Hide Songs // Marc Woodward
Review of Hide Songs from The Blue Nib literary magazine.
“In his new collection ‘Hide Songs’, Marc Woodward is the factotum of a gruff, stubbled country of hedgerows, pubs and disrepair. He avoids twee landscapes or bucolic destitution for a mud-and-gravel, wing-and-wind patchwork. There are plenty of dawns and sunsets, but they pull on to the page moments of transition and making, rather than epiphany or grand symbolism. His poems consider making a living, making small differences, lying in the made you’ve made. The collection opens with ‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’ and establishes a tone that runs through: scenes of mingled darkness and innocence; the simultaneous attraction and absurdity of introspection; the thin layer of everyday experience, beneath which lie rocks and roots and instinct. Here, a car breaks down on a dark lane, probably only a mile away from some helpful stranger. The narrator quickly imagines his own easy slip into a ditch that becomes an unnoticed grave, nature crowding in to reclaim what’s left. Crucially, however, this becomes neither gothic nor maudlin; Woodward is recognising the same creeping dread that catches at us when the functioning surfaces of life fracture – the tricks the mind plays, and the heavy promptings of finding oneself alone and out of place.
This fragility of possession of the world – both on the human and the individual level – recurs in different settings. The ‘town cracks to pasture, wheat, the forest’ (Aquatic Ape), a single absent curlew disturbs the tender watcher (‘Seven Whistlers’), the driver in ‘Crisis’ explodes into a rage that solves no problems, breaks no ties.
One especially effective aspect is Woodward’s occasionally industrial or brutalist vocabulary, reminders that we can no longer pretend to separate our experience of the world from our commodified mode of dwelling in it – morning air can be as ‘bleak as a fridge’ (‘Coot’), for example. The poet has a certain gift for unexpected descriptors, often successful, such as ‘lapwings’ as ‘monochrome ploughshares’, or ‘my tortoiseshell plectrum’s the colour of a smoker’s nail’. This care for concrete imagery tempers what might otherwise have become a blokeish sentimentality. In poems populated by rescued animals and women, silky transformations, hangovers, fishermen and pub gigs, as well as fifty different ways of describing the changing skies of the West Country, there is always a notable quality of craft present, too. Nothing is wasted on a fancy phrase, when a telling detail will do. Snatches of conversation with people who seem out of time provide needle-sharp moments – sad, disturbing, defiant by turns.
There is a definite nostalgia in these portraits, perhaps most strongly a longing for a little less of everything. It is a curiously impersonal nostalgia though – the working men and women of a diminished world, for whom the poet is always-already too late; pubs whose flat-screen sports broadcasts have blotted out market gossip; the semi-present wildlife, part of whose magic lies in its fleetingness. Like John Burnside’s poetry, Woodward writes gently and concentratedly about things vanishing and uncertain, though in Hide Songs things revel less in Burnside’s perpetual being-unresolved – there is more unbiddable specificity than mystery. There is anger, too, for these many forms of loss, though there’s little about large-scale politics or grandstanding. If anything, there is a politics of grumpiness and wanting to be left alone by the grinding forces of urbanisation and technology. In this sense it’s a very English collection, despite Woodward’s New Yorker beginnings – a celebration of stubbornness and awkward personalities. Landscapes are more gnarled and winding than awe-inspiring. The writing rarely shouts or shows off, but it certainly bares its teeth.
Ultimately this is a very outdoorsy collection, not only in the prominent nature poems but in the strong sense of a walker’s rhythm, as well as a musician’s sense of language. It covers many topics – including flights to America and the oppressive closeness of ‘blue and white rooms’ – but feels caged when not out on the moor, or scouring the shore. I’d strongly recommend this beautifully presented book to anyone (post-lockdown) taking a holiday to the South West of England. It will definitely rain, so you will need something to read. Meanwhile, it will also enchant frustrated indoor birdwatchers and walkers, and anyone in need of a good dose of unassuming, occasionally crabby, individualism.
Michael D Rose