Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

In 100 Words or Less...

In 100 Words or Less...
James Wood.
Olympia Publishers. 2013. 84 pp.
ISBN 978 1 848973367.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Every young poet faces the difficult task of finding a poetic "voice" that is unique, natural and distinctive. James Wood's poetic voice in this first book of his poems is often satirical and defensive—the voice of a young man who is not yet willing to reveal much about himself. Even in his brief biographical note at the front of the book he dissembles and jokes; and his poems often end in a dismissive exclamation, as if he cannot trust himself (or his readers) to take them seriously. But every writer knows how daunting it is to expose their work to public scrutiny. As Wood writes in "Promote the Notion: Everyone can write (Show and Tell)":

How hard can it be?...

...All you need to do is
offer yourself up like a
lover's open palm
to the eyes of the whole World.

In 100 Words or Less... presents each poem as if it were a homework topic, yet, the poems reflect an adult view of the world. They are perceptive, often wry, and sometimes thought-provoking. Wood is good at seeing the commonplace from a new perspective. Blake's Jerusalem and Capability Brown's carefully created landscapes, scarred by a major road; the juxtaposition of graves and a compost heap; dying flowers by the roadside where a fatal accident happened: "a strange mausoleum/....Death on Display to celebrate life." He can be funny, too. The carefully placed blacked-out words in "...Describe the Benefits of Censorship: Part 1 (The Sermon)" offer great scope for imaginative substitution:

XXXX all of you little XXXX for coming
to share this XXXXXX experience in
your XXXXX village. On such a
illustrious occasion, which thanks
to that XXXX Mrs Grayson promises
to surpass even last year's XXXXXX.

At times, Wood's poems would benefit from a brief footnote. Part 1 of "...Empathize with the Plight of Donne's lovers (White Nights in Russia)," is more understandable if you know that the parenthetic phrase in the title is a common Russian way of describing those days when the sun does not set far enough below the horizon for the sky to get dark, and dusk meets dawn. Similarly, a note identifying Nardis as a modal jazz composition acknowledged by its composer Miles Davis to be best played by pianist Bill Evans (the "random player" in the poem), is almost essential for an understanding of the poem titled "ziix hacx tiij catax."

Wood's poems work best when he drops his defensive guard. "The Psychosomatic Advantages of Optimism (Two Brothers)," is sensitive and shows a more empathetic side to his nature. And I enjoyed his philosophical irony in "Give an Account of Contemporary Existential Thought (Sensing)."

The final few pages, in which a psudonymous S.G Conners writes experimental nonsense poems, is the weakest part of this collection. Here is another defensive poet struggling to express the chaos of the world. The poems, perhaps, are influenced by jazz rhythms (Wood is a keen jazz musician) and Conners' struggle to write them is funny, but, for me, they too closely reflect Conners' own words:

....A bit dreary but
I use some clever words.
I'll keep it up and maybe
give it some obtuse (use that...)
title that'll hold it together

Wood already has a distinctive voice and he shows versatility in style and form. Altogether this is an interesting and promising first collection.


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