intellectualise death, seeking new profundity in its wilderness. Wood doesn't pursue the same holy grail; his responses are often surprising in their ordinariness and bitter honesty. Take this from The Craws:

"... You were
no prize-winner, sportsman or great thinker,

just a man like any other; and one
whose life asks us for little grieving."

Try reading that out at a funeral.

Wood's poems have here been paired up with the work of fourteen young artists from Edinburgh College of Art's Illustration Department, part of Knucker Press' self-appointed mission to publish collaborations "where word and image are mutually enriching". The layout is very effective, with the exception of a page which appears to be at too low a resolution. Many of the illustrations, however, are disappointingly literal, depicting the very scene or character the poem describes. The ones that work best are Toby Cook's not-quite-realist interpretation of Down the Drain and Genevieve Ryan's collage-esque The Craws, which swallows the poem in its sky, while it seems an odd choice to relegate Anna Kriger and Marc Noble's pieces to the contents page and back cover respectively when these do the best job of matching Wood's bristlingly dark tone.

Buy Inextinguishable from Knucker Press


Rob said...

Sounds excellent, although I'd expect that of James after The Theory of Everything.

Matt Merritt said...

Splendid review - I've enjoyed the chapbook very much.