Gerard Woodward's latest poetry collection has a rare mix of beauty, clarity and wit
A "seacunny" – in case you did not know – is "a helmsman in vessels manned by Lascars in the East India Trade". And if you feel this is a wayward title even before you have opened Gerard Woodward's latest collection, that is as it should be. For in this irresistible book, surprise is the norm. At every turn, you find yourself on new terrain and yet the language – clear, witty and eloquent – is always hospitable even in the strangest of situations.
Woodward's least exotic decision here is that his book be patrolled by cows. Cow Tipping, the opening poem, has a compelling bovine charm. It invites one to stroll, after midnight, in a field of sleeping cows "standing still as sheds". The tone is at once respectful and absurd. The cows look as if "stalled in the middle of a pilgrimage". And we seem to be on some sort of pilgrimage too: as a way of testing our stress levels, this small hours stroll with Woodward could not be more eccentric.
It is only gradually – so triumphant is he as a poetic leg-puller – that the impossibility of the poem dawns. In a beautiful line, he pictures the cows as they topple "like dominoes,/ And the whole blue field collapses". Only one line disappoints: the last. It is a wrecker – the last thing one wants to hear. But the good news is that there will soon be more from the same cowshed.
The final poem, Life in the House to be Demolished, opens with a line in which a woman makes a judgment. She says: 'You are like a cow that has strayed/ through a gap in the fence and can't find a way back in…' And here, instead of taking offence at this dismissive observation, the narrator starts to brood, more deeply than before, about cows and their lot. This does nothing to placate the critical woman: "Thinking of my house in cow terms, she said, has become/One of my most disagreeable habits." One could not agree with her less as the poem herds ideas about chance and design and thinks about cows gathering to "pass through a gate". And the best is to come as – never one to close the gate on his imagination – Woodward pictures the cows indoors: "They traipsed in through the patio doors,/ Like hoodies in a church bashful and uncomprehending/ Sweeping ornaments from the mantelpiece with a casual turn of the head."
The cow poems stand at either end of the collection and between them is an astonishing variety of work: an outstanding poem about trampolines and their uses, in which the writing itself rises and falls; a short poem about astronomy; and a forlorn entertainment, The Lady of Epping, about a homesick bride who visits Epping forest for solace. And there is a striking and thorough poem (it should have been read aloud at the Leveson inquiry) comparing jackdaws to journalists: "They have a journalist's interest/ In things thrown away./They have an inner eyelid/ But no inner eye." The poem builds, verse by verse, into a jackdaw's nest and journalist's disgrace.
This is a rare collection of wit, oddity and beauty. I'd not read Woodward until now – and plan to make amends (he is as much a novelist – shortlisted for the Booker in 2004– as a poet). With this collection, it was love at first read. I shall never look at a field of cows again without thinking of this book.