Skins by Reuben Woolley. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Skins by Reuben Woolley (Hesterglock Press, 2016)
ISBN 978-1-326549-97-8     pp 54        £7.50 

 
Reuben Woolley’s instantly recognisable poems, always in cummingsesque lower case and often broken up in both layout and syntax, could be said to resemble pieces of shrapnel scattered across a particularly scarred battlefield. Indeed, the opening poem in skins appears to enact the devastating effects of the bombs it mentions, as well as conveying a tension between destruction and counterbalancing hope, via first an image of hand-holding, survival-seeking solidarity and then a characteristically neat wordplay, with ‘shells’ suggestive of both explosions and potential birth:

 
 ……………& fire doesn’t welcome
  
………………they’re hiding
………………from blades & bombs
…………….. see fear
 ……………  come down dark hills

 ……………  hold hands
……………  .for survival …………….hoping
 …………..  .for a better god &
 ……………..wooden doors
…………… ..are no protection ……hear
 ………….. ”the first shells break

 …………..  & isis
…………..   was the name of a river

 

However, for me the most useful analogy when looking at Woolley’s work overall would be a radio with poor reception. Listeners are aware they are being presented with important material, but have to struggle to catch every word, with much lost and left to conjecture.  Can we be sure we have heard the most vital elements in the poet’s message, or only clues as to the true meaning? The act of reading becomes a mystery, a jigsaw puzzle – one might almost say a game, were the themes and the tone not so hauntingly near the emotional and psychological knuckle.

 
Woolley is the energetic and politically committed founder and editor of two vibrant poetry websites, I am not a silent poet and the recently inaugurated The Curly Mind, which features experimental and avant garde work. In skins he focusses specifically on the current refugee crisis, and it is typical of the man’s spirit and generosity that he is donating all profits from the book’s sales to CalAid, an organisation dedicated to meeting the basic needs of displaced people.

 
The horrific realities of war, in the era of ISIS and similar organisations, are a constant if tersely-worded concern. They include sexual exploitation and commercialisation of minors, as explored in ‘detonator’:

 
……………a girl
……………a weapon
……………of mass destruction
……………this is how
……………to win a war.children
……………come cheap

……………girls cheaper

Just in case that message is not quite clear enough, it is driven home in the next poem, ‘they said’, where the age-old value of education is seen as having been undone by a new, completely amoral code of priorities, and the sexual degradation is underlined by deliberately pornographic spelling:

 
……………this light of books
……………is untaught you
……………on dusty ground.new
……………lessons are written
……………in cum & blood
……………& smiles are foreign now

However, we are soon reminded that the young victims of this aspect of modern reality were not in fact born to be chattels or objects of abusive gratification, but human beings who, though marginalised with even less power than their uprooted (or very possibly dead) parents, and whose suffering is often too much to bear for the average TV news viewer, have overflowing memories and past lives, just like other children. In ‘heroes’, Woolley’s wordplay centres on ‘brimming’, which suggests both tears and abundance:

 
……………so much
……………went missing today

……………& on the edges
……………the children.huddled

……………whole stories brimming
……………in their eyes

……………mute the tv
……………let me read through dust

 

In ‘dark eyes any time’, the chilling conclusion summons up a poet who may well be a key influence on Woolley, as it recalls (if in a context that signals contradiction as well as homage) the end of ‘The Hollow Men’:

 
……………the children don’t cry
……………& dogs
……………………..don’t whimper

 

They don’t cry, or whimper, one assumes, because they are dead. We are certainly inhabiting a real wasteland, as barren as anything in Eliot’s post-World-War-One terrain, and one reflected in Woolley’s layout, as well as his even-sparser-than-usual language and the use of shocked repetition:

 
……………the empty

…………………………eyes
…………………………& holes
…………………………………….gouged
………….crumbs
…………………………& dust
………….& dust       & holes

 

Much of the book’s second half centres on drowning, not merely the physical horror involved, but all the levels of obliteration denoted by the specific instances of drowning as a would-be refugee. There’s another echo of Eliot – a double one, not only of ‘The Hollow Men’ but also the ‘clangs/The bell’ of ‘The Dry Salvages’ – in ‘lampedusa’, where the idea of drowning (though dimly hinted by the title) only comes in at the last minute and is couched in harrowing euphemism:

 
……………in the waves
……………the shadows

……………i hear the hollow bell

……………& shall we go
……………& meet them at the tolling

……………no flowers
……………no floating

‘waves’ spells out the theme, while echoing the earlier poem and making the ‘fl-’ alliteration still more poignantly commemorative:

 

 

……………i take the sea
……………when i move  ……………always
……………on the edge of drowning
……………shuffling steps
……………these drifting bones
……………speak in salt
……………i’ll sail again
……………in high wind spray
……………leave

…………   no flowers floating
……………are not ghosts here

 

And a few poems on, Woolley becomes still more direct, naming a poem ‘drowning’ which begins ‘here/they breathe water/till darkness comes’. But again there is a glimmer of renewed hope in the next piece, ‘dark water’, which ends

………………………………………….a phrase
……………painting pictures
……………in water ……….flow
……………in dark rivers i don’t
……………fully

 

……………understand   ……….i swim
……………cross-current
………………………………not drowning
……………not always

 

There are survivors, even if so many are lost. A later piece, ‘crossings’, attempts to weigh up the tallies (perhaps a little too baldly, making this one of the less effective):

 

……………we’ll take our children
……………& sail
……………………..& some
……………survive

……………walk  ……….long
……………& unwanted
……………………………..waiting
……………unfairly
………………………….& some
……………will drink salt
……………………………& sink
……………unfairly

 

However, any slight wavering of technique on Woolley’s part is soon rectified, and the book’s later poems confirm its dignified power and the memorable effect of so much of its imagery:

 

…………………………& here
……………the dark scarecrow

……………in the empty field
……………where hands rose
……………like harrowed wheat          (‘targeted’)

 
……………i could say this otherwise
…………………………………the dead
……………are only slightly buried.we dream
……………of orbits & hurtling stars
……………………walk
……………quietly
……………& think it all a different way    (‘tired eyes blink in daylight’)

 

That final passage, once again redolent of Eliot (the ‘That was a way of putting it’ section of ‘East Coker’), and possibly also of Larkin (‘see it all again in different terms’ from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’), encourages different viewpoints of the subject-matter, in a way that implies Woolley, as passionate as he may be about the issues, does not want to come across as dogmatic or manipulatively polemical. What he has essentially done is present the images that strike him as key, and invite us to make of them what we will. Ultimately he is an imagist/symbolist, in a tradition extending back as far as Eliot and Pound’s own poetic mentor, Jules Laforgue, and this book is a worthy addition to that branch of the modernist canon.

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