by James Womack
If you’re the sort of bookshop browser who does judge a book by its cover, you’ll get a good indication of the content of James Womack’s debut poetry collection from its aptly chosen cover art. As well as its obvious references to historical, social, cultural, and political concerns, ‘The Origin of Socialist Realism’ by the two-man Russian émigré collective Komar and Melamid is technically adept, self-consciously ironic, and provocative about the nature of art and the role of the artist. These are also features of Womack’s highly articulate and assured work.
Having seen his poems in PN Review and the Guardian online, I was aware of Womack as a poet with an ambitious reach – not afraid to tackle subjects like politics, terrorism, and war, but with a nice line in irony that shifts the tone of his work well out of the bounds of ‘worthiness.’
In this book he’s as comfortable and convincing narrating a seemingly ‘real-life’ story about ‘Vomit’ as presenting versions of classic poems or thought-provoking, discomfiting political pieces.
Usually one to follow a book diligently from its beginning to the end, I couldn’t help satisfying my curiosity about the title poem; a seemingly ‘throwaway’ one-liner that ends the varied first section of the book before a twelve poem sequence about loss. Here it is in its entirety:
‘We’ll make him laugh himself o death.’
It was only in reading the book in sequence that I took on board the importance of this quote to the whole. Weighty subjects are frequently treated with a wryness that both undercuts any of charge of pretentiousness and lets the reader in a little closer to the narrator’s perspective. Often I felt as if I was being taken aside and told a joke that’s ridiculously funny at the same time as being deadly serious. His stance in many pieces put me in mind of Beckett; exposing the tragi-comedy of the human condition, the better to survey and ‘survive’ it.
In a poem about an overblown cover image from a 1960s teen magazine, Womack emphasises his interest in both recording and setting current times in an historical perspective: ‘What do we stand before; what is behind us?’ (‘Young Romance’)
and a wish to portray this ‘reality’ as honestly as possible:
‘To the best of our knowledge we have told you what we see.’
Womack makes us conscious of the role of the writer and the reader throughout the book. And he is on the reader’s side. In poems like ‘The True Scholar’ and ‘from the Literary Encyclopaedia’ he debunks the pomposity of the academe:
‘Bringing difficulty to clearness.
You will point out, scrupulously,
that this can be read both ways.’
(‘The True Scholar’)
He also lets us in to the creative process. Comparing writing to other artistic disciplines like painting or cinema, he makes it clear we are a participant in the making of these pieces:
‘What can we do with this word?’
opens the book, followed by:
‘…details that will not
exist without the reader to mak
ethem. A poem that is only
a farrago of hints.’
(‘From a Notebook’)
and from ‘Mosaic’: ‘How may we fit these fragments together?’
His work is stylistically varied. As confident with formally rhymed sonnets as freer verse, he presents us with web urls as titles, sound games, found poems, and sequences based on films, quotes, and translations.
In Eurydice 5 he uses an unusual technique placing capitals in the middle of a poem to ask the question: ‘IS IT UNGALLANT TO START COMPOSING… THE POEM… IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS?’ The same poem’s reference to ‘almost painful ice’ calls to mind Graham Greene’s ‘splinter of ice in the heart of the writer’. Though universal ideas, they are handled in a way that makes them read freshly.
I also liked the self-regarding sending-up of titles like ‘Now,/ A/ Poem/ that is Called/ ‘Of Insomnia’, which is actually a fairly serious poem about being too troubled to sleep. There are some laugh-out-loud lines too – ‘insufficiently lubricated carnage’ (‘Internet Poems 1’) and ‘Drood, Where’s My Car?’ (‘Internet Poems 2’) spring to mind.
On first reading, I was tempted to think of the book as a ‘cut and shut.’ The final long section about the death of a lover felt tonally quite different – more direct, and more affecting because of that. The wide-ranging first section, on the other hand, felt more of a romp across cultures and historical episodes – from mythical anecdotes, through B movie features, to bang up-to-date explorations of our consumption of web pages, films, and magazines.
But I think a whole book of one or the other would have been harder to take. The more I read the collection, the more I agreed with the blurb about the final sequence ‘draw[ing] the different strands of the collection together.’ The irony is more subtle; the narrator presents versions of elegies, and stands back from his own perspective of loss to question the morality of recording it. And it too, is historically aware, stylistically varied, and multi (culturally) layered.
The worlds of the living and the dead become difficult to separate:
‘the fear that I have been
with one who is already dead’
Though this too becomes a source of dry humour and comment:
‘I read the same novel as I thought you’d read
but I didn’t notice all the characters were dead.’
One sense I came away with was that Womack’s work could come across as more personal and authentic when presenting free versions of another’s work. ‘Freely adapted from/ a free translation of’ are recurring phrases. These pieces seemed to give him permission to access a rawness and openness that made some other phrasing feel a bit flat. For example:
touch the fainting marble of your waist,
reach down to the place where all poems end.’
(Eurydice 11, ‘a free translation of Pablo Garcia Baena’s poem Jardin’)
‘I’ve not seen her for years
she still writes
or wants to write’
(‘Dark and stormys’)
Happiness as a form of enquiry is given as much credence as sorrow and pain. As another poem says: ‘We cannot avoid happiness’ (‘Maisky Poems VII’). And its gentle delights are instructive:
‘What would it be like
to be a carp, and have the world
expand every time it rained?’
I admired this collection for its playfulness, formal dexterity, willingness to raise big questions, and likeable intelligence. As Womack has the speaker say in ‘The Underworld’:‘ I have told you much, of permanent interest.’ Quite. I look forward to reading more from him.
Heidi Williamson’s first collection Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the 2012 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry.