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Deborah Woodard’s Borrowed Tales

Central Question: How do you know you are always the same person?
DISCUSSED

Publisher: Stockport Flats; Author teaches at: Richard Hugo House, Seattle; Author also translates: the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli; Catherine Ferguson Academy also appears in: Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli; Maddening aspect of contemporary publishing highlighted by this book, among many others: prose poems printed without right-justified margins, making it hard to know whether or not to read them as verse; Longest poem title: “Flashback: Negro State Fair, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1924”; Last poem title: “Junior High School Bathing Muse”; Representative sentence: “Lorelei habitually rolled down her tube socks to reveal the tattooed flame beneath.”

Deborah Woodard’s Borrowed Tales

Stephanie Burt
20 Snaps

Not fan fiction, not persona poems, not capsule biography, and never just collage, Deborah Woodard’s beautifully confusing, densely charming collection draws on all of those genres nonetheless. Her long, sometimes ungainly lines and off-balance sentences explore slices and moments, memories and oblique views of people real and fictive: a friend who served in the Peace Corps and wrote letters home; a teenage diarist fleeing LA; Ophelia and Hamlet; graffiti writers (“Tags covered what they did not own, if all / went well”); pregnant teens and their teachers at the (real) Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit; a deaf man unjustly confined in a North Carolina asylum. The poems become facets of each person, pieces of lives we never encounter whole.

That means that the poems do something odd indeed, or rather that they do two things in an odd combination: they present characters, and they grate and scrape against the idea that we can come to know all of a person, that we can explain all somebody’s actions and know that person as a whole. Instead, Woodard’s elaborations say, there’s more to anybody, even to fictional characters, than we can understand. Her poems based on Hamlet are mysteries in the best way, like long-forgotten, partially legible letters from summer camp; to wit, sometimes their protagonists sound like teens. “Ghosts just want to talk it out,” Woodard explains to (or perhaps in the voice of) Ophelia. “She seemed really young / for her glasses. Do you like my poems? she asked. Her birdsong tugged at me.” Horatio, on the other hand, tries to imagine adulthood: “Dude, you drank it away,” he begins, but then produces a figure for maturity: “We keep getting simpler so, in the end, we don’t have to be. We get furry, put out leafy tips.”

The budding tree and the dudely bro could both be Horatio, but not the same Horatio; they coexist incompatibly in our imaginations, just as incompatible personae, incompatible ways of acting, also come together in real people’s lives. As Horatio is one way in one production, another in another, so I am one person with my mom, another with my children, two others with two sets of friends.

Woodard favors long, unmetrical lines that put sentence shape first; at their weakest they sound like prose. (A few poems use short lines instead.) Her notes explain that she began these poems by adapting a teenager’s journals, then moved on to other texts, other lives. Their origins in collage and adaptation appear in the discontinuous, unsettling changes in diction within poems, as if each kind of language were a facet of the person; to read the poems is to see them spin. One series of poems incorporates the alienated, formal language of Gilded Age drawing-room tragedy: “Some plants are very beautiful sideways, like the rain on glass. Yes, indeed, Father, I see that.” Another series finds unexpected familiarity—along with uninterpretable ritual—at an Azerbaijani wedding: “The wetness, the stones, the celebrants raising their iPhones.” As for the poems about made-up graffiti writers, they could also describe Woodard’s own technique: “Gordon worked on his opus piecemeal. Often, he struggled to remember how to write in lines.”

To live with these poems is to live not just with the stories but also with the clutter, the difficulties and the contradictions, inside someone else’s—anyone else’s—head. Their choppy melodies do justice to the weirdness of lived experience, to the contradictory impressions one person can make on us, as well as to the plots that all lives hold. After some time amid these pages, you might imagine yourself as one of Woodard’s exemplary subjects, your own words exposed, reframed, remixed: you might think at once about how confusing or multifaceted any life is, and about what facets your own might show.    

—Stephen Burt

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