Striking the Earth
A growing audience recognizes John Woods as one of the finest poets in America. With the publication in 1972 of his Turning to Look Back: Poems, 1955-1970, he made available many poems which had long been out of print, and which, for various reasons bound up in the mysteries of contemporary poetic reputation, had received the recognition they deserved from a relatively small number of readers. That book presented the work of a poet rooted in the vast flatness of the Middle West, movingly perceptive of time’s patient ravages, and gifted with an imagination tuned to what an unusually bright author of jacket copy has called “the ominous potentialities of ordinary objects.”
Woods’s language is apparently straightforward; his techniques are apparently low-key and direct; there are few prosodic or typographical spectacles. And yet, the poems are rewardingly difficult, composed of confident lines containing unusual juxtapositions of image and phrase, like these lines from “Everyone Born in 1926”:
Everyone born in 1926 has tried too hard.Our grandparents occupy the ancient snows.Our parents buy houses with ramps,and are prepared to look Florida in the face.We forget what they taught us of use.
Gnomic utterance is nothing new, of course, and the country is overrun with poets who lean toward surrealism, or toward observation that singles out disturbingly peculiar features of the ordinary. The chief difference between Woods and most of these practitioners is that Woods has a deeper knowledge of this approach and its potential effects. He is aware that he is often close to utterance that would be merely silly if it were taken at face value with absolute humorlessness, and so his excellent sense of humor is always alert to opportunities for the right measure of self-mockery, irony, or outright gag writing. His poems are therefore resilient and inclusive in their vision to an extremely rare degree.
Striking the Earth is divided into three sections, chiefly concerned, respectively, with the evocation of weirdness in daily living, love, and reminiscence and satire. The first section begins with the title poem, a meditation arising from a conceit:
As we strike the earth with our bodies,for we are always falling, and standing up,and falling again, though you call it dancing,or walking, or flying, there is the sound of stonecoming to rest in quarries, the last spray of sand,as we knock on earth’s sullen, historical face.
“The sound of stone/ coming to rest in quarries” is the sound of cessation, of death. The poem proceeds to elaborate on the act of love as a mode of striking the earth, and therefore as a way of rehearsing for death; it then draws a metaphor of war as natural upheaval, like a flood; it then concludes with a series of startling images of death and decay: white horses pulling a box, a fingerprint on a flower, sinking “into its/ dizzying spiral,” a bruise on an apple, and, finally.
Names that burned, that kissed deeplyto the brain stem, that owned the Tartar plainfrom the high fur saddles, weather on stones,coming to rest in quarries.
It is easy to say that all natural processes are interconnected, that human life and death are small parts of an enormous, coherent scheme. It is much more difficult to suggest this notion persuasively, or to encourage the reader to imagine that the whole scheme might somehow be apprehensible. But because of his strength of conviction, and his gift for selecting the telling detail, Woods’s “Striking the Earth” makes just such a contribution to our imaginative lives.
Most of the other poems in Part One of this collection are further explorations of the causal relationships that may lie unseen between apparently unrelated events; or they are extensions of apparently arbitrary observations, arrived at by the (apparently) chance association of two words, like “Bone Flicker” or “Pore...
(The entire section is 1833 words.)