this hall of several tortures by Reuben Woolley
Knives Forks and Spoons Press [UK], 2019
What is the ‘right’ poetry game to be played today?
It is 9/26/2019. I am seated at home at my desk, having completed my third reading of a pre-publication document of Reuben Woolley’s new poetry collection, this hall of several tortures. Because of the poems’ effects on my imagination and thinking, I am compelled to write a review while the compositions are vivid in my memory. Like all of the author’s works, these poems can be classified as “innovative” and “experimental,” the latter term notoriously difficult to define. In this review, I follow the Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote that experimental poetry “defamiliarizes” common speech or makes it “strange” by way of deploying a variety of “devices” or “techniques” [e.g., collage, erasure, repetition, indeterminance]. In this review, I will reference the poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff’s, treatment of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical project, in part because Woolley, an Englishman living in Spain and a highly-regarded poet and editor, has studied linguistics and has recommended Perloff”s wide-ranging examination of Wittgenstein [University of Chicago Press, 1996]. this hall of several tortures is dedicated to poets Fran Lock, Antony Owen, and Jerome Rothenberg, and the stunning cover image by Dean Pasch portends a handsomely-produced volume.
The 68 poems in this book represent a cohesively arranged collection since they constitute a plot in the context of a “multiverse,” an “alternate reality” where we follow a young woman’s dystopian experiences. As Woolley stated recently on Facebook, the concept of the “multiverse” has been central to much literature, represented in Science Fiction [e.g., Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling], as well as, “straight lit” [e.g., George Orwell, Aldous Huxley]. In the academic literature, this hall of several tortures would be classified as “impossible worlds” writing, exhibiting, in particular, according to the American critic, Marie Laure Ryan, a “dream-like reality” with “fluid images” and “a general lack of ontological stability.” In Woolley’s words, “I do not care if [the “multiverse”] actually exists….This [“parallel”] world…is seen by [the young woman] as [a] dystopian planet…. The first person in the poems is not me, the poet, but her. This is fiction based on a frequently unpleasant reality.”
It is important to point out, however, that many poems in this new collection include commentary by a second party situated on the right-hand side of a given page [e.g., “she said”], commentary directed to him, the author—according to Woolley in an interview in The Wombell Rainbow [UK]—situated in a space that is unspecified. This structure is reminiscent of Greek tragedy whereby a character [in this case, the young woman] speaks to a chorus [in this case, Woolley, the poet himself]; although, in this hall of several tortures, the poet-receiver of the “I” voice does not, apparently, influence the young woman. That there may be communication between the young woman and the poet leads one to suggest, however, that the relationship can be interpreted as a form of “doubling” or “twinning” whereby the persona of each performer is difficult to untangle—signaling a type of symbiosis. Following this idea, the reader might wonder whether there is, in fact, any separation at all between speaker and receiver. Are we, possibly, inhabiting a dream generated by the poet’s unconscious? Is the book derived from Surrealism and that movement’s promulgation of Freudian theory? Even more interesting, perhaps, is the possibility that the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s concept, “mirroring,” describes the relation [literary, figurative] between young woman-speaker and poet-receiver or that each is “Other” to the “Other.” Further, feminist psychoanalyst critics would explore the implied relationship between older male poet and younger female subject [Father? Mentor? Teacher? Lover?]. However the reader decodes or makes sense of Woolley’s new compositions—subjectively, textually, or theoretically—the book will prove to be a rich source of interpretive material—bounded only by the collection’s plot.
A single poem [p 13], below, serves to illustrate additional “devices” employed by Woolley—conventions readily recognizable throughout his oeuvre:
turn the page over she said
the holes the holes do not come
empty.i dig through a time
a matter coincides
& we occupy the room together.who said
she could not fold a world
away & bring another
skin / another tired foundling
in our dark shells &
never speaking.oh the shit
of it all on both our sides
we scratch a putrid sore
in our reflections
& bleed a waiting speech
on the earths of undelight
Several critics have labeled Gertrude Stein’s writing, “impressionistic,” a term befitting the poems in the hall of several tortures. Also, similar to Stein and many other “experimental” works, Woolley’s poems are, for the most part, “indeterminate” [e.g., imprecise, unfinished, non-committal, “undecidable”] as to meaning, particularly, in their “associative” or “collage” [fractured, assembled, “cut up”] components whereby words or phrases do not necessarily follow grammatically, or logically, from others. Woolley also uses frequent hard and soft “stops,” as seen in the poem above—periods or backslashes between words, phrases. In many other poems, “white spaces” are employed. According to Woolley, “The white space is the same as for music: silence. The greater the space, the longer the silence. They also give the reader/listener time to think, rethink and participate creatively.” This explanation applies, as well, to the aforementioned “stops.” Woolley frequently uses words or phrases that are ambiguous and difficult to interpret, possibly intentionally, and Perloff, following Wittgenstein, suggests that “senselessness” [see, for example, “& bleed a waiting speech” in Woolley’s poem above] represents a “combination of words…excluded from the language…” Here, words “excluded from the language” may be understood as words having been erased by the poet, effected, according to Perloff, for a variety of reasons, such as, obfuscation, play, or, possibly, resistance to mainstream literary norms.
Perloff goes on to point out that Wittgenstein was “obsessed not only with the ‘power of ordinary words,’ but with their strangeness.” One might say the same of Woolley. Throughout the hall of several tortures, the poet frequently begins common words with, “un,” as in “undelight,” in the poem above. Perloff states that Wittgenstein saw no fundamental difference between “ordinary and literary language,” a viewpoint consistent with Woolley’s straightforward and unpretentious, though not simplistic, use of syntax, including word usage. Perloff also discusses Wittgenstein’s perspective that “certain things cannot be said, they can only be shown: There is indeed the inexpressible.” Like Woolley’s use of the word, “shit” in “turn the page over she said,” the poet often uses taboo words to express emotion in place of using literal language—rather than attempt to describe a state of being or events in the world . These taboo words may, also, symbolize or take the place of thoughts [in the present case, possibly, “I understand.” or “Yes.” or “Really?” or “OK”], in addition to a range of emotions [possibly, contentment, acceptance, protectiveness, or awe]. Importantly, Wittgenstein pointed out that, where words are repeated [repetition characterizing many experimental poems—see, especially, Stein], they must be evaluated in context; thus, the “function” of words is expected to change from location to location in a text.
Like the recently deceased, Steve Dalachinsky, Reuben Woolley might be called a “jazz poet”—influenced by the “free jazz” musical movement, and he has sometimes discussed his poetics in interviews and online. In the online literary journal, The Wombell Rainbow [UK], for example, Woolley stated, “I like to think I write Free Poetry. Any word or image can go anywhere, but only the really good poet can recognise that place and allow the word or image to go there….” Because of this poet’s literary, intentional, and contextual skills, this hall of several tortures is a book that will be valuable, not only for its literary and artistic import, but, also, as a text amenable to “close reading” by academics, critics, and other readers valuing music and image combined with rich texture, as well as, innovative, “impressionistic” language and plot. As well, the collection can be entered solely for the pleasure of experiencing compelling “abstract” art—one of Woolley’s major influences. His new collection is certain to attract a wide audience—well-deserved attention for a noteworthy practitioner of avant garde poetry.
Clara B. Jones is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Her books, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming.