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Blog Review 2 – Cath Nichols Reviews Gregory Woods’s ‘An Ordinary Dog’

I’m a sucker for dogs. Dogs are not taboo in poetry as cats are. I cite Suzanne Batty’s ‘The Barking Dog’ and Chase Twitchell’s ‘The Language of Dogs’. Mark Doty, too, writes dogs into poems and his memoir Dog Days. However, the dogs of the aforementioned poets appear as energetic Buddhas; cheerful, deep, embracing the ‘now’ that contemporary writer-owners find elusive: “This shining bark// a Zen master’s gong, calls you here,/ entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow” (‘Golden Retrievals’ in Doty’s Sweet Machine). Gregory Woods does not present dogs in this way.

The title poem is, after all, ‘after Kakfa’. This dog chases an ambulance and then turns off: “the bystanders reconcile themselves/ to knowing / it was just an ordinary dog.” This disappoints: don’t we want the dog to follow its injured owner all the way to hospital? We already know that life is bleak, don’t we want the poet to transfigure the ordinary dog? But Woods might be right to deliver such a poem and he avoids (even comments upon?) the sentimentality of other poets who rely on emotionally manipulative story-telling. Yet Woods does not restrict himself to a purely plain-speaking or realistic stance.

An Ordinary Dog is 134 pages long and divided into four sections, so it might be read as four shorter collections. Section three, for example, contains shaggy dog and philosophical poems (including one called ‘Narrative Poem’). The highlight for me of the fourth section is not the title poem but ‘Theorem’ a poem that unites ideas about writing, separation and sexuality through the satisfying image of a man sat in a room full of people but with his chair turned to the window: seeing others seeing him, framed within a frame within a frame, etc. This image is repeated and altered slightly, alongside a recurring conversation that crucially moves between genders (“he replied, to/ a man that his eloquence was its own/ defence, or to a woman,/ that her beauty was its own defence” but by the end of the poem he is saying to a young man “Your/ beauty is its own defence”). The cumulative effect of the layers of language building up is like being in a barber-shop or hairdresser’s and watching the mirrors reflect yet more mirrors into infinity.

The poems the reader initially encounters though, are less philosophical and more explicit, the gods of school-boy crushes. On encountering one such manly specimen: “we each put into practice plots to mine the seam/ and plumb the arse, a speciologist’s wet dream” (‘Wing Three-quarter’). These lustful poems are not my favourites, although the skinhead in ‘Strokes’ has a brooding passive charm contained in short-lined yet expansive tercets. When I reached ‘Trees or Fly-fishing’, its epigraph made me realise I was arguably guilty of some impatience for Woods’ other (‘straighter’?) poetry. Here’s the epigraph:

      I suppose a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies has a professional
           obligation to write about these areas, but I’d have welcomed
                a few poems about trees or fly-fishing

                          John Greening, London Magazine

Hilarious. In response Woods writes a pair of formally genteel yet slapstick sonnets. The tree becomes a place from which a cherubic boy falls “exposing genitals and peachy bum”, and the fly-fisherman inadvertently catches his hook on “Laszlo’s flies” revealing an “enormous chopper” and a tale that becomes an unlikely “whopper”.

If Carry On humour isn’t your thing don’t give up. Woods’ serious poetry matches the best of Gunn or Doty with his conjurations of gay experience. I was moved by ‘The Sweet Life’: his recollection (true or fictional) of first love – illicit, intense, on holiday. There’s sadness later when the narrator recalls his older self:

                    any shadow and confusing

               trees for men, but somehow drunkenly finding
               enough of what I was seeking to make it
                    worth coming back, night after night,
                    following dark outlines, despite

               the risk, through darker spaces, almost blind, week
               after week, man after man.

Note the particularly well-judged line-breaks that allow for rhyme but compel the reader forward via a long sustained sentence. Imagine the poem read out loud and where your thoughts might go at the ends of certain lines: “to make it” and “week”/ weak. The poem concludes by bringing us back to the present, “I’d forgotten how/ much that one boy meant. Until now.”

[Cath Nichols has a PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. Her publications are ‘My Glamorous Assistant’ (Headland Press, 2007) and pamphlet ‘Tales of Boy Nancy’ (2005). ‘Tales…’ is due for re-issue with new poems soon.]

An Ordinary Dog by Gregory Woods is published by Carcanet Press, 2011, £9.95.


[for Blog Review 1, see Mark Burnhope on Katy Evans-Bush’s ‘Egg Printing Explained’]

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. I don’t want to read about cats or dogs, horses, ponies, armadillos or stick insects, allegorically, metaphorically or plain, but has a law been passed that says cats are taboo?

  2. A ban on cats? Well, I do know of two editors who have admitted, in conversation or print, that they don’t care for cats, and don’t favour poems which they inhabit. But cats have only to point a disdainful paw at the works of Yeats, Tessimond and Stevie Smith to prove that marvellous cat poems do exist. Even more disdainfully, they can point to the section of my website sacrilegiously labelled ‘Cat poems’, (perhaps mentioning that I have not added to the gaiety of nations, as three readers have now told me that these poems have made them cry).

    Perhaps animals should always feature in the titles of collections (or anthologies) in which they occur, as a warning to allergic readers. I am humbly aiming for inclusion in a hypothetical selection, to be entitled ‘The Book of Sad Cats’.

  3. Yes, I think Cath is being slightly tongue-in-cheek in using the word ‘taboo’, although I think she is right that people often raise a pained sigh (akin to a miaow, perhaps) if they discover a cat poem – unless the poem turns out to be good, of course. If it’s good it doesn’t matter which animals feature. Jen Hadfield had a couple of good cat poems in her ‘Nigh-No-Place’ collection. And it sounds to me as though Gregory Woods’s ordinary dog might be well worth a poem.

  4. There’s an answer to this silly prejudice – don’t let on it’s a cat poem. I sent an elegy for a pet cat to an editor who would certainly have rejected it had he known what it was, but he took it for a poem about a human death and raved about it Very speciesist.

  5. Words seem to have become unmoored from their meanings in this review. Could I take the liberty of pointing out that this is not a book about dogs? ‘An Ordinary Dog’ is not even a poem about dogs. The book does not contain any ‘shaggy dog’ poems, in either sense. There are no poems about ‘schoolboy crushes’. ‘Trees or Fly-fishing’, a piece on a very serious theme despite its surface humour, contains nothing ‘slapstick’, and neither of its constituent halves is a sonnet. (There are, though, twenty other poems in the book that are sonnets.) There is no such thing as a ‘speciologist’, nor is the rest of this quotation accurate. If not dogs, what are the book’s themes? The reviewer appears not to have the faintest idea.

  6. Gregory, I’m Magma’s reviews editor. Sorry you feel your book has been misrepresented. I read some of it before sending it to Cath and appreciated it, but that was months ago and I don’t have it in front of me now. Bearing that in mind, I’ll respond to some of your points:

    1. From reading the review, I never for a minute assumed it was a collection about dogs. I read the review’s first paragraph purely as in stylistic terms – the establishment of a tone for the review. But I’d like to know what other readers think. Did the review give many of you the impression that the collection was mainly about dogs?

    2. You say ‘An Ordinary Dog’ is not a poem ‘about’ dogs. Well, it obviously *does* contain a dog that chases an ambulance down a street and, to that extent, it is about a dog. The fact that it has other layers is not lost on Cath – she writes, “he avoids (even comments upon?) the sentimentality of other poets who rely on emotionally manipulative story-telling.” I don’t have the poem here and can’t comment on whether this is correct or not, but the impression the review gives me is that the poem is ‘about’ emotional truth, on the danger of imposing emotional truth onto objects and creatures rather than revealing what is actually there.

    3. I have felt one or two reviews of my own book found humour in certain poems and seem to have decided that a humorous poem can’t have a serious theme. I have found this frustrating and can therefore understand something of your own frustration, but that’s maybe the risk poets take with humour – that it can become dominant to a reader, even an intelligent, careful reader, so that serious ideas don’t really come across. ‘Trees and Fly Fishing’ obviously came across as ‘Carry-On humour to Cath. That’s her honest reaction. Can poets dictate to readers how they read their poems? Does the poet’s intention always come across in a poem? These are questions I have been asking myself for similar reasons.

    I’ll alter the reference to sonnets. I’m not sure how that happened, as Cath certainly knows what a sonnet is…

    4. Could you give me the correct text for the ‘speciologist’ quotation? Apologies for the inaccuracy.

    5. From reading the review, I understood the book’s themes to be love, sexuality, and emotional truth – not dogs! But again, I’m interested to know if readers of the review generally got a different impression.

  7. If one reads the whole review properly, one can’t come away with the impression that it’s a book about dogs. But the first paragraph does perhaps over-emphasise the element of dogginess, and many will read the first para properly and skim the next 5. Having said that, it’s the writer who chose the title and who might have known the direction in which it would send a reader or reviewer’s mind.

  8. Just finished reading this – about to re-read. I’m struck by the variety of forms and voices. Some poems are ‘funny’, some ‘serious’ (the funny usually grounded in a probing seriousness and the serious on occasion lit up by a flash of humour), some are rhyming tours-de-force (including two pieces built on homophonic couplets), several deconstruct/reconstruct the themes of French novelists with exhilarating acuity. I could go on but won’t – there are variety, depth and wit in abundance. The collection surely merits the wider readership that publication by Carcanet brings. The sheer inventiveness and the linguistic resourcefulness are a joy. Dogs – it’s a bit of a red herring… except that, like the dog in the poem referred to, a book of poems wilfully trots off to make its own way in the world…

  9. I don’t think the title suggests that it’s going to be a book about dogs. This is poetry, not Walt Disney. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on it, but I have read the review and as the book isn’t about dogs, I found it a little odd that the reviewer latched so doggedly onto the dodgy doggy issue.
    I must confess that I’m not a fan of poetry reviews in general because they mainly baffle me with bullshit and often say more about the reviewer than the reviewed.These lines from the second paragraph illustrate one of my pet hates (ouch!)…

    -This dog chases an ambulance and then turns off: “the bystanders reconcile themselves/ to knowing / it was just an ordinary dog.” This disappoints: don’t we want the dog to follow its injured owner all the way to hospital?’-

    We can only judge a poem by what it is, what the poet made it. Not by what it could be, or what it should be, or what we would like it to be.

    Also the fact that each persons reading of a poem is likely to be different to everyone else’s renders most reviews largely irrelevant anyway.
    We always reflect on poems through the mirror of ourselves.Or (roughly) as Ted Hughes put it ‘poets build houses, it’s up to us how we live in them.’

  10. Rob, in response to one of your questions : Can poets dictate to readers how they read their poems?
    I’ve heard people read my poems and I’ve thought, oh they’re reading that line wrong or a certain verse doesn’t come across in the way I’ve intended it. I use that as the most honest criticism of my work, it shows me where my writing is lacking. I think any writer can only attempt to dictate how their work should be read and the real success in the writing is if they achieve that. This follows on to your next question: Does the poet’s intention always come across in a poem? No – I’ve been on stage and I’ve heard some audience members laughing at lines which I didn’t intend as being funny at all. Similarly I’ve been a member of the audience, at many poetry readings and I’ve reacted in completely different ways to other members of the audience – being shocked by lines that others have laughed at – so the intention is confused.

  11. For those of us who don’t belong to the circle-jerk of mutual congratulation that passes for a poetry establishment in Britain, every review is precious. My last book, Quidnunc (Carcanet, 2007), received only three–in Chroma, Staple and Stride. None of my five Carcanet collections has ever been reviewed in places like Poetry Review.

    So I suppose I should be grateful to be reviewed at all. But the least a poet—and, indeed, a literary editor—should be able to expect from a review is that it accurately summarize a book’s themes and techniques. Beyond that, yes, of course, the reviewer’s opinions and interpretations are entirely her own to deliver. If I don’t agree with them I can just say, along with Samuel Beckett, ‘Quite alien to me, but you’re welcome.’

    This collection, An Ordinary Dog, contains poems in regular, metrical and rhyming forms, in syllabics, and in various types of free verse. As Alasdair Paterson kindly suggests, above, it is also doing some quite complicated things with tone of voice. As for its themes—well, I’m not going to list them, but it is a strangely inattentive reader who fails to notice (for instance) its poems about tyrannies and atrocities.

    There are interpretations and there are facts. A reviewer should not get simple facts wrong, any more than she should actively misquote the poems. Take the example of ‘The Sweet Life.’ This reviewer says it is about ‘first love.’ The poem never says this, so the reviewer might have been better advised to use a tentative expression such as ‘perhaps’ or ‘it seems.’

    More worryingly, in terms of the accuracy of her reading, she adds that the relationship the poem describes is ‘illicit.’ Why? The poem does not say so. Surely she is not simply assuming that a gay speaker remembering an affair with a ‘boy’ must have been having under-age sex. Oh, dear! Since she also suggests that the affair may be a ‘recollection’ that is ‘true’, this comes close to being libellous (which might interest the editors of Magma). If she reads the poem again, she will see that the boy is about to do his National Service…

    Also, the speaker is not ‘on holiday’ in Italy: he talks of things he has been doing ‘week / after week,’ he lives in a flat in a residential building, and he is evidently working as a language teacher. None of this is expressed in oblique or complicated language.

    Does any of this matter? Of course it does. Poetry is a precise art. There is no reason why poetry reviewing should be any different.

  12. The title is why I chose to pick the book out, and might be why other readers do too. I wanted to draw people into the blog and I only made the first paragraph about dogs cos I take dogs very seriously as do others: there is something ‘other’ and yet light-hearted about them. In addition the three other poets mentioned are all queer (though I didn’t want to labour that point as it’s hardly a generalisation. But it’s curious and my own subjective associations are part of what I bring to reading). I can’t control how blog readers pick up an issue to debate.
    I’m queer and appreciate that being criticised for certain ways of writing/ being is unfair so I brought attention to the epigraph (John Greening’s apparent dig over gay content in an earlier collection) and Woods’ response in ‘Trees and Fly-fishing’ because I thought what Woods had done was clever and amusing. To be amusing, even to be Carry On whilst being shot down is actually part of a heroic gay tradition and it’s deadly serious in my world. (Incidentally, ‘Carry On’ wasn’t how I saw some of the poems, but how I thought some readers might find the explicit content. But I asked them to stick with it, if you recall.)
    Yes, of course, poets fictionalise – I believe I said that: ‘true or fictional account’. And ‘illicit’ only means as are all affairs, somehow forbidden. It wasn’t a judgemental word coming from me. I also said it was intense.
    I, a) liked the book a great deal and, b) got that it was serious about sexuality, relationships, intolerance, etc., but it also seemed imaginative and playful with language, so why not bring that to the review? I’m not perfect and in 650 words and a short timeframe I may have made some technical errors in editing my piece, but overall I believe I made the book sound interesting to potential readers.
    No-one gets to pick their reviewer do they? I thought there were a lot of compliments in the review, I’m a big fan of Doty and Gunn, but hey, horses for courses… I shall now back down gracefully and make no further comment.

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