Sphinx by Cat Woodward.
Norwich: Salò Press (2017).
RRP: £10.99. incl. p&p (non-UK orders). Pb, 40pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
Experimental poetry is a hard act to follow. Sometimes we’re given a hint of the poet’s intent – sometimes not. In Sphinx, Cat Woodward describes herself as a student of ‘lyric and robot voice’ and presents a collection of experimental poems, with varying levels of transparency.
The first five lines of each stanza in “Cycle Song”, for example, indicate a particular word game happening here, though we don’t know how the scrambling is carried out – drawn out of a jar in the style of Tristan Tzara or out of a computer in the style of Jackson Mac Low. But there is a pattern:
fine rain falls like conscience, the colour of agate
birds’ joyful cursing
parsley, sage, sorrel and bay
exact size and weight of a human hand …
fine rain is aggregate and the colour of snails
a crow joyfully scratching
centre frame is clouds’ slow pace
the weight of a human heart …
a gregarious rain of fine colours
the shape of sage
framed as a mirror the river
with bird joy black and wonderful
slow crow heart … (p 32).
The pattern used for “planet black” seems to be phonetic, based on similar a-sounds. Here it is, poem quoted in full:
Planet black feels disquietingly familiar, as if visited when very young. The atoms, long since broken down into baser elements, are now pure sound. The planet is only a vast darkness with an ash-like consistency and the music, constant, of a crowd cheering. (p 23).
The title poem, “Sphinx” (p 14), seems to use words as its basic code. The first ten lines are syntactic, and reference rage and ‘picturesque isolationist terrorism’; the next ten lines read like stream of consciousness, using a form of ‘abide’ almost every line, a word which doesn’t appear elsewhere in the poem; the last six lines go back to the narrative of the first section.
“Mother in Garden: a portrait” comes from various angles. The lines
the flower extends the arm
that the flower is not the arm
and the set of all petals
is not itself a petal
Mother, be weather
be stickle brick, picture … (p 16).
What are we being told in these three verses? Gertrude Stein? a playful take on set theory? consonance? And how do the three verses go together?
Reading this collection reminds me that experimental poets owe us, their readers, some help. This is a not a criticism of Woodward but a request to all poets who love language games. Found poems (as published in journals) usually give the original raw material or a link to it. Remix and erasure poems signal something of the source, the basic ground rules, the algorithm, whatever they’re called at the moment.
Having this background colour means we can concentrate on a poet’s craft and recognise what they have, uniquely, done. Otherwise, we are bumping around in the dark, quite possibly missing what inspired the poem in the first place.
A possible compromise might lie in arrangement. I think this collection would have benefitted from a more formal arrangement, either by topic, or else in groups arranged by style or particular word game. (Not necessarily labelled – just grouped.) Or perhaps notes at the end of the work could describe what techniques are being used. This would bring the reader closer to the appreciation the book deserves.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017.