Monday, April 28, 2008
Rooting, Sinking into the Earth, Surviving with Them in "Up from the Root Cellar", poems by Anne Harding Woodworth
Rooting, Sinking into the Earth, Surviving with Them in
Up from the Root Cellar, poems by Anne Harding Woodworth
(Cervena Barva Press http://www.cervenabarvapress.com $7.)
Review by Michael Todd Steffen
Anne Harding Woodworth’s peculiar attention, her attention for peculiarity, is drawn to things and situations out of the way, to fleeting moments of curious revelation. The epigraph for the poem “Autumn,” page 29, quoted from Richard Hugo, puts in a nutshell Woodworth’s penchant for the unexpected:
Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
The more furtive the subject, the more intense the observation and expression. Yet her subjects, though marginal, remain familiar, the discarded household things on the escarpment of a train track, the message inside a Snapple cap, a homeless woman outside in the window of a restaurant. (The latter prompts Woodworth to wonder, “How do people find each another?”)
Had Woodworth been skeletoning for philosophy rather than poetry, she may have done so poetically by giving this collection the title Dendrology, after the poem on
page 27, which lays the poet’s cyclical thinking barest in terminology:
The rings of a tree show wide
from a wet season, narrow from a dry,
which is difference and balance.
It is one of the few of Woodworth’s poems in the collection that maintain to her silent situations, “creatures” and miscellany of things an illustrative gloss of meanings or abstract language, such as “Like attracts like,” “ingrained/into equilibrium. Nourish and starve,” or “Like repels like, too”… The poem comes toward the end of the book where a vision of life’s things set in a special light of meaning is being dissolved into terms, and from terms of “difference and balance,” into the complete difference of the hidden whence all this music came:
Out of the earth, secrets eventually rise to the surface.
Graves beneath tree roots and granite cave in
begging for rock…
The difference by then is forgetting…
The empty goblet is not always filled again.
Yet isn’t that a trick that the psyche plays on us, atonement once and for all, resolution? When we remember that the collection is called Up from the Root Cellar, and turn back
to the opening poem, it is precisely at the meagerly surviving level, of “Wintering,” hibernating, in “The creatures beside me,” down in the root cellar, “in Obscurity:/ roots
alive [read, cultural roots also], rhizomes,/ tightly wadded leaves, flowerets” where Woodworth began distinguishing these near and intimate presences from the broad sweep of the world’s furtive ambition which drives the sensitive and vulnerable into the earth’s hideouts:
Someone in the light-time
is looking for history, for ore, for water,
for mold that grows on skins and spreads,
for a paw scratching to get out.
The silent powers Woodworth senses, have her ask: “am I safe in the dark-time?”—perhaps to be reassured that “The creatures beside me [the roots, potatoes, carrots
—animate ‘creatures’!] smile in their sleep for not being found.” Of the many poets who have cast animate sympathies onto the vegetable world, Theodore Roethke knocks for acknowledgment. From his poem “Cuttings” comes a memorable strophe enacting evolution from mineral water into the water-life of the human body:
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it, —
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.
If those “looking for history” have driven the poet’s soul underground “waiting cool, but not freezing dead,” there are those among the mundane world still, children, whom the poet’s persona as the hermitesse “Miss Moore” can intimidate:
If Miss Moore catches them
playing in her grasses,
she yells from the kitchen window.
has yellow-white hair.
Children know: she smells of fennel.
She threatens them
with her root cellar…
Children know. They choose flight
over being force-marched into the ground.
Terrible for the children, hilarious for us standing outside the farce, this is a marvelously imaginative passage (with extended meaning from a choice word, “flight,” for how the little playful ones react). Who wants to be force-marched into the ground?
Who wants to be? Who is?
I have taken space to comment on little. The poems are rich and well worth an interested reader’s exploration. To keep in mind some of the latter “philosophical” poems like “Dendrology” and “Northeast Corridor” helps the reader navigate through some of the quieter poems like “Elsewhere, Life,” “Centering the Universe” and “Miklos Radnoti’s Postcards 1946,” where situations speak through things and gestures.
I liked the cashier in “At the Supermarket,” who ostensibly doesn’t know what beets are, and I like Woodworth’s reply:
“Beets.” It’s as if I’m teaching
fresh vegetables as a second language.
I also liked the poem “Famine,” in which a cloth dyer’s work has failed to please his lord. (W.H. Auden compares the poet’s hand to the dyer’s hand.) In Woodworth’s poem, the color “the natural mole’s-back-gray-tan/…peat-bog purple” is not acceptable to the prospective buyer. The dyer therefore has to return home, where his daughter is weak with hunger, without being compensated for his work.
He lies down next to his daughter,
and while she sleeps,
he tries to solve the undyeing of a piece of cloth.
This last image approaches the pathos of the sublime, if not in elaboration or detail, in essence, of such works as Lear’s speech to the hanged Cordelia or of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding Jesus’ crucified corpse (la Pieta). It is a humbling tercet to read, and must have been so to find in composition. It resonates with the loyalty clutching at the boundaries of mortality down in the root cellar to its struggle for emergence on through the collection.
Hats off to Anne Harding Woodworth.
Michael Todd Steffen/Ibbetson Update/April 2008/Somerville, Mass.
Up from the Root Cellar by Anne Harding Woodworth
Winner of the 2006 Cervena Barva Press Poetry Contest
Cervena Barva Press copyright 2007
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