by Brenton Woodward
Erasure poetry has become something of a trend in recent years, and has suffered the usual travails of trendiness: mis- or overuse by dabblers and hacks, ungainly attachments to political agendas, being assigned as undergraduate exercises, etc. What Laura Walker has done for the genre is remarkable. The premise of her book Follow-Haswed is an erasure of the eponymous Volume VI of the OED: every poem’s title is a word, from “follow” to “haswed,” and each poem’s text is taken from that of the word’s dictionary entry. The result is a refreshing and unpretentious example of what erasure can be.
As with any erasure project, the reader cannot help but wonder about the source text as they make their way through the book. This is especially and intentionally the case in Follow-Haswed, however. Walker’s choice of a dictionary as a primary text may seem whimsical or even arbitrary, but it is in fact a very calculated setup for Follow-Haswed to perform its own illustration of a fundamental poetic principle: the ability of individual words to have a spectrum of connotations and implications depending on their context. A dictionary such as the OED shows this in an explicit and matter-of-fact way, and Follow-Haswed invokes that method continuously – but it also performs such spectral shifts itself. Individual stanzas or even lines of a poem may be thought of as possible context for the titular word they attenuate; word-titles are eventually repeated, some several times, as though new and different contexts and connotations for them had been thought of and duly noted. The reader is constantly considering the connection between words, between the title of a poem and its text, between the text of a poem and the OED entry it was culled from, and eventually, between the text of the poems and the agenda of the speaker they originate from.
The word-title “go,” in particular, becomes a barometer of the book’s tonal development as it progresses through different iterations. Early on, “go” summons such images as a swarm of bees making “a great humming” as they are “reddy to flye,” while midway through the book “go” entails “the letters of the alphabet / in rags”. Certain words also recur thematically within the bodies of the poems, and despite my earlier expression of distaste for politicality in erasure poems, Follow-Haswed approaches something like it with a deft gracefulness. For example, “war,” “sailor,” “soldier,” “general,” etc. appear regularly throughout the book, and one is forced to consider what it means that a dictionary, the arbiter of the linguistic establishment, should be so preoccupied with the business of death. More subtly, “I,” “him,” and “she” / “the girl” become more and more common, until they can no longer be ignored or glossed over, and what was previously a pretty but depopulated landscape of tableaux becomes a dynamic and very human narrative.
These developments all come together somewhere around three-quarters through the poems, when the shuffling images and connotations fall into place to reveal the deeper truth of Follow-Haswed: it is a love story. Behind the shifting, translucent curtains of curated fragments and broken etymologies is a proto-narrative between “I” and “him” in which the narrator has “lost him” – a lover, or maybe a son, or perhaps both, somehow. By the last poems there is a suspicion that “he” was taken from the narrator by the often darkly-regarded “girl,” who might be only another aspect of the narrator’s own personality. The beauty of the story at the heart of the book is that it’s hardly even there, barely hinted at, a breath-fogged circle fading on the window of a darkened house; but better still is the fact that the hidden story of Follow-Haswed is just one of its many beautiful, subtle accomplishments.
Follow-Haswed is forthcoming from Apogee Press.
Brenton Woodward is a fiction writer and an incoming MFA student at Southern Illinois University. He hopes to someday understand the mechanics of a successful writer’s bio, among other things.