Like Standing Stones: On Sam Buchan-Watts’s “Path Through Wood” and Henri Cole’s “Blizzard”

May 6, 2022   •   By Declan Ryan

Path Through Wood

Sam Buchan-Watts

Blizzard

Henri Cole

IF A BOOK can be said to have a signature scent, Sam Buchan-Watts’s debut, Path Through Wood, is mostly redolent of “deodorant sting,” “loose tooth blood and drained pimple.” These are poems which take adolescence, among other boundaries, seriously, which are incisive about teenage jitters and dick-doodling, and which find the locus of all this awkward transformation in the woods. This is no coincidence, given Buchan-Watts’s immersion in the language of psychoanalysis, but the woodland here is less Freudian trope than site of effluvia and let-off fire extinguishers — something to dip into and emerge from, wonderfully, memorably, “as if history were a thing to be administered / in the afternoon.” The woods here have something both ancient and modern to them, are simultaneously “a sovereign state” and a place of “muttering inhibitions” — a very Buchan-Watts qualifier. It speaks to a book full of both. Here we have language as sentient accomplice as well as a winning twitchiness about the act of utterance, a sense that “language / confides against its better nature.” There is an air of W. S. Graham to this side of things, to the idea of poetry putting its foot in a stirrup, of rhyme as — in the Nabokov quote used elsewhere — “the line’s birthday,” but these linguistic games have less to do with sending words out forlornly from a dark seascape and more with a spirit of boyishness, an interest in and investigation of “play” as something liberating, even avenging.

In “Colouring In” — a delightful prose poem — Buchan-Watts most explicitly embraces this idea of liberation, conflating “outsider art” with thoughts on transgression via Ashbery, Nabokov, and Henry Darger, among other patron saints of rule-breaking. The difference — as laid out here — is that “games have rules to stick to, ‘play’ more keenly evokes a boundary which may be defined, pushed.” Buchan-Watts is interested in the “jumbo quality of childhood,” evoked by the crayon, which cannot shade, which proceeds in “chunky lines of uncomplicated colour.” It might be this clarity, this unselfconsciousness, that feels like the greatest transgression of all. This sort of poem-as-play, of overt enjoyment and self-license, is especially powerful in a book in which stark declarations such as “Instead I made a mess of my youth” or “there’s nothing worse than a man screaming in pain, you can’t suppress it” are seeded in early, creating a troubled undertow of constriction and psychic confinement.

Nowhere is this push-pull of freedom and suppression more sensitively handled than in “You just know,” a poem which begins in a hormonal fug, with “the boy on the back / row of the coach” desperate to “tame / the snake,” and develops into something poignant; while “the coach / chucks itself and the weight of these lives held at great speed,” elsewhere a tractor is “chewing up rats and benign snakes,” before its bravura payoff, with the tractor emerging “heroically unseen” “with a wistful bump to say it’s rare / for a thing to stay immaculate, except the glassy light of Ypres.” Buchan-Watts manages, in this moment, to administer some history, flattening the school trip into another transportation of young men to Ypres that went before it, his “immaculate” made all the more hurtful by its being applied to the light, not to the “lives held at great speed.” The cult of innocence is laid bare.

Other boundaries in the book are formed by the stage and the screen — a neat metaphor for the poem as “a set of shapes in worn-white tape on stage,” the “brownish / mix of poster-painted primary colour” of scenery reminiscent of the jumbo crayon tones of the kindergarten. We are reminded not that art is an imitation, but that what inspires it is no less a product of design: “just because the world depicted precedes // the film it’s no less made.” Buchan-Watts’s most insightful figuration comes elsewhere, however, in “Listening In,” where leaning on O’Hara he writes, “the phone call a useful metaphor / for poetry’s one-sided intimacy,” but goes further, to present us with “the booth as embodiment of our interior, / of privacy and confession, national kitsch.” The booth idea is more than clever, with its mix of means of communication (phone and confessional), but there’s something equally right about “national kitsch,” putting its finger on the cultish clinging to one’s little corner, however piss-stained and obsolete, an insular grumping that blights the island nation; every English man’s booth is his castle.

Buchan-Watts isn’t always able to let himself color over the lines, and a note of diffidence, or at least edginess, sometimes creeps in — qualifying assertions, giving his own and other’s bona fides, anxious not to overstep his place in the “hierarchy of attention.” This aspect of Buchan-Watts’s muttering inhibition is perhaps best rendered in “Pigeon Grey,” where the benighted birds become something like a living embodiment of stress or affliction: “They walk awkwardly in the way a person / would fall.” It seems that the poet feels keenly the answering cost of play, and in general this is a book that thrives on pairings, on credit and debit. If the booth is a stand-in for intimacy and self-determination, for instance, then the pavilion is its useless, abandoned counterpoint. It first comes up in a poem where Nabokov is dreaming of one, his own “grandiloquent pavilion,” crucially in “summer nineteen fourteen.” In this mood of never-such-innocence-again comes the second mention of the pavilion, in the book’s final poem, “The Word Pavilion”: “The pavilion is thin and unable to fend / for itself. The suburb hasn’t room / for its shabby opulence.” Unlike the immaculate light of Ypres, this is an innocence that hasn’t flourished or taken root — it has no utility, no monetizable upside, and is therefore left to rot in the autumn rain. Like liberated childhood, it is a luxury, both endangered and potentially dangerous as it threatens to collapse in on itself. Buchan-Watts’s greatest strength is in holding these luxuries in perspective, dangers and all, showing us clearly what might otherwise remain “heroically unseen.”

There’s plenty of overlap with Buchan-Watts in Henri Cole’s latest collection, Blizzard. Here we also encounter a voice troubled over the way to proceed, or simply to be, as per “Goya”: “I become a hunter putting / my face down somewhere on a path between / two ways of being — one kindly and soft; / the other an executioner.” While Buchan-Watts turns his lens on adolescence, Cole’s focus is on a later stage of development. In a striking, almost transcendentalist image, we find the narrator of “Kayaking on the Charles” “hatless, with naked torso, sixtyish, paddling alone upriver.” There has always been stateliness in Cole’s writing, a sort of lyricism with a Zen fringe, and here the meditative quality is brought to the fore, offering resolution and restitution. “I want my life to be borrowing and / paying back. I don’t want to be a gun,” he writes in “Pheasant,” and this sense of entering into the bargains of life is never made to feel like capitulation, but rather generosity, even wisdom. For all that hard-won calm, there is also a beneficial undercurrent of anger and hurt, rarely made explicit but unmistakably part of the atmosphere. On occasion it does peep through, perhaps most starkly in the book’s final poem, “Gay Bingo at a Pasadena Animal Shelter”: “I think maybe my real subject is writing as an act of revenge / against the past,” the narrator states, and by now we believe him.

This too is a book operating across borders — those of dignity and civilization versus barbarity and regression, of organization versus chaos. The poems themselves are carefully ordered, and there is something of Lowell’s sonnet-phase to them; they often clock in around the 14-line mark, but with a good deal of license taken, and have the quality of a casual cocktail with plenty of beautiful, aphoristic lines clinking like ice in the glass: “The tree of life / is greater than all the helicopters of death”; “Remember / death ends a life not a relationship”; “I rewrite / to be read, though I feel shame acknowledging it”; “Now that you are dead, my stubborn heart lives.” What happens after love is one of the central themes of the book. The “insane attempt at living” goes on among creatures, habits, and observable details, while the figure in the middle often remains alone, reckoning up what’s gone before, communing mostly with ghosts. Among those ghosts are other poets, such as Lowell (as in “At the Grave of Robert Lowell”), a reminder to the narrator that “History is like an Impressionist painting, a variegated / landscape of emotional colors,” and Seamus Heaney, the dedicatee of “Black Mushrooms,” a suitably mulchy poem of “palatal starlight,” its subtle nod to some of the darker sides of Heaney’s art, and history, coming in the “white, black, or tan,” giving the poem enough bite to avoid the complacency of homage. Heaney’s note can also be heard in “Lingonberry Jam,” its tri-partite ending with an echo of his “Tollund Man”: “I feel / autonomous, blissed-out and real.”

If the surfaces of many of the poems reflect contentment, or at least peaceful containment of desire and pleasure in a domestic setting, finding their delight in “organ meats / and stinky cheeses,” one is never made to forget the forces outside the door that threaten this arrangement, promising violence, destabilization, death. “They said we’re like roses sprayed / with pesticide,” Cole writes in “Super Bloom,” and the story of the self and its attempt to remain dignified becomes that of the United States as a whole: “They said one man in a long black car / can’t ever really empty out the fullness.” In another point of confluence with Buchan-Watts, Cole has his own (almost) pigeon poem, “Doves,” but here the birds are avatars not for worry but for defiance: “Don’t fear / nothing, their twittering voices cry,” “The true spirit / of living isn’t eating greedily, or reflection, or / even love, but dissidence, like an ax of stone.” With this sentiment Cole doesn’t only cast new light on the poems that have gone before but lines himself up in that great tradition of the American jeremiad; while he isn’t one for sloganeering, there’s no mistaking him as anything but an outlaw at heart: “I always feel an elevation / when small things overmaster the great.”

Writing here is the only possible defense of the battered heart, the abused right, but the agglomeration of experience — turned in the opening poem from language into nectar — of wounds and ghosts, is the cargo left to carry, as in “Ginger and Sorrow”: “I think perhaps the entire history / of me is here — viper of memory, / stab of regret, red light of oblivion. / Hell would be living without them.” Indeed, much of the book is occupied with the memory of feeling, yet Cole also accommodates the charged meeting, and defers to love when it’s encountered. In “Departure,” a scene of deer “[t]urning their elegance towards the runway” and acting out what Cole elsewhere describes as “the love feeling” leads to an epiphany of sorts. These animals-as-totems share something with Lowell’s skunks, their silence answering a difficult question in the long dark night: “What was that back there? Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” From opposite ends of the “insane attempt at living,” both Cole and Buchan-Watts make plenty of room for such tenderness and do so with an air of defiance, pushing the boundary of the confessional and defining their own intimate worlds.

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Declan Ryan’s first collection, Crisis Actor, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2023.