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The Garden of Forgetting

Written by Professor John Lennard, University of the West Indies, Mona. for n/a on no date provided

Admirers of Gwyneth Barber Wood’s poems in The Jamaica Observer and Caribbean Writer have had to wait for her first collection, and the wait proves well worthwhile. The fifty pieces in The Garden of Forgetting are surely 'poems of love and loss', but that subtitle does them bare justice; the main title, marrying the organised promise of a garden with the quiet absence of forgetting, is a better guide to the subtle tensions of Wood’s verse.

Throughout the volume there are local pleasures, especially for those familiar with Jamaican colour, fruits, and light. There are 'daughters of the soil' who 'grew wild and stubborn, like guinea weed' ('Voices from the Garden of Forgetting'), 'eyes, black like ackee-seeds' ('Magnolia'), and 'the bottlebrush sweeps the earth, / its red prickle weeping' ('The Garden of Forgetting') ; while almost everywhere there is the sea, or its sounds and promises. As in Walcott, with natural observation and evocation comes the business of poetry, explicit attention to words and lines, generating a pressure of self- and aesthetic awareness registered in the frequency of 'I' and relative scarcity of other pronouns -- which can be a true strength, bringing to a poetry of witness the compassion and understanding of deeply felt experience, but it is also half of a fascinating conundrum the volume presents, for Wood is also, and passionately, formalist.

Much has been made of ‘neo-formalism’, that (supposed) rediscovery of pleasure in finite order that Modernists (supposedly) abandoned. The truth, of course, is that formalism never went away, passing from Yeats, Eliot, Frost, and Auden to Plath, Berryman, Heaney and a thousand more. It also evolved in the process, most importantly by admitting incompletion, so that damaged or vestigial forms were able (like heroic verse and epic in The Waste Land) to become registers of modern loss, and complete forms potentially an ideal ironising their contents (as sonnet-form is for Yeats’s brutal 'Leda and the Swan' or Owen's elegiac 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'). It is this broadened tradition that Wood inherits, and the persistence in her work of a metrical pulse and stanzaic construction is matched only by their ceaseless variation: two poems strictly embrace couplets, and many are in quatrains, but others try tercets or experiment with malleable longer stanzas; rhythms are audibly free, and rich with speech, but an iambic pulse is rarely absent, and pentameter equally audibly the mean of the metrical variations. Read poems individually, and one may like this or dislike that particular choice of a form and its attendant discipline ; read the volume, and the restlessness of form, contractions and observant imperfections as stanza follows stanza, visibly becomes a quest. ‘Stanza’ is from the Italian for ‘a room’, as if each were one chamber in the house of the poem, and Wood’s quest is for poetic architectures that will become, and resound with, her own particular voice.

One clear marker is Wood’s exclusion of her patois poems. When an individual poem needs a patois voice it will sound, as in 'Father' ('Is you / sen’ him to haunt me?'), but while there is nothing 'standard' about Wood's language, her own voice speaks, in our contemporary jargon, 'standard English', and she has said that she excluded patois work because she felt uncomfortable performing it. The easy explanation would be to postulate politically correct embarrassment at appropriating a lexicon and grammar not strictly her own; beyond such correct feelings is a more interesting problem which some fine Caribbean writers have embraced, and Gordon Rohlehr set about theorising from the inside in 'The Problem of the Problem of Form'. From the outside, it is the artistic negotiation of old and genesis of new forms within the plurality and insecurity of the modern Caribbean, in the equal awareness of communal political pressures and of an individual self that seeks validation in the act and achievement of writing. And Jamaica is not always, as Wood’s poems tell us, the most helpful place to attempt such negotiations, in their nature sharpening awareness of the social forms that press on all our voices but which it is, almost always, 'bad form' to mention -- gradients and shadows of colour, class, and gender, the things one lets pass by, the hopes we silently abandon or must forget to live on.

Nothing in The Garden of Forgetting suggests that Wood's quest is over, and I hope I shan't have to wait as long for a second volume, but the interactions here of voice and form, damage and assertion, recording and omission ask for time to be mulled over:

What was the desert in her sighs?
Between her upturned nose and the quiver in
her chin, the answers sting his weary eyes
like a salty rain. Only a desperate love could lure
him back to the well within her thighs.
The sea is calm. Her damp silk dries. ('The Artist')

These six lines conclude a sonnet: the variation in rhyme-scheme is only mildly unusual, but the patterning of syntax against lines more so, and what really catches formal attention is the first and last lines, a one-sentence question and two declarative sentences, each a perfect iambic tetrameter: four ti-tums, not the required five: a silent lessening of form that embodies the reticence of the calm, dry observations that leave and imply so much unsaid. Successive lines between play crescendo and diminuendo, dancing around the pentametric measure fully achieved in 'her chin, the answers sting his weary eyes', but the framing in deliberately short lines and the sinuous movement from emotive question to detached elision are primary technical achievements that in this particular poem ground the thematic concern with 'love and loss'. Many of these poems achieve as much or more in their own ways, asking for and rewarding serious attention, and this is a volume that will be in the pile by my reading-chair for many weeks to come.

This is a review of The Garden of Forgetting

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