Sunday, 14 November 2010

Review: Birdhouse, by Anna Woodford

Whenever the new issue of a magazine reaches my hands, I first flick through it, poem by poem, seeking “something” that might arrest me. On several occasions, poetry by Anna Woodford has done so. What’s more, her work has invariably followed through from that initial stab of pleasure.

For this reason I was delighted when Woodford won the Crawshaw Prize last year, which guaranteed the publication of her first full collection, Birdhouse, by Salt. It’s a heady read – all those poems that were individually exciting now become enthralling when lined up page after page. Woodford might be in love with language, but her poetry shows it’s a relationship of equals right from the collection’s dazzling opening lines…

“You fiddle with the catch
between my legs until my mouth
springs open…”

In other words, Birdhouse is a book that savours originality of language as a means of transmutation, rather than as an end in itself. There’s no sense of narcissistic revelling in a mastery of linguistic effects. Instead, Woodford harnesses them so as to free the reader, as in the following example from Scan…

…I think
of my heart, that has been
seconded – its old iamb
beating in the dark of my chest.

Anna Woodford doesn’t attempt rupture from previous poetries. In fact, she takes them and casts them in a new light. Just as the reader starts ticking boxes, she springs another surprise. For example, the typical poem that uses a photo as its launch pad – in this case, it’s Clipping, with a purposely drab beginning , as if in a knowing nod to the sub-genre…

September 30 1987. You are a picture
in the North Wales Echo…

Just as we’re sighing at Woodford’s supposed slip, she abruptly changes gear and we’re off…

…How carelessly you carry your son in your face.
I cannot bear to leave you to your ex-girlfriends
until I think of your mother: folding and unfolding
the clipping you sent home between lectures
before tucking it away with your childhood
cards in her heart’s solid dresser.

Terrific stuff! What’s more, Birdhouse is packed with poems of this quality. Anna Woodford has achieved something special with her first collection – a fusion of linguistic playfulness and thematic seriousness. Not hectoring, not lecturing, her poetic generosity launches the reader on countless flights. This is a book I’ll be reading for many years to come.

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