Marc Woodward’s poetry is pretty traditional in form, including sonnets and a villanelle and hints towards the poetry of Hardy, Edward Thomas and even Louis MacNeice at times. His material shifts between celebration, of the countryside, of friendship and of travel but there’s a dark side underlying most of his work and even on occasion something slightly surreal, as in ‘The Thread’ which combines an interest in angling with a skewed comment on mortality which suggests a much longer time-scale:
…..every fish bird, mammal,
was attached to the same thread
she’d been pulling since she was born,
like all our generations dead,
careless for the unravelling.
Woodward has a way with endings, as in ‘I Dreamed of a River’ which has a mildly surreal, reverie sort of feel, lyrical and encompassing both observer and observed, meshed in synaesthesia yet with a darkness as in ‘Ophelia’s cape / billowing in the wind.’ If there’s an overall sense of pastoral easiness to these poems it’s always tempered, by illness, by an increasing sense of mortality and, as in ‘Inheritance’ the violence of an abrupt closing of life in a farming community. The bucolic has its downside and this one certainly creates a shiver down the spine: ‘Quiet in the hay barn, / warm enough out of the wind, / John hangs lifeless from the rafters, waiting, turning, for Fred to find.’
Many of these poems are set in rural Devon or in Italy and mix nostalgia with something more searching and even in an apparently simple poem like ‘The Disappearing Places’ which combines childhood memories and wonderful evocation with a sense of loss we can feel echoes of A Shropshire Lad, something powerful and moving which you can’t quite put your finger on, an inarticulate longing which can nevertheless be suggested in words.
In ‘Fishing for Mahseer’ we are at the Ganges, chasing the enormous, majestic river fish which also has a dark secret, that of feeding on the human bodies, inadvertently released into the river:
As this hellish vision drifted closer
my angling friend reeled in his lure and line,
remade his tackle with a pink ‘flesh fly’
then cast into the froth around the corpse.
I looked away. On the bank women washed,
above the trees a little minaret
shone through the fog framed sun. What can
We fished for fish which fed upon the dead.
With ‘The Bird Scarer’ and ‘The Green Man in Rocombe’ we are in the realm again of farming and country lore, the latter a sort of tongue-in-cheek suggestion of the otherworldly, the former a depiction of the creating of a scarecrow which combines something almost epic and symbolic with down-to -to earth yet beautifully painted images: ‘Then a banger went off, rooks clattered up, / and he left her to flutter in the maize.’
In ‘Swimming with a Charm of Vincent’, set I think in Italy, we have again the evocation of a landscape, a hot place, hinting almost at D.H. Lawrence’s poetry of place, where Vincent, a friend or an imagined presence? also appears to be a reference to Van Gogh (‘Maybe he was troubled / by the lack of sunflowers; / perhaps just pining for France? / He wasn’t much of a talker’) so once again the poem works on two levels, a description of an actual situation with hintings at ‘otherness’, especially given the disappearance by drowning? of the eponymous Vincent. I even had the thought that this might be about Shelley though I admit there is scant evidence for this, just association. The final stanza adds a mythical element and the whole poem manages to combine something almost comic with a more suggestive direction:
The persimmon sun sank down
and all his whirling stars came slowly
out and I thought of Vincent
rolling with the pebbles in the sea.
There are 48 poems in this collection, mainly short pieces, which take in a range of subjects, from climate change and ‘the lockdown,’ to a concern with illness (Parkinson’s disease in particular), the death of parents, the landscape of the South West of England and travels in Italy. My taste in modern poetry is largely for more ‘experimental’ work but I thoroughly enjoyed reading these poems and hope you will too.
Steve Spence 1st July 2022