26 August 2009

In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do

In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do Joseph P. Wood Elixir Press, 2006 $8.00 Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt In a recent issue of Poetry, Jason Guriel gives an overdue caning to poetry that, “doesn’t so much describe its objects as obscure them with prefabricated language as airy as bubble wrap…” Since most of us can’t suppress a guilty flinch, then who the hell is Joseph P. Wood? I need to know ‘cause I want to lick his brain. And what relief to find “In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do,” a smart book with enough craft, and no confusion between fresh and blood, no shortcuts to shock. A quick jog through this chapbook reveals a title poem bristling with interesting abutment, followed by a poem in which Winslow Homer believed each American, “was a rowboat, a speck lost in the cosmos./ Collected, however, we were gathering/ waves: a repetitive brutality.” Later, “Total: A Biography,” plays with reductionism by presenting the measures and calculations needed to capture with absurd accuracy the speaker’s life. We meet bilaterally justified poems, poems with short lines, with long lines, in blank verse, rhymed—all done with an easy light touch. So when a poem entitled, “A Half-Century Contemplating the Double Helix,” winds on the page, I admit it’s not unexpected, but there’s much here that is. And Wood can be funny—“I Was a Finalist// for wife ignorer of the year, for fat-man-in-too-tight-/dress-shirt becomes ninth-grade laughingstock,/ for pet obsesser of Vega County. I was chosen/” And in “Very Minor Elegies,” Woods takes us from the opening question, “To whom would I show my superfluous nipple?” through the Pope, dreams of camping, fears about time and change, to end on his punch line (I won’t spoil it). “On Jasper Johns’ Targets,” first describes the painting’s “peripheries” before arriving at “the vanishing point, our dread/ exemplified by his busy brushwork.,” then bounces off the critical mis-reception before arriving at the painter--“If the world is to end, better to be luscious/ than panicked,” better to end up wearing the, “half-cocked grin of a fool”—a succinct framing of art’s perpetual unsolvable equation: dread + the appearance of ease + chronic uncertainty + pursuit of ‘the new’+ but-what-do-you-do-for-real-work = playing the fool (or maybe not but no one will be able to tell for a really really really really long time). Part of the interest in this chapbook as I’ve implied is Wood’s range. Here is part of, “Girl Says I,” was not the horse, lathered & fagged, dipping its mouth for drink nor the river, the heavy noxious brown, the knee-deep murk nor the swaying half-sawed elms, branches drooped & pollen-heavy nor the stumbling mid-air bee, its hum-brake-hum, on wing severed nor the severing, the cleaver’s cherry handle, the cattle’s flank grilling Longer lines packed (but not over-packed) with vivid detail that subtly evolves meaning and feeling through image and word until the poem ends: nor the language, the him-haw pleading, the take-me-back, the one-time night, the never-again, the never, the nor There’s no fluff or filler here. Not in individual poems and not in the collection as a whole. Wood’s poems poke, prod, smooch, dissect, hug, and pinch American politics, art, history, and culture.