Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes invites and almost forces a new way of reading. His style breaks rules and defies convention, not as an act of rebellion but with intent and conviction at its core. Just as the continuing theme of water ebbs and flows throughout this collection, the reader is encouraged to forego the need to explain or even entirely comprehend the verse, instead letting the poetry wash over them with its beauty, eloquence and dramatic form. In '& mary is the name of her today,' the poet skilfully lays out the lines to complement their meaning: ‘where she walks / on wet sand / & all the fury / waits /a wave / a sliding land’, as the poem itself takes the form of a lapping tide.
A powerful ambience runs throughout Woolley’s poetry, with many dazzling phrases - ‘we look for small / whispers / they’re darkly gold & almost / shining’ ('exits & hiding places') - amidst the stutters and stops of the line breaks and apparently disordered poetic form ('taking stock/the old gallows'):
ground & winter’s
a place to sleep in
As shown here, Woolley’s poetry gives us a fractured moment created from the deliberately haphazard presentation. This style adds life and spontaneity to the verse, whilst also using the line breaks and scattered format to present the reader with multiple ways of reading or relating to each poem. Without the clutter of punctuation and confinements of grammar, arguably, experimental verse results in a deeper, more profound meaning being exposed.
I felt that Woolley’s style requires me to enter a state of poetic mindfulness, letting go of convention to savour and share in the immediate moment with the main characters in this collection, John and Mary: their love, their sadness, their bitterness, and ultimately, their longing – for each other and for a distant past.
The couple’s romance is beautifully depicted in this stanza from '& once again.no one': ‘two step / quick / & a kiss in the dark.i’ll / blow the flame and leave / just the glow / of old/ coals / to light a breast’. There is much to lament too; the broken verses hinting at a lapse in memory and loss of time, as in 'old bows breaking over': ‘Fold up time / & pack it away’.
Amidst these lingering, soulful verses come embittered and sinister poems, which arise out of the ashes of what is often portrayed as a tired and at times resentful relationship. In 'storms are not lead.they stink': ‘I learnt to keep my mouth / closed / said mary / breathe / through my nose.sometimes / he’s minnows/sometimes the shark’. The fear Mary feels is palpable in the darkly atmospheric 'behind the trees are shadows': ‘it’s wild / this wood / we’re walking through / john / I’m catching on briars.they’re / scratching my eyes / red / liquor / to fill a cup’.
The threat turns to violence in 'no fine butchery no': ‘between / your nerve & nerve / I cut / thin / & twist / am no / ordinary / torturer / I’ll stay & / dig / further’. There are many references to bleeding, although Woolley also touches on pain as a symbol of humanity in 'cutting out & sewing': ‘i wear my cuts / with pride / she says … touch me here / & here my love / pain / is just a reminder / i bear / a daughter / john’.
The brutality is frequently juxtaposed with slow, reflective verses in this collection. The bitterness is washed away by the frequent references to water, which seems to provide soothing qualities as well representing surrender. In 'shadows of whales.passing', which is itself a beautiful title, ‘& / he said / come mary … it is my water / memory / where rain takes / everything … we’re here in simple confusion’. Comfort is found in the metaphor, and again in stories of dry water: ‘john says she steps / in silence / keeps me in seas / I only sail inside.’ Although whether John feels comfort or claustrophobia is subject to the reader’s interpretation.
As a relative newcomer to experimental poetry such as Woolley’s, I leave this collection with my thoughts fully outside of the box. Playing with the rules is a risky business, but with reflective, concentrated reading, there is so much to be gained, and indeed, so much to admire.
About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the Café Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken.