Wednesday 29 November 2017

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "broken stories" by Reuben Woolley

As its title suggests, Reuben Woolley’s fascinating and highly original new poetry collection is full of broken stories, language and imagery, which come down to us as ‘mirrored repetitions’ and ‘dusty echo[es].’ Stories, language, imagery have been worn out through repetition, their force lost over time – ‘an empty language lingering’ in the present. In this respect, Woolley might agree with George Orwell, who famously wrote in 1946 that the ‘English language is in a bad way,’ partly because of ‘a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’ 

Woolley arguably pushes Orwell's ideas even further, to the extent that parts of broken stories seem to imply that metaphors have always been worn out – that the English language has always been in ‘a bad way,’ a ‘dusty echo’ of something ‘always already’ in the past. For Woolley, ‘words come late,’ after the event, ‘& gods were only ever / mirrored repetitions / an empty language lingering / of maidens & failed heroes.’

The problem for a poet, of course, is that ‘words / … is all there is’ – there is no alternative to ‘mongrel words.’ So a poet, while ‘losing the plot,’ must simultaneously still ‘try … to capture it / briefly. fix it / in some assemblage.’ In broken stories, Woolley shows how such an ‘assemblage’ might renew a degenerate language; he disavows ‘mirrored repetitions,’ and ‘empty language,’ rising to Orwell’s challenge to writers to ‘regenerate’ the English language: ‘I don’t want / your infinities     self- / reflected     & old smears,’ he writes. 

Rather, in place of worn-out forms of sublimity ('infinities') or a modern (‘self-reflected’) solipsism, Woolley seeks to recapture the immediacy and political power of words: in this collection, ‘words come / hurting,’ and must at least attempt to reflect the physicality and pain of life – that ‘we still bleed red & die.’ Despite everything, poetry and language in general might still promise something akin to presence – might still connect with ‘all the agony of life.’

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is