Ward Wood Publishing, 2013, £8.99
Surprise in poetry, most readers would probably say, can only be a good thing. The surprise of new forms, of words used to create new sounds, new music, or the surprise of original and wholly distinctive subject matter.
There's another sort though, and that's the surprise achieved by all really good poetry, of making you feel that something's been said the only possible way it could be said. The surprise of an effect that's both emotional and intellectual, but that creeps up on you unannounced.
That's how James Wood's poetry works. His technical skill and ear for language are outstanding, but what repeatedly catches you off-guard in this memorable debut collection is the emotional heft that he asks them to carry.
I found that all the more impressive given that I'd seen the manuscript of the book well before publication, and have read and re-read the two chapbooks - The Theory of Everything (HappenStance, 2006) and Inextinguishable (Knucker Press, 2008) - that contribute to its contents.
(I should add, at this point, that another more surprise occurs to me, namely that it took this long for a publisher to offer a full collection).
The book is split into three sections, Hymn, Elegy, and Exaltation, but while that broadly deals with themes of praise, grief and mourning, and celebration, one of its strengths, I think, is that all those elements are present throughout.
Take the wonderful The Craws, from the middle section:
no prizewinner, sportsman, or great thinker,
just a man like any other, and one
whose life asks us for little grieving.
It's bracingly clear-eyed and honest, and it manages to perfectly balance mourning with recollection of a life well-lived. There's no attempt by the poet to distance himself from difficult or uncomfortable subject matter - the understated precision of the language is trusted throughout to steer clear of the pitfall of sentimentality.
Catherine Wheel, dealing with a suicide, is another good example, asking its questions gracefully and without a hint of melodrama or straining for easy emotional effect.
a Catherine Wheel blazing brilliantly
in a ploughed field at midsummer, a spark
that might have cloaked us all in fire
if only we could have seen it.
We're talking about restraint, here (sometimes abetted by Wood's skilful use of the constraints of form), rather than the sort of buttoned-down politeness of which much mainstream British poetry is often accused. When Wood wants to, he can really put the spurs to the language and positively gallop across the page. A poem like The Theory Of Everything is exhilarating for the way it pulls together a whirlwind of diverse ideas and images to celebrate the sheer variousness of the world (no, the universe), while there's a similar joy in both language and life itself to be found in Fantaisie De Fruits and Buccaneers.
Wood's control of pacing is evident not just in individual poems, but in the structure of the collection, closing with the superb An Fraoch Mor and Departures, both perfectly controlled in their reflectiveness after some more free-ranging excursions just before. The latter is again clear-eyed, refusing to look for excuses or distractions, closing with "So set sail for life, / keep steel in your eyes. Hold hard to your course / and let the storm clouds rise."
The love poems are highlights too, and I'll close by pointing out one further surprise that involves them. I suspect many poets would have kept the opening piece here, The Same Page, towards the end of the book, a sort of pay-off after the difficult journeys that have gone before, what with its potential for a happy ending of sorts. Here, though, it's an interrogation of both the nature of love and of poetry, and the hold it takes on you isn't released until the end of this very fine book.