Nancy Meneely

Spare Parts, by Anne Harding Wordworth. Turning Point, 2008. 79 pp.

To read the poems in Anne Harding Woodworth's earlier volumes is to join her in stopovers along the blue highways of awareness, visits with ideas and phenomena too often overlooked. Titles of previous collections, The Mushroom Papers and Up from the Root Cellar, for example, attest to Woodworth’s penchant for finding, exploring, and celebrating the far side—and underside—of things both quotidian and bizarre.

But if these earlier works deposit us in the odd off-turnpike places, Spare Parts, a novella in verse, permits us to go along for the ride. Here, in this more expansive format, we travel with her as her imagination unrolls, charmed by the itinerary and increasingly smitten with the characters for which her own affection is clear. Along the way, we make acquaintance with oddities of human behavior, myth, place, and culture only a writer of Woodworth's skill, knowledge, and whimsy could collect in one place.

The number of principal parts in this drama is spare indeed. The three major players, Gaddis, Paul, and Lacey, disclose individual slants on each other and their shared history in alternating poetic monologues. Gaddis and Paul, born and raised in Bristol, Tennessee, are childhood friends with a bond cemented by mutual passion for the nearby speedway. Their lives begin to diverge when Gaddis matriculates at UT and Paul goes "North" to college. Gaddis, a riddle of a person disguised by plain-speaking and his simple, enduring loyalty, studies the science of the land that will provide his livelihood and comes home married to Sybil, the love of his life. Paul returns from Amherst versed in foreign language, literature, and loss, accompanied by Lacey, his second wife, and, somewhat later, his daughter.

A more wrenching separation of the two friends follows Paul's horrified discovery of the secret expedient by which Gaddis endures his wife's death. This schism informs the remainder of the tale, in which the poet interweaves St. Francis of Assisi, Dale Earnhardt, a mythological Greek hermaphrodite, parachuting, vintage American automobiles, and an automotive hallucination with the reconstitution and expansion of the drama's seminal relationships.

It's a wonderful story, basic at its heart, almost cartwheeling at its perimeter, rich in allusion, pathos and humor. Lucky for us, Woodworth's craft is equal to the ambition of her ideas: we are propelled through this story by an engine as carefully constructed, intricate and powerful as that of the 1960 Ford Galaxie that revs the story's opening and foreshadows its denouement. The poetic discipline is syllabic. Gaddis, misleadingly presented as the simplest of the characters, speaks in quatrains with lines of eight syllables; Paul is given tercets of ten-syllable lines; and Lacey, the academic, offers her broader observations in longer sets of twelve-syllable lines.

Enjambment is used to great effect, a real accomplishment in a syllabic format. Rhyme occurs, frequently mid-line and in places as unlikely as Lacey’s "research notes," which begin like this:

Short-stemmed cotton grows many months in Copais
Valley, once lake, then plain. To drain, Mycenaean
engineers figured how—but filled again. Water
can’t be tamed—marshes grow back like bamboo & cane.

Mirrors and mirroring are a central motif heralded by the Earnhardt quote serving as the novella’s epigraph ("There’s no one who scares me when I see them in my mirror.").  Rhyme anchors Gaddis' surprisingly abstract first entry, a musing on images:

Paul . . .
. . . knew terms like liabilities
indemnities, and acts of God,

which always seemed to me to be
arbitrary, temporary,
imaginary. Yet isn't
everything imaginary?

I imagine me in mirrors,
glass that reflects vision less than
truthful, passing right for left, left
right. Opposites bespeak only

those appearances and seemings,
never in those verbs of being.

As its actors speak in their turns, the drama powers along: Spare Parts is a well-told, one-sitting story that keeps us reading until the end. But Woodworth is a poet of highly original and startling observations, with language to match. Sometimes that poet emerges from the narrative, tellingly, as in Paul's lovely exposure of Lacey's ambitions—and soul:

She was going to write novels using myth,
which runs deep in all seasons and which casts

reason to the breezes. Myth makes sense and
explains, she'd say, why day makes love to rain
and stars paint skies with plots that end in pain.

And as if all this weren't enough, there are nuggets of fun to be discovered everywhere, including (but not limited to) many important near-anagrams (look for those around "Gaddis" and "NASCAR"); other kinds of linguistic jokes, as in the title of Gaddis' first offering ("In which Gaddis reflects on mirror images"); and the unifying role of Robert Service’s poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

No review can capture all the reasons for which this book has to be read. There is too much in Spare Parts of sweetness and the salt of the earth, of beauty and the beasts, of the arcane and the complicated commonplace, of idea turning back on itself and into itself and breeding yet more idea. There's much to love here, much to learn—the novella is really more prism than mirror. But you'd do yourself a big favor to look into it.

Nancy Meneely says she's getting the hang of retirement after twenty gratifying/distressing years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and happy adventures along earlier career paths. Among other wonderfully small-town volunteer activities, she chairs the Guilford Poets Guild and serves as its representative to the Connecticut Poetry Society.



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