Reviewed by Lauren Grewe
In his second book, Rain, Jon Woodward wallows in the beauty of modern decay and the poignant absurdity of unabashed grief. A personal testament to mourning and recovery, to the stages of bereavement and the urban ghosts that follow, Rain explores the trials of modern life, quietly propelling the reader through the mental process of redemption after trauma, of a world fallen but not completely lost, mired in chaos but still striking.
Rain is in many respects an elegy for Patrick (the speaker’s deceased friend) and for the world that Patrick inhabited and that the speaker still inhabits. Woodward processes and reprocesses Patrick’s death, finding various forms within which to fit and contextualize his grief. “[I]t’s not that he died,” the speaker says, “it’s that he won’t stop / dying and reemerging fully ordinarily / through ordinary doors.” These “ordinary doors” emerge as the poems themselves, which recount the grieving process as one in which Patrick resurfaces more living than dead, at least in the speaker’s mind. “Patrick stood in a bucket / and died only one foot could fit in the bucket,” Woodward writes, “would not the body of Patrick this / bucket fit inside as the / bottle of my mouth fills / one of my head’s pockets.” Would not the ghost of Patrick fit within some shape, take some form within the speaker’s mind, so that, given substance, the speaker could face the vicissitudes of the world and “the stain” that those trivial but unforgettable acts of violence leave on the human soul.
Woodward’s short poems (never longer than a page) seem to write themselves, flowing from phenomenal reality without the mediator of reason or logic. For the most part he grounds his poems in everyday occurrences--he starts some of his poems with observations about a church down the street tolling a D flat over and over again, going to see Spider Man, strawberries and scrambled eggs. But Woodward manages to imbue these mundane events with personal and emotive (if not always cosmological) significance, perceiving the here and now not as an end in itself but as an illogical gateway to emotional recesses.
Structurally, Woodward’s terse yet mellifluous phrases flood the boundaries of conventional syntax, their laxity opening up new possibilities of meaning for each reader each time she or he interprets a poem. By leaving his poems untitled, Woodward creates fluidity reminiscent of the book’s title. Playing off ideas and meaning established in his earlier poem, which discusses fear and uncertainty over a bowl of chowder soup with Patrick, Woodward picks up in the same vein two pages later with the ending of his last poem of the section “Rain, Ocean”:
guy at a gas station
walked up to the car
began cleaning the windshield saying
as he did so Sic
Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic
Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass
The poems’ lack of punctuation and unnecessary capitalization force the reader to engage with the poems and self-consciously make syntactical decisions that affect meaning, resulting in a heightened level of participation that causes the reader to feel like the poet’s accomplice rather than merely his audience. The poem that begins “a grown man the singer” rejoices in this ambiguity which leaves the reader with multiple possibilities of meaning:
he explains how this man
deliberately attempted to wall off
all of his anxieties by
singing about the sunshine it
couldn’t possibly work I tried
dancing at their show a
first for me but can’t
help overhearing the death stumbling
fear look at all these
idiots dancing I’m fucking surrounded
The words “I tried” could fit within the context of either stanza, leaving the reader to decide whether the desperate speaker tries to mask his own anxieties by “singing about the sunshine” or by “dancing at their show.” Either act would be a frenzied attempt by the speaker to affirm a nonexistent, nauseating optimism, through burning his retina with the bright side of life or trying to lose himself in the crowd. While Woodward enables both interpretations, dualistic logic and the need to pause for breath, may convince the reader that she or he needs to pick one possibility. But Woodward may be employing this inclusive, non-delineating syntax in order to avoid just that eventuality of decision that would splice the poem and deny the multiple ways it can work. An oral reading would necessitate a decision, just as an oral reading would necessitate punctuation, even if temporary and hazarded. However, a reading of the words on the page requires no such divisions of meaning, no such decisions. Instead, the indistinct syntax contributes to the overall fluidity of the poetry in Rain.
Throughout Rain, Woodward juxtaposes instances and employs non-sequiturs to make connections. He grasps at meaning in a world where hell and absurdity collide and eventually emerge as two aspects of the same modern reality. One poem begins with a discussion of fire extinguishers so small the speaker cannot imagine them containing anything more than chicken noodle soup. The phone rings and the poem switches to conversational form as the speaker talks to his mother, “hi / mom yeah I got it / it’s right here thank you / no I like chicken noodle,” when “the phone suddenly bursts into / flames um hold on mom.” These moments of absurdity and logistic failure hint at the depth of the speaker’s grief and his subsequent uncertain state of sanity throughout much of Rain. In another poem the speaker recounts:
. . . this morning when
I woke up I fabricated
the following nightmare you dangled
a microphone from your teeth
you were on a ledge
four stories up the microphone
swayed back and forth I
was jumping trying to grasp
it whaddya mean not scary
I’ll show you not scary
This fearful yet contained voice quietly shrieks out its terror in the middle pages of Rain, wondering all the while “at what point did the / bombs begin to fall exactly.”
While Woodward bemoans modern life, unmasking its raw and imperfect nature, his world reemerges with distinct glimmers of hope amid the failure. Working in a circular motion, the first poem in Rain reexamines these notions:
in spite of which it’s
hard to imagine it all
going to shit the pinkflowering
dogwood for example is my
newest favorite tree the decay
of what world we’ve got’s
not exactly what I’m afraid
of not now . . .
. . . what questions then to
ask for what if anything
about this coffee these fries
The speaker in Rain often despairs of life and events, but he never quits the game. He falters at many horrors--the death of his friend, decay and loss--but his sincerity reveals his unwillingness to revel forever in modern decay, to lose himself completely in his grief.
More than a book of elegies, Rain experiments with ideas of what to do with this “brutally fascinating world” of which we can only “see a / tiny part.” How then to cope with grief in a world of self-conscious absurdity? What questions wait for us to ask them, if indeed there survive questions worthy of asking about “this coffee these fries,” this world, this being? By the end of Rain, Woodward convinces his reader that human experience is more complex than grief, more varied than despair, that, by gaining “momentum” from the “depths” of suffering, humans can transcend tragedy and “hang for / some seconds in the sun,” breaching out of states of sleep as “whales out / of the ocean whales silhouetted / like souls.”