This has been a summer of high heat and no rain in Indianapolis. The mercury again shot up past 100 for the fourth day in a row. The state’s corn crops are in peril, and typically drought-resistant perennials have withered. Many of us poets have grown sere in the soul. Desert metaphors come to mind. Rain doesn’t fall even in our dreams. And in this snappish mood, I can’t countenance one more poem that’s rhetorically flat, devoid of music, or trailing off into fashionable irrelevance.
Happily, the books of John Woods are close at hand. Born in Martinsville, Indiana in 1926, Woods taught for many years at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, until his death in 1995. Too often, academic life nudges poets toward caution and pretense. But as Henry Taylor reminds us in Compulsory Figures, Woods’s voice to the end “remained unusually free of posturing or the phony ‘development” inspired by fashion” (51). His poems issue clear-eyed indictments in a language not without lightness and evoke sexual passion with wit as well as grit. His poems feel spontaneous but never haphazard, in part because of what Taylor calls his “unobtrusive yet absolute mastery of sound” (52). Imagine Theodore Roethke with a bit more control or James Wright with the rare false notes burned away.
Here’s the first stanza of an early love poem reveling in ecstasy before “yellow takes the oak / And autumn takes the heart”:
Happily because April wore your flashing pelt, I sing this praise of everything: water, sycamore, the breathing of the wine across your lips to mine. (The Salt Stone 73)
This stanza plays the rhymes off the enjambed lines rushing to the next image or phrase. It’s only in the second line that we learn what April wore: “your flashing pelt,” an animal noun caught in the shimmer of illumination. And only in the sixth do we discover that the wine is breathing not from some anonymous bottle but is shared between lovers.
Later, Woods reveals a knack for evoking unhappy love. In “The Long Marriage,” he displaces the couple’s gradual dissolution onto ordinary objects:
She first disappeared from the checkbook, though he felt the stubs were altered. Then from the bed, where the mound beside him flattened under his hand. He discovered that the car went out at night, white-nosing around the streets. He felt eyes at the lecture and turned quickly. A raincoat twitched in the rack. Somebody washed the dishes. Somebody did the hand washing. He kept one long hair in his wallet. Later, his wedding band turned up in the belly of a shark. (The Valley of Minor Animals 33)
Here the end rhyme is more sporadic, slant instead of true (mound / hand, night / streets), sometimes absent. Almost every line ends with punctuation, as gate after gate in the marriage slams shut.
Other poems function like myths with explanatory power, detailing, as Henry Taylor has observed, “the slow decline of human beings and the things they make” (59). “Lying Down with Men and Women,” for instance, questions how far we humans have really evolved:
When we came up from water, our eyes drew to the front our heads, and we had faces. When we came up on our knuckles, we held fruit to our mouths, and wanted to know the chemistry of sweetness. Then as we walked down the earth’s curve, trees and hills got in our way, so we moved them for roads and newsprint and wreckage. Part of every day, the water mood and the tree mood rise in our bodies, and we must lie down a bit to honor our lost tails and gills. When we lie on our backs, we see so far away we try to give names to light, like wild dogs we have taught to lick our hands. And when we lie on our faces, we see too close, the blank wall at the end of the corridor. And so we lie down with men and women because we are terrified, and sometimes, for that reason, we stand up and kill. (The Salt Stone 190)
As the drought wears on, it’s obvious how our greed is killing us. We need poets like John Woods to remind us of that but also to remedy the drought within. “Sometimes, in the deepest place,” he once wrote, “I hear water turning” (The Salt Stone 115).
Quotations are from The Valley of Minor Animals (Port Townsend, WA: Dragon Gate, 1982) and The Salt Stone (Seattle: Dragon Gate, 1985).