some time we are heroes
The act of writing a straightforward linear review for poetry that is based on the concept of non-linear perception, experience, arrangement and form, is appropriately paradoxical and ambiguous.
some time we are heroes strikes me as a fine example of literary modernism in the way it becomes poetry for our time, poetry of the moment. There are many things I would like to comment on and illustrate in this collection – themes of silence and time, images of fire and water, alternating tones of bitterness and reflection, ambiguities of language and meaning, sound echoes and the use of white space – but first I’d like to examine the background to this genre of poetry, as it appears to me, and the part Reuben Woolley is playing in its development.
The main feature of some time we are heroes is the use of space to disrupt traditional linear and narrative structures, breaking down attempts at any sequential organisation by interrupting a reader’s usual method of processing. Fragmentation and the jolting of perceptions are not new approaches but they do lend themselves to the rapidity of twenty-first century advances in technology, particularly the ever-increasing precision of the keyboard which can indicate breath, pause, juxtaposition and sudden shifts of thought. If we are talking about poetry that is written down, then the physical surface of the page can never again be a neutral setting for text; poets from Mallarmé onwards have challenged the notion of the supremacy of black type. White space on the page offers endless possibilities for interpretation and re-thinking. Likewise, the mood of the times we are living in has come to feel increasingly fractured and dystopian. Traditional ways of thinking are rejected in favour of the broken and decaying, the discontinuous and disordered. Reuben Woolley’s poems mirror this fracturing. ‘All poetry is fragment’, says Heather McHugh. ‘It is shaped by its breakages at every turn … it is a piece full of pieces.’
some time we are heroes, I suggest, fits perfectly into this genre with its use of space and the language of interruption and ambiguity. Words and meanings interact, shift, build into layers, collapse. White space waits to be filled; fragments break the flow of time. It is the poetry of surprises, shocks to perception, poetry of fragmentation which, in Claudia Rankin’s words, is a strategy ‘to keep in play as many possibles as possible.’
Ambiguity of tense plus originality of syntax is a feature of the collection’s title and certainly keeps possibilities in play. First and last poems echo this in ‘some kind of prologue’ and later with ‘some kind of epilogue’. There is no sense of a timeline and the reader is disorientated. Other titles in the contents reflect techniques that will be used in the poems: a few are straightforward (‘notes for a dead symphony’, ‘mary writes a love letter’); some play around with shapes of words and expected meanings (‘outbloodyrageous.saying’, ‘picking it out and fulsomely’, ‘&bugger the going of it all & the fiddler too’); others are lyrical, reflective and elegiac in tone (‘here are only whales singing’, ‘in green waters bleeding’, ‘mary from a wild water crying’, ‘dust lies in shadows too’); the majority, in the style of the whole collection, are fragmentary (‘standing room only not even’, ‘these latitudes of brine & fresh’, ‘once upon & then again’).
Reuben Woolley’s whole collection quivers with this language of the incomplete and fractured. We are confused by juxtapositions such as ‘drilling holes in aspic’, the uncertainty of
and we lose all sense of direction in ‘shadows of whales. passing’ with these lines:
…………………………through dead masts
…………………………& sunken streets
it is my ……………water
The poem ‘mary writes a love letter’ seems to epitomise this sense of instability and incompletion:
i hold light
This is poetry that sets out deliberately to smash the traditional and the linear, to break up time and confuse all sense of direction. The reader dances to ‘some tango in time’ (‘notes for a dead symphony’); in one poem ‘time came early/today’ (‘& gardens wait/patience he said’); in another piece we have ‘tomorrow’s/numbered’ ‘(storms are not lead. they stink’). In ‘underground and smiling’ we are seen as blind and ‘folded in time/&time again’.
Motifs of music and dancing recur throughout, reinforcing the concept of non-linear time. My favourite example is in ‘picking it out and fulsomely’ where we are given the image of bending a note and then holding the duration ‘ripe and ready/moving/to the fall of it/the fullness/of the breath of it’.
Underlying the collection is the theme of stories being told but in narratives that are without direction or conclusion. At the back of the reader’s mind must be the association with the ‘Janet and John Early Reader’ books, the syntax of ‘he said, she said’, the use of simple language. Here the adults are called john and mary and fragments of their fractured relationship thread in and out of the poems like Penelope weaving a shroud for Laertes by day and un-picking it again each night in order to confuse. The first poem ‘some kind of prologue’ sets the scene, almost like a Mummers’ play, with ‘here john/here mary’. Other allusions provide a reference to myths and tales. In the first poem again we are told ‘they came with the geese/the grey & the rose/they/danced their bones’ which seems to suggest a feeling of folk-tale; several references to ‘nothing’ remind me of Cordelia and Lear’s ‘nothing will come of nothing’; the poem ‘storms are not lead. they stink’ has a dedication to Edith Sitwell and alludes to her poem ‘Still Falls the Rain’ which juxtaposes the war-time raids of 1940 with nails used at the crucifixion. A possible redemptive note is offered in ‘mary from a wild water crying’ which may echo the ‘green pastures’ of the 23rd psalm with the phrase ‘to lay me down’.
One of the aspects I most enjoy in Reuben Woolley’s poetry is his brilliant use of sound echoes to enhance mood. I love the ‘tick/for syncopation’ in the poem ‘& it’s saturday all the same’ and there are many others, too numerous to mention here. There is also the delight of language ambiguities in the same poem where mary comes from the high street ‘loaded’ and the reader is unsure if it’s with shopping, emotion or even a gun.
Before I finish this review I must mention the beautiful cover-image by Jan Stead which, for me, enhances the themes of silence and the pause which underlie the poems in some time we are heroes.
In connection with this I need to emphasise the perfection of craft shown by the author. Many writers focus on the idea of white space as a way of breaking with tradition and matching form even more closely to content, but I feel Reuben Woolley comes very high in the list of poets who add something extra special.
To illustrate this I’ll end with two extracts from ‘faking all the signs’:
& white breath
And then these lines:
‘she will not flame
in sight ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,again
found a coin to flip
I’d like to thank David Caddy, the editor of Tears in the Fence which is one of my favourite magazines and which has taught me so much. He has very generously allowwed me to republish Mandy Pannett’s brilliant review which was first published in Tears in the Fence in Issue Nº 69, Spring 2019.
The book is available from Corrupt Press: