by Brenton Woodward
To Drink Boiled Snow is, in some ways, intimidatingly erudite. It contains an erasure, a dramatic allegory, a meta-poem, a poem consisting entirely of anagrams for “Morgan Le Fay,” whatever a boustrophedon is, every kind of metrical line and foot I’ve ever heard of, and unquestionably many more poetic formal elements I never knew existed. In doing so, it illustrates not only the beauty but the necessity of a wide spectrum of poetic formats – the vast and precious variety of the poetic ecosystem.
To Drink Boiled Snow is the sort of book that confronts you with the fact that there are words you have heard for years, words you have read a hundred times, which you do not really know the definition of. Words that you have ignored or dismissed and never bothered to look up, reassuring yourself that your vague and tentative sense of their meaning is enough, that in time, contextually and without effort, you will understand them fully.
To Drink Boiled Snow shows you, however, that you have not. That these words you have dismissed are important, that they do things. That you are missing out on little slivers of the world by not investigating, right now, what it is exactly that these words mean. That you, as a writer and/or reader, are in denial about the number and scope of words which you treat this way. And, of course, when I say you I really mean I.
But in the act of confronting me with these words, these lexical lacunae of mine, the poetry hints at their deep and true definitions. “Sidereal” is explicitly defined by the poem in which it appears, drawing specific attention to the presence of these blindingly invisible words in our lives. Its early appearance in the book (“All Good,” p. 4) blazes a trail for more of these words; these others, when they come, are presented without explication, wrapped in their own obscurity which the verbal landscapes around them are careful to maintain. These aren’t the sort of words that I could gain a vague contextual sense of, or, if I could, I felt that I had gleaned only a tiny portion of their full meanings. This book taught me (and reminded me when I forgot) to be mindful of these words, to stop and acknowledge and honor them. I am, in all seriousness and humility, a better person, in this respect, for having read Caroline Knox’s book. I am better for words like sidereal, ideogram, soffit, numinosity, and motile.
Yet I never felt belittled, or lectured, or browbeaten. This book’s erudition is confrontational, but not in a conceited or self-aggrandizing way. The confrontation is between myself and all the ways in which words could be used, all the schemes and matrices that have been devised and that I have ignored, to the detriment of myself and of the language at large.
“What is it with / words like sidereal?” Knox asks in “All Good.” And I ask this of myself, continuously. “There is no word like sidereal,” she answers herself, but there are so many words like sidereal, and I cannot convince myself any more than she can that there aren’t.
Despite my statements thus far, To Drink Boiled Snow is not an attempt to display or preserve archaic forms and words for posterity; it is not a lexical or poetic museum. It’s more of a yard sale. It is an argument for seeking out and collecting words, structures, rhythms, formats — and then using them. To beautify the world. To confound and enlighten. To seek and hoard and know for the sake of the acts themselves. It is a call for more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, and that is itself a beautiful thing.
Available from Wave Books (2015): $20.00
Brenton Woodward is the Assistant Editor at Liminoid Magazine, a fiction writer, and a(n) MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University.
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.