A note of immovable discord permeates a new collection by Gerard Woodward
Michael Donaghy wrote that having a tattoo done required "a whim of iron". Gerard Woodward, who in The Seacunny joins the ranks of Donaghy's elegists, plays on such a notion of whimsy in "Cow Tipping", where the possibility of tipping over a field of cows by night is explored. The act might require the lightest of touches, making "the whole blue field collapse / Into nothing but shadows / on the grass", but the poem concludes by abandoning the project: "Forget it. And none of this is true anyway."
Among various things going on here, Woodward seems to include his own poem in a critique of the joyless, insistent whimsy with which contemporary poetry is over-supplied, whereby conceits seek unsuccessfully for a transcendent exit from themselves. In this case the author does the reader the favour of giving up first. As Woodward remarks in "Hanging", a poem addressed to Donaghy, "Well, it's all about taking liberties / Isn't it, this business?"
Readers of Woodward's novels, such as the wonderful I'll Go to Bed at Noon, will recognise certain tones here. Woodward's comedy is of an unaccommodated kind: when the yawning void has been exposed, whatever domesticity the poems might seek to fall back on proves to be a series of false floors through which they go on patiently, observantly falling. This enables Woodward to deal near-fatal blows to various other contemporary genres, even as he perfects them.
There is, for example, the elaborated list poem, as in "The Lights" (paired here with "The Electricity Gallery"): "thick-stemmed / Candle bulbs, screw-in spotlights / (Three different sizes), with their misted / Corneas, pearly bulbs with bayonet fittings, /Two roseate forty-watters that do their thing / Beneath the faux logs of the electric fire …" Readers quickly know these things for grave-goods. We are headed for the dark: the only questions are how and when we shall get there. Woodward in this instance favours something akin to a shaggy-dog story. If he were a stage comedian, he would be like Tommy Cooper – relentless, irresistible, infecting the audience with spores of incurable daftness.
Woodward remembers Donaghy as a comedian of a different sort: "You greeted me with your conjuror's handshake / And told a long. Complicated, unfunny / But brilliant joke which, like the handshake, /Was a way of drawing the unravelled string / Of our tension into a ball that would fit / Easily into your pocket." Both here and in the next, final stanza, Woodward resists a certain kind of completeness in favour of a more tentative and unsparing response, the laughter hesitant and complicated. This also holds true of the elegy for his one-time editor, the poet Mick Imlah, who would mimic hurling a book like a cricket ball from the deep, or sprint away with it like a rugby back "With a man over and forty yards to the line". It is the boyish awkwardness of such gestures from the normally graceful Imlah that arrests the poet's attention.
The most ambitious of the elegies, "Brambles", in memory of Peter Redgrove, takes a different approach by acting out a Redgrovian process of re-absorption into the natural world. Worn out from trudging around Manchester, the speaker comes on unripe brambles in a railway cutting, and by a process of brilliantly grotesque intensification akin to Brian Aldiss's terrifying novel Hothouse, imagines being eaten by the plants to protect their emergent fruit. They would "strip me down to a drifting core /Of spirit, wardrobe my flesh in leafy wardrobes, / And have the wasps and flesh-flies paddle in my blood on its platters, / Then those Salomes to come in the heel of summer / When they take the heads of the fruit in which I'm implicated, / To fill their Kwik Save carrier bags with gore …" Just as he refuses to be sentimentally "the same" as Donaghy and Imlah, Woodward is compelled, as Redgrove seems on the whole not to have been, to see a Richard Dadd-like dimension of horror in the seething, waste-free processes of nature, and to make no claims at all at the end of the poem: "And the promise of my bleeding again in afternoons to come, / Lying painlessly wounded on the back of a child's finger, / Mistaken for blood and kissed away."
The Seacunny is a diverse book, and yet its focus is often domestic – a series of philosophical proofs of the existence of poodles stands next to an account of the difficulty of telling actual bears apart from people wearing bear-suits ("Get off, you cunt!"). If this sounds like whimsy creeping in unnoticed, the effect is by no means cuddly. There is also at times an atmosphere of immovable discord, a house literally divided, as in "Flatland", or doomed ("Life in a House to Be Demolished") but in the meantime occupied by a herd of offended cows. The invention rarely flags (a cube-shaped planet, fake Assyrian laws regarding the treatment of oxen, a transvestite found in disarray in a supermarket), and although the impression grows that we may have fallen into the hands of a madman whose conception of meaning is so alien from the norm as to be finally unfathomable, it would be unwise to infer that this is necessarily a bad thing. Woodward is an original.
• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.