Exploring the unconscious
Annie Woodhull works her way toward truth
Writing poems is a way of looking, for Northampton poet Annie Woodhull. Through close observation and imagination, Woodhull works her way toward truth.
“I used to just want to go on flights (of fancy) and get as many imaginings going on as I could, and I’d make things up,” Woodhull said, of her work. “Now, all I want to do is to have it be true.”
But being true doesn’t mean that her poems are bound in any way by ordinary language. Woodhull, whom I must admit is a longtime friend and a member of Group 18, a Northampton-based poetry critique group to which we both belong, has always brought to her work her own, often surprising, syntax. And her unceasing exploration of the unconscious, the pulse of her work as a Jungian art therapist, informs Woodhull’s imagery.
Woodhull can conjure the beauty of the natural world like nobody’s business. In “Accepting This,” one of the poems in her new collection, “Night with its Owl,” just out from Hedgerow Books of Amherst, Woodhull writes with characteristic precision: “These lovers have a hummingbird’s worth/of time. Drawn to the red flower,/thin straw of tongue long into/the throat of bee balm ...”
But the world’s beauty doesn’t blind her to the darker forces of illness, human destruction or war. Woodhull takes on loss as well as awe, dread as well as happiness, often in the same poem.
“I think that’s the kind of thing that I’m really interested in,” Woodhull said. “What are these opposing things going on all the time and how can we survive it?”
One short poem, “Russian Children Killed at the Beginning of School,” came as a response to learning, in September of 2004, of the Beslan massacre. At least 334 people were killed in that event, close to two hundred of them children, burned to death in their school after being held hostage for three days. But the poem itself never speaks of the children: it focuses minutely on a red hibiscus seen from a distance: “The dish of it flails red/into the last of things,” Woodhull writes.
“I remember very well reading a newspaper and then sitting there and looking outside and seeing the hibiscus,” Woodhull said.
Woodhull didn’t want to simply write, “The blood and guts,” of the massacre, she said. What interested her was, “The way an event like that puts pressure on the way you’re seeing what’s around you. And you just can’t escape it.”
Another poem, “History of Warning,” begins with a sniper perched in a tree. Woodhull wrote the poem during the beginning of the Gulf War, after hearing accounts of, “Things blowing up and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and cars exploding. Sort of a new version of Vietnam,” she said.
“Dread/drops its milky spore/everywhere,” the poem asserts. Yet the very next line: “Frogs hatch anyway,” affirms the simple fact — so far — of nature’s endurance.
“This book is so much about the dark and the light … And what is faith? And what is belief?” Woodhull said.
“Is there more dark than light?” she asks.
Woodhull ends up quoting a phrase from another of her poems, “The Creation of Destruction,” as she continues: “I don’t even know the answer to that question. But this morning I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know if there’s more dark than light but there is “a headlong rush to bloom.”’ I can say that. And that actually made me feel better.”
“It’s like, ‘the frogs hatch anyway,’” Woodhull said, quoting from “History of Warning.” After a beat, she added, “Hopefully, they keep hatching.”
Woodhull will be launching “Night with its Owl” at a reading Friday, May 17, 7:30 p.m. at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.n (Editor's note: the day of the reading was incorrect on Saturday's Book page.) The book is available at Collective Copies stores in Amherst and Florence, Amherst Books, Broadside Books. Ask for it at Franklin County bookstores. To order online or to find out more about Hedgerow Books, visit: www.levellerspress.com.
Hedgerow Books presently has several more poetry collections in the works. A new call for manuscripts will most likely occur in the fall or winter of 2013, according to publisher Steve Strimer.
Of her experience working with Strimer and Hedgerow managing editor Diana Gordon, Woodhull said. “It was incredible. Really great. It was all about generosity. … The press really takes care of the writer.”
History of Warning
Sniper perched in a tree like
a great bird, gaunt whisper
of hiding. He watches fear
smeared over faces.
One hand holds the other,
the sweat and silence there. Seasons lost
in this — even the wildflowers must
take sides. Our children
look over their shoulders. Dread
drops its milky spore
everywhere. Frogs hatch anyway,
and shrill predictions,
at their highest pitch, break glass.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. One of the founders of Slate Roof, a member-run press publishing western Massachusetts poets, her chapbook “Walk through Paradise Backwards” was published by the press in 2004. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, journals and Ted Kooser’s national column, “An American Life in Poetry.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. To submit a book, mail it to Franklin County Poets, The Recorder, P.O. Box 1367, Greenfield, MA 01302, attention, Adam Orth. Or, drop it off at our office, 14 Hope St., Greenfield.