In the opening poem of Sam Buchan-Watts’ debut collection, ‘Lines following’, we accompany the narrator into a wood where:
The way into the woods is in a way
to go around the woods: the woods are always in the way
if you’re in them (if they’re woods).
The poem recreates the experience of a place rich in memories but which also eludes us, a space we feel we ‘never really entered’. ‘Lines following’ could be a metaphor for the volume as a whole, individual pieces managing ingeniously to ‘go around’ their subject even as we are ‘in’ them.
The second and third poems in the book stay with the image of woods, ‘ballad’ evoking childhood memories, and ‘The Days Go Just Like That’ (the title in quotation marks) recalling adolescence. Later in the collection there is another poem entitled ’The Days Go Just Like That’ (this time without quotation marks) which expands on the earlier one. The events described in these two pieces involve drug taking (‘hash resin/and Benzedrine’) and hallucinations of a medieval joust. On the woodland path kids have let off a fire extinguisher. The scene recalls the litter-strewn, peri-urban woodlands in the paintings of George Shaw.
Adolescent experience is also powerfully evoked in ‘You just know’. On a coach returning from Ypres one student has ‘managed to get stoned’ while another tells his classmates about his need to masturbate, to ‘tame the snake’. ‘Dew Point’ also describes a school bus ‘randy with adolescence’, where a boy draws images of dicks in the condensation on the window. The poem likens these to: ‘Early actions as stone inscriptions when mark-making and thinking are the same’. The text involves a play on condensation, verdichten (meaning ‘condense’, a term used by Freud in relation to dream work), and reduction. There’s also a play on Verdichten and ‘dick’.
Other poems deal with refugees and asylum seekers – drawing on Buchan-Watts’ working experience. In ‘Listening in’ (p.24 – there are several poems with this title) the narrator is teaching a group of refugees how to use a public phone box, ‘the phone call a useful metaphor/for poetry’s one-sided intimacy’ as the boys leave a message on an answerphone. The poem emphasises the cultural distance between the narrator and the boys, who have been refugees ‘for most of their lives’. It ends ‘even here I skirt the question/of speaking ‘for’ in staking common ground.’
‘Sounds Inside’ is another take on the impossibility of knowing another person’s experience of life. It describes the precarious sense of kinship the narrator has with his landlord, also a friend, who works as a medic in a prison. He reflects on the hardening of the friend’s world as a result of the harsh prison environment. At the end of the poem the narrator acknowledges that he cannot ‘get near’ the prisoners’ experiences, or even those of his friend. But he ‘can go in and see’ him, in the next room where he’s is listening to the radio, and ‘hold him/to me, awkwardly’, a gesture he doesn’t in fact make. The slow build up to this moment through two pages of involved argument, structured as a single sentence, is superbly controlled and very moving.
The poet acknowledges a debt to Denise Riley and the long lines of ‘Sounds Inside’ make her influence evident. ‘The art of trying’, a prose poem, also has echoes of Riley, both formally and thematically. This poem reflects on the instability of the lyric subject and the limitations of language: ‘The ‘I’ speaks out and disperses…nothing was straightforward when put together, or even implicitly so’.
An extended prose piece, ‘Colouring in’, suggests an aesthetics grounded in play. This piece brings together reflections on Henry Darger, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, and Vladimir Nabakov, linking them to the possible connections between artistic practice and a child drawing. Imaginative play, the text suggests, is a way to ‘overturn the world’: ‘To stand in a kitchen observing a child draw with such focus as to be alone in the world is to watch him draw himself out of the world.’ The ‘child’, Buchan-Watts says ‘peeks out in parapraxes, slips of the tongue’.
Path through Wood is a difficult collection to summarise. The use of different forms, the complex wordplay between individual poems, the thoughtfulness and the expression of the ungraspable quality of simply being alive in the world give this slim volume a richness that repays reading and rereading.
Simon Collings 8th January 2022