The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Gray Jacobik on Anne Harding Woodworth
Artemis Sonnets, Etc. by Anne Harding Woodworth. Turning Point Press, 2011.
One of the shortcomings of the general conversation among poets these days, and
this may be the result of our workshop or the M.F.A. culture, is the harping
upon the need, when forging a group of disparate poems into a manuscript, to
find, by hook or crook, one or more patterns. Sometimes these patterns
are called the emotional arc, or the narrative strategy; patterns that, under
the best circumstances grow organically, and under the worst circumstances feel
cobbled together. I know that a number of poets have written against this
practice; far more have written, and taught, in support of it. Poets are
implicitly urged (particularly "in workshop") not to trust their
readers while being explicitly urged to do precisely that. Rich, lively,
intensely emotional, capacious, beautifully written poems tucked in together
under the counterpane, give rise to the patterns each reader needs to see,
although, I admit, it isn't easy to trust that to be the case.
What is wrong, pray tell, with strong poems simply abiding beside one another?
Yes, it may be true that that old "greater-whole-than-sum-of-its-parts"
argument does have legitimacy on occasion; however, like the truly necessary poem,
this rarity cannot be pounded into existence.
That is my one complaint against this new collection by Anne Harding Woodworth,
The Artemis Sonnets, Etc. I wish the poet hadn't tried so hard to
make her poems into "a manuscript." The book in hand, The
Artemis Sonnets, Etc., is divided into three parts. The first part is
comprised of seven poems, concluding with the title poem, a crown with the
variant of the first line of the first sonnet providing the first line, not the
last, of the second, but then the form follows the traditional pattern.
Varied as these seven are, what justifies the grouping here are real
and/or imagined encounters with deer and bear. Artemis, in her ironic
guise as hunter and guardian of animals, who most famously turned Actaeon into
a deer and then set his own dogs upon him, supplies the supernatural element
that adds scope to poems of trans-species encounter.
The central trope, one that re-occurs throughout this entire collection, is the
desire for union with the Other. The poet's intensely empathetic nature reveals
itself immediately in the third poem of the first part, "Deer and Me,"
about the speaker's slow-motion perceptions as she is in the act of hitting a
deer with her car. The encounter occurs on a snowy night, on icy roads:
I am the deer now, I am the
hooves in the road.
You are the car, the tires,
the flare of the lights.
I am going to kill you, you're
going to kill me.
The present-progressive-rich final lines, with their pop-culture reference,
extend the immediacy of the instant, reach back across decades, and speak to
the fundamental, that is the aesthetic, truth of the encounter. At the
same time, Woodworth's punctuation and use of space, encode the singer's voice:
I'm killing and braking and
sliding and skidding
inside this steamed-up glass
while Joe Cocker is singing
A good deal of work for four lines to do! Here Woodworth transforms into
a truly memorable poem a subject often taken up by poets with far less success.
"The Russian Bear" is another effective poem in this first section.
The poet compares a circus bear's captivity to that of women "brought
out of Russia and Nigeria / to Italy" and worked as prostitutes,
controlled by a pimp as an ice-skating bear was by his captor. Once
again, here, at the end of this poem, the unifying gesture occurs: the
over-arching allusion to Artemis, who could turn herself into any animal she
wished to be, is paired with the poet's central trope of union:
I want only to be the bear
that wended the path to our
as if she were Artemis coming
The poems of the second and third sections are a sweep of lyrics, narratives,
and mixed-mode poems that weave together the speaker's romantic history, both
in Frankfurt in the late 1980s, and in Greece in the late-1960s through the
early 1970s, with events in Greece during the Nazi occupation. There is a
grandmother who survived the Nazi occupation and other characters, some more
generally sketched than others, who have emigrated from Greece to the United
In the last fifteen of the poems, or so, of the second section, there is a
quasi-narrative sequence about a lover and a husband (perhaps one and the same)
and the speaker's growing isolation from, and eventual divorce from, that
husband-meteorologist. What concerns the poet most centrally, and one of the
core strengths of this collection, are moments that are both in time and out of
time simultaneously. As one of the epigraphs Woodworth uses, from Galway
Kinnell, expresses it, Woodworth is concerned with those instances "when
the past just managed to overlap the future."
I do find myself wishing, however, that the second half of the second section
stood alone, and that some of the pronoun references were less oblique and more
obvious. Who is this "him" "his" "he" who
shows up in poem after poem? Is this the same man? The husband?
The father of Greg? I think the poet wanted to have her cake and
eat it too: the cake being to sustain a metaphysical meditation across a series
of narratively linked poems; the "eating it too" being reticence and
authorial distance. Why bind poems within the framework of a story, and
then be coy about certain grounding facts of service to the reader? Not
that we need a proper name . . . .
The first dozen or so poems of that section appear to be more closely linked to
those in the third. Among these, I particularly appreciate "Occupation
1942" and want to present it in its entirety:
All the animals had turned
Some citizens lied to, stole
one another. Marriages
Other citizens loved each
and shared shelter. War
finds the kind
and the unkind. Trees
into temporary warmth.
And boiled water.
On the barren clay, horta
and other green weeds grew,
which the kind ones shared.
kept all of them inside at
mending, coughing, caressing,
over what Athens was like
before the Occupiers came,
before the order to shoot
whatever moved in the streets
To complicate starvation and
kind and unkind women aborted,
some relieved to have no sweet
others calling out for the
child they'd saved from life.
When it was over, they rarely
talked about it.
But old photographs show that
attached to the names of the
This narrative poem rewards the reader beautifully through its scope and the
clear, clean, direct presentation. Eschewing adornment, this poem
glitters: "Marriages corroded." "All the animals had
turned into food." Who could not delight in such deft and efficient
strokes that—within the larger context generated by the title, by the coughing,
stealing, "starvation and disease," by the "kind and unkind
women [who] aborted," and most especially by Woodworth's stunning last
sentence—take on the compass of the deeply tragic?
Time, along with unity, is the second great theme that binds these disparate
poems together. When time and history pin the poem to a particular place,
as they do in "Occupation 1942," or "Monastery, 1969," the
poet seems to draw into herself enormous strength. A short lyric, "Fall
1989," is another that combines time, place, and historical fact with the
drama of individual existence. Here it is in full:
Outside Frankfurt in a rented
he turns the radio on
and we hear the century's news
not for the first time:
the Berlin wall is coming
I want a divorce, he
We are tourists
on the grounds of a castle.
Trees have been pruned for the
wrapped in burlap
hiding spiked branches.
The compression here is astoundingly effective. I enjoy thinking about
all the poet did not say. We know nothing about this couple other than
that they are married and are tourists. That the car is "rented,"
that they find themselves "on the grounds of a castle" where resonate
the intimations of lives lived long ago, and from the word "castle"
alone come the connotations of keep and fortress, of political and moral
obligations long ago obliged. Added to this is the fundamental dramatic
situation: the two, who are about to experience their own severing, are captive
in a car for the duration of their drive, caught, as they are, listening to "the
century's news" (the partitioning of Germany after WWII, the rise of the
Communist block, and, of course, The Third Reich and the Holocaust, etc.).
The poet lets us know that this is "not for the first time."
The "Berlin wall is coming down" even as, ironically, one rises
irrevocably between the couple. That some of the trees "have been
pruned for the season" and are "wrapped in burlap/hiding spiked
branches" beautifully understates this couple's kept-in-check, civilized
emotions. Woodworth's displacement of emotion into these very few, yet
carefully selected details, is simply masterful.
While many of the poems in The Artemis Sonnets, Etc. work their weavings
magisterially, I do admit that the interludes that occur at random intervals in
Parts II and III, in the form of poems which carry the word "geometry,"
baffle me. The titles are "Geometry: Hexagon," "Geometry:
Cube," and so on through isosceles triangle, tangent, cone, and circle.
"Geometry: Tangent" is about a moment of daring after the
lyric-speaker nearly died from pericarditis. "Geometry: Cone" is about
a volcano erupting in Greece. "Geometry: Circle" would have been
better served by its subtitle (which I imagine was its title at some point in
its evolution ––"The Man Who Loved Greek History Too Much"). I
suppose, associating geometry with Greece, through Archimedes, is what
Woodworth intends, but I find this insufficiently organic to what is being
said, in the whole of these poems, particularly since most of these are
impressionistic and carry their weight primarily as tone poems. They feel
like an attempt at bridging natural divisions.
There are more than enough marvels in The Artemis Sonnets, Etc., to
justify buying, reading, re-reading and savoring this book: organization, in my
view, is not one of them. Although I've lived with this book only a
couple of months, I see that the poems I care about in this collection have
re-arranged themselves in my memory. Isn't this what poems always
do, especially where they really live—in readers? Or, rather, what
readers do with poems?
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