In Neck of the Woods, Amy Woolard’s debut collection of poems, the poet picks up the reader in the tight cone of the allegorical Kansas tornado and drops them, hard and repeatedly, not into Oz but into plots of memory, cracked and refractile, into a house built from a broken mirror.
I was put in mind of C. D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, another book that definitively places me, not in some post-modern generiscape of strip malls and housing developments, but in an irreducible South, escaped and inescapable. These lines from “Leading”:
Of course some things go south before supper. Salted watermelon / on a plate in the kitchen. White seeds like coughed-up aspirin some throat / refused
seem to be in conversation with Wright’s A bowl of sugar on a table / Separated by a chair / Not an inkling what it means / Urge to withdraw / Pull the ladder up after, yet speak with Woolard’s own fierce inflection. There is a shared sense of foreboding, if one could forebode a past already in the rearview. But while Wright drives the reader on a road trip through kudzu-choked byways, Woolard suspends us, plants us in a place of longing,
Onto the sleeping porch. Oh, you can talk to the dead, but you can’t
Make them drink.
Walking around with this book in my head, my vision altered: at a restaurant, I thought a young woman with high-piled hair clutched at her heart at some bad news, when in fact she was breastfeeding her baby. The reality did not eclipse the alternate perception, but instead made a palimpsest of the moment, created a simultaneity, as the speaker does in these poems.
I can feel Gertrude Stein scraping a chair across the hard kitchen floor to dish about domestic accoutrement as poetic vehicle when I read, a kettle that is a fist, feel the lemon-fresh fragmentation and reconstruction of the language push into and against Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” with, first anger, best anger. Truth and authenticity, if they are to be arrived at at all, are accessed only after a hallucinatory trip, or many, down the yellow brick road, the blonde path, and not until after multiple forays into the woods, and out again: last dress, best dress.
The house itself is sentient, furnished with an identical violin in every closet, player pianos that animate on their own. From “An Engine That Won’t”:
hundreds of electrical wires, just humming under the plaster,
Just nearly bursting with the same secret as ever—Press
Your ear to the wall and hold your breath. It’s the absolute longing
The hair dryer feels for the bathroom spigot, & the ochre
Lungswell of waterstain on the bedroom ceiling, there above
the pillow line. A blown bulb that crumbles in the unscrewing.
Well what do you expect when you give a house a name? Woolard asks in “While Away.”
What sets the hangers in a closet singing in unison, asks Wright. Be it hurricane, tornado, or human, disaster is on the horizon in Neck of the Woods, and the speaker fixes to watch it roll in and enact its violence from the steps. From “Spoiler”:
Her pick-up truck’s gone
Feral in the grass. It is awful hot. It’s ok, you’re still
An animal, she says to herself. Animals are darned
With their past lives. The front porch can’t help
But laugh at such a rookie mistake
Like Danielle Pafunda in Beshrew, Woolard injects her own brand of noir into her work, dims the lights on sunny good-old-boy lawlessness and homestyle justice to spin a dark narrative delivered through a whiskey haze and a bold lip. From “Get Lost”:
Out here, some things are fixed with a hot shower, some
With a better lock on the door. When you see a girl propped
In her chair like a shotgun still warm, I think you know:
That’s no riddle. Sun split open the morning like a ten-penny.
Our speaker uses The word sugar like a leash, knows how to wipe / A scene clean, has a cotton dress and a closed-mouth smile for any occasion.
By the time we get to, I sympathize with the assassin in every story, in “Things Go South,” the mood is as chilling as an ice cube down the back.
Twinning shadows the speaker wherever she goes. Couplets are packed tight as a home-canned jar of okra with searing images, doubled and split. From “Neck of the Woods”:
These girls wore each other, is what I mean, Passed out in
Each other’s shoes, passed the ends of sentences from one to
Two girls trailed each other, delivered one
Another from one year to the next, twinned until they would down
To just one night. One girl might leave a line of salt in the dirt,
One a flush of dust
The poet references the Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, stories in which the woods are places of warp, amplified snap, thickets where perception shifts with the light and movement is registered only in the periphery, where an invitation is just another line to be crossed. This neck of the woods is, too, a tender place, a crook of solace, transformative and vulnerable, something to be wrung.
Tenderness lies between the sharp and the sweet. Sharp is the sour smell of spilt whiskey the morning after, the edges of a skyscraper:
I have been a county drunk and I have been
An apparatchik of plate glass
Sugar is as ubiquitous as dust, collects in gritty pools of sweat under a breast, comes alive in Fluffed girls like sugar roses on grocery / Store sheet cakes. The speaker makes it clear, however, in “Triggered, Fingered” that she will not sacrifice her bite:
Like my sugar, but who said I’d give my teeth for anything.
Booze is another story:
Got my house in order but never quite could give up
The drink, the way it confects me, the way I stay spoked
With what wrecks me
Grief, long-lived and stealthy, stabs through the wreckage in “Mise En Place”:
Half a life is reaching
Casually for a dog who—sad to say—‘s been gone for months.
The prismatic experience of Neck of the Woods offers door after door into the work, from nimble word play—Our history repeals itself—to a Southern symphony by which reedy Nights go by like an orchestra of oboes, and percussion insists in gunshots, cicada song, and the tick of a gas burner trying to light. Dwelling in something like Wright’s musical extremis, I, too, want To buy all the trucks parked for sale / In all the front yards of Virginia, each windshield smitten with insects.
With each subsequent reading, I feel like I’m witnessing the speaker in a dimly lit room while she rehearses her story for the trial, over and over again, every version true. “Spoiler” is the title of the first poem in four of the six sections of the collection, and accurately names my inclination to roll out every indelible image and ingenious bit of wordplay keyed into my brain, but that would be a hollow substitute for the experience of delving into, and out of, this Neck of the Woods on your own.