Rich, strange journeys to the real
Macdara Woods deploys maximum security in patrolling many – though not all – border crossings into his poetic domain
‘Ambition’s turned down crown / shall not touch me,” proclaims the first poem of Macdara Woods’s commodious Collected Poems. This courageous book, which distils nearly five decades of verse, has no truck with poetic fashions. It flies “thirty thousand feet above pretence” (Les Côtes du Tennessee).
And how remarkable Woods’s cumulative achievement is: 13 poetry collections, not including three in Italian, and various poem sequences translated into more than a dozen languages. Then there are his cross-disciplinary alliances and collaborations once perceived as unorthodox. He and the composer Benjamin Dwyer complemented each other’s knotty energy in their CD In the Ranelagh Gardens (2005). With the group Anúna and Brendan Graham, Woods had a hit song, Winter Fire and Snow (2004). He is a founder and editor of Cyphers, one of Ireland’s longest-running literary magazines.
The preface of the Collected Poems, in Rimbaud mode, cautions that Woods’s poetry means exactly what it says: caveat criticus. Woods deploys maximum security in patrolling many – though not all – border crossings into his poetic domain. To borrow his term, he is a “true derelict of norms”, whose idiosyncratic punctuation, challenging idiom, fractured syntax and sometimes hermetic imagery and logic lead readers on rich, strange journeys.
In The Mirror Fish, Woods varies the terms of his warning. His verse, like the “sheet of water” of the poem, is “not translucence”. Transparent metaphors are sparse. Poems are enigmatic, perplexing, mysterious, sometimes inscrutable, but richly rewarding.
Many require unpacking. Take Angelica Saved By Ruggiero. The reader needs to know that Woods takes inspiration from Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s painting of Angelica, once pursued by numerous knights and now chained, Andromeda-like, to a rock in the sea. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem For “Ruggiero And Angelica” By Ingres provides a literary foil to Woods’s response to the image.
Whereas Rossetti’s speaker describes Angelica’s death dispassionately, Woods’s heroine strides towards her future “freed from that scenario of chain and rock”. Woods snatches the tale back from the Victorians and both de- and remythologises it. His redheaded Angelica shows up in a fish shop, his knight is a Libyan stallholder and a convicted anarchist, and their tryst is conducted in a surreal Dublin infused with eastern promise. “I recognise her,” the poem concludes, suggesting that a discriminating, anarchic sensibility will know the stuff of myth when it sees it, and will know too that “new myths spring up” out of the local. The poem is but one example of Woods’s mastery of tone and his deliberate violation of expectation and narrative norms.
In The Dark Between the Days, Woods poses the question: “How . . . could I compose a poem / I cannot yet compose myself.” The impossibility of “composing self” is conceded in For Jack Walsh d London 1973: “Life is, is glorious, and flawed. Not polished.”
A response to the even more substantive issue, composing poetry, however, appears in the poem Death in Venice: Panicale, August 1989. Its subject is the quest for perfection that destroys Von Aschenbach, the writer in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. Shifting sites of action and shifting voices establish the surreal atmosphere. Actors prepare to play, and later actually re-enact, the scene in which Von Aschenbach consumes “dead-ripe”, cholera-inducing strawberries. Deliberately destabilising chronology, the poem reverts to the speaker’s young adulthood before returning to this pivotal scene. The last stanza has the actors playing out “the fantasy / streaked with sweat and dust / . . . until night / and the light we know will be perfect”.
Four times the word “fantasy” recurs, apparently interrogating Woods’s admonition in his book’s dedication that “I was never a fantasist”. In the sense that he conjures imaginative sequences with dreamlike logic, fantasy is integral to his work. He deploys it, however, not to escape what he calls “concrete unreality” but to evoke a realism that is as spiritual as it is psychological.
One constant, kindly light
An understanding of the backstory of a poem such as Raskolnikov offers a point of entry into it. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s dreams of superheroicism are shattered when scruples about the double murder he bungled consume him. Woods’s associative logic veers from a house under renovation in Ranelagh, via London, to St Petersburg, where “The murder that hasn’t happened yet / And the student [Raskolnikov] pausing on the stairs”. We are invited to share in the speaker’s unsettling “kind of noticing”, which pinpoints tragedy and the contingency of history.
What Woods calls “watchful poised intent” (We Have Given Up on Hills), then, is his typical stance. His taut vigilance hovers over personal and familial histories and the ever-present subject of poetry. Often they merge. The collection The Nightingale Water (2001), well represented here, testifies to filial devotion: throughout it, the voice of the poet’s dying mother rings out in terrible agitation, its language pared to the bone. One poem, The Second Night-Stroke, memorably captures its spirit. His forays into the past go way beyond individual elegies. Kinship implies sharing pain. “There is no respite / from the knowledge of blood / this is a fearful country, this / bleak landscape of the ice-fish” (Time and the Ice-Fish).
Irradiating Woods’s existential gloom is one constant, kindly light: his son, his muse. When Niall appears, Woods’s voice has what Allen Ginsberg called “all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son”. Where Niall is, there too is lightness of step.
And elsewhere there’s lightness of tone, too. Woods playfully, even flightily, sidesteps “the grunt and / duck-billed platitude” (Above Pessaro: June 1993). His pigeons call out “In tones of purest Ranelagh” (Left-Handed Notes). A clever, bittersweet wit informs poems such as Curriculum Vitae Coming Up to Twenty-Seven. And, written since The Cotard Dimension, one of the near-winners of the the Irish Times DLR Poetry Now Award 2012, was published, is the delicious haiku-like Unfolding, which directs a crisp drop volley at criticism of an earlier book.
Collected Poems celebrates Woods’s profound commitment to his independent art. In it, the tumblers of his locks fall into place.