Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: Quidnunc by Gregory Woods

Gregory Woods


Published by Carcanet Press

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Baudelaire believed that the more a man cultivates a taste for the arts, the less often he gets an erection. Any man who secretly shares this concern would do well to seek out Gregory Woods, whose poems will, for some readers, heighten eyebrows when at their most highbrow, while for others ‘raise the spirits as they stir the cock’. This quotation is not the poet speaking as himself, but through the dramatic guise of the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy in ‘Days of 1912’, the first of a suite in Woods’s latest collection probing the anguished sexuality underlying the lives of three great – and queer – modern writers, and all in the most refined heroic couplets. In the second piece, ‘Proust’s Way’, the effete French novelist describes having ‘dignified a house of ill repute / With mother’s furniture’, finally finding himself ‘at liberty to clutch / The parts his mother told him not to touch’, while ‘One for the Master’ details Henry James’s ill-fated ‘Attempts to fascinate the feckless young / With written language’s prosthetic tongue’ and ends with a dictum: ‘There is a purpose to such Chinese boxes: / They keep one safe from love and other poxes’. But Woods has always known what his sexlessly erudite speaker fears: that literature protects us from nothing, and that any attempt to silence our impulses with the intellect is wishful thinking indeed. And so his work to date has unapologetically celebrated the body.

Readers familiar with Woods’s work will recognise some of the types of persona here. There is the thoughtful voyeur gripped by a psychosexual drama played out before him (‘Queer Pedagogies’); the social commentator enraged by the cruelties of history (‘Civilisation’, ‘A Triumph’), and by our collective failure to learn from them (‘This Fastness’, ‘Heroic Memoir’); the time-travelling queer scanning the canon for companions (‘Consuming Love’) as well as the train-travelling queer seeking comfort, or even just a sign of acknowledgment, from a stranger (‘Man on Train’). But in this, his fourth, volume, Woods’s dramatic range and technical ambition are greater than ever, particularly when he summons up two literary ghosts to help prove some of his theories, rustling up two brilliant sequences of rhyming tercets in the process. In ‘Sir Osbert’s Complaint’, a lonely Osbert Sitwell sifts through a life devoted to bookish pursuits. When he awakes one day to the sound of a muscular young gardener raking leaves outside his window, he limply shrugs off his inaction: ‘If I dress and hurry down I’ll find no Corydon, but just / Dead leaves scudding through the doorway on a cold, autumnal gust’.

The young Byron, on the other hand, would less likely have missed such a trick and in ‘The Newstead Fandango’, a tour of the bon vivant’s early life compressed into the structure of the Odyssey and comprising nineteen sets of five scrumptiously para-rhyming tercets, each set carrying an extended rhyme all the way through (yes, that really does mean fifteen end-rhyming words apiece), Woods seems to have found his intellectual soulmate. ‘In literature, preserve us from the pleasant and the subtle’, screams ‘Byron’, although this could almost be a younger version of Woods himself speaking, and the claim that ‘There’s not a single English poet whom I wouldn’t throttle / In the attempt to shape his feeble voice to something brutal’ is the sort of war cry – provocative, if knowingly exaggerated – which justifies much of Woods’s own earlier work. Readers of Quidnunc will find that the candour of this poet’s sexual vocabulary has mellowed somewhat since previous outings, but that his poetry has never been more alive.

Giuseppe Albano has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University and is a former fellow of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He lives in Edinburgh and works at Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Midlothian.



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