Anne Harding Woodworth’s Trouble, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

Anne Harding Woodworth, Trouble, Poems, Turning Point Books, Cincinnati, Ohio 2020, ISBN: 9781625493613,138 pages

If the subject matter of all poems is either Thanatos or Eros and an interweaving of the two, Trouble by Anne Harding Woodworth is basically a book about Thanatos: death, suffering, the pain of an indifferent nature to the individual human and his or her hopes and joys. Trouble should find a home with older lovers of poetry. The poems explore so many less-than-ideal situations, be they mental illness or physical maladies. However, Trouble is not a morbid book of woe. The poet has a sense of humor, a capacity for compassion, and a whimsical imagination. That whimsy transports so much ailment, if not to a transcendental realm, at least to a montage of words and images and music to make an exploration of life’s lesser realities tolerable if not amusing. The author also recreates memories and converts them into little dramas.  

The book is divided into four parts. The first is a reader-friendly poem titled “Hannah Alive.”  An 83-year-old woman narrates it. She remembers her early life, but not nostalgic events and people. She remembers the shadow of death appearing.

In my 80’s, I’m remembering when I was five,
I knew one fact about a kid named Peter—
He was the son of a man found
Hanging in a closet.

My father dressed in a closet.
His closet had a window
And sometimes I’d watch him
Looking out into the orchard.

What did he see there in the orchard
Where I played every day?
Fathers don’t see everything.
They stare into spaces we don’t see,

And off the poem goes taking the reader by the hand into childhood memories, into teenage memories, into the reality of an 80-plus-year-old woman whose current preoccupation is thoughts of death. In section 4 of the poem, she relates her grandmother’s death who died on Hannah’s second birthday. Not much personal memory about the grandmother except perhaps what was told later in life. In section 5 she mentions the Rosenbergs’ death.

It’s grown with me. I was a teenager
When it happened. The chair they ended up in,

One after the other, was square and woody,
Almost Mission-style like some we used to have,

Oak, but theirs was strewn with wires
That zapped the body.

And she describes her feelings back then and recalls that the Rosenbergs had two sons. The poem goes on and on with details of a society whose mores have changed. She mentions how hard it was for a woman to be allowed to wear trousers in the office back in the ’70s. All of this narration is done in her voice which is not threatening but very reader-friendly, She tells of being a parent, She meditates on her life, but always thinking how of ending her life by pill, by gun, etc.

Flashback: When I was a newlywed,
I heard about an old man
Who threw a radio into the tub
Where his wife was bathing.
Plugged into an outlet on the bathroom wall
The wire must have been just long enough.
I thought of the Rosenbergs
And the artfulness of electricity.
The man then put a gun
Into his mouth and blasted himself
To the other side of the bathroom.
These two were tight. They had a pact.
A good marriage.
Tony and I didn’t make pacts

In section 28 of the poem, Hannah thinks starvation could be the answer. The poem is 28 pages long but the reader won’t struggle over the language with which it communicates, as the small sampling illustrates. There are harsh realities and obsessions, the meditation on suicide, but the woman’s voice is personal, revelatory. Reading the poem is like talking to a real person. “Hannah Alive” is one of the masterpieces in the book.

Section 2 is Titled “Split”  The section is about schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder. The quote from Juan Ramon Jimenez

 “I am not I. 
                     I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see….

Announces what will be explored here.

The first poem is titled “Daisy Chain.”  It is a remembrance of a high school classmate of the author who later in life was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In school when she was young, a note on this poem in the back of the book states “she was everyone’s friend, kind and generous. One of the most enjoyable school outings was to pick daisies for the daisy chain that 11th graders carried at commencement.”

This poem is a shock compared to the easy informal language of Hannah. Appropriate to the subject the form is almost sing-songy. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ellie, Ellie, saffron Ellie
Picks daisies easy
Eats pizza at Pistelli’s
Ellie laughs
Broad-girl lips
Carries the daisy chain with friends

Ellie, Ellie, woman Ellie
Sallower now begins to split
Ellie here Ellie there
Half an Ellie grabs an Ellie
Keeps her inside
Ever fewer months a year

However, this section is not devoted to one person, Ellie, but is a collection of poems with many personas, real and fictional, who have “trouble” inside their heads, their hearts. There are 4 short poems remembering Sigmund S. There is a poem titled “A Mental Hospital Chaos.’ “Homeless” is a similar theme about a homeless vet who lost a leg in Vietnam. “Good-Luck Bin” is an odd poem about a woman who finds a lost diamond earring beside a trash bin. Then there is a poem that plays with a palindrome. The poem is “Waiting for a Train: A Man with a Plan. The palindrome in the poem is Snub no man. Nice cinnamon buns. In rational, day-to-day terms these poems may seem eccentric, but what they are is explorations of troubled minds. The everyday reality is the singular personality that lives in its own world. Anne Woodworth gets inside the characters’ heads and makes that world visible to the reader.

The variety and versatility of the poet’s craft are amazing. Some poems originate from newspaper articles. Others must originate from Ms. Woodworth’s wide reading.” The Heel Stone at Stonehenge” is probably one of those. Readers should take special note of  “Echo of Frogs.” It is a unique poem with many layers of meaning. Apparently, it was taken from an autobiographical incident years ago. The poet created an alter-ego as a child. The name for that alter-ego is Withaney. Pronounce it aloud. Hopefully, the reader will get the significance of the name in its pronunciation. Read the note at the back of the book for another clue. Read these lines for, perhaps, a clue to the universe.

The frog is Atlas, holding up the pond’s reflection,
Which is the universe.

The poem is filled with intriguing and mysterious images. You need to read the whole poem, the many layers of it, to begin to understand the complexity of vision here. The poem is about appearances and true visions and surprising events in the universe, like visitors from outer space, I will leave this mystery of the poem’s meaning for the curious reader to unravel.

The third section is called “Threatened.” There is a complexity to this book of rich individual poems. The first poem in this section is titled “Threat.”

You know better than anyone
How it games your mind
Takes your brain in its hands
Pulses at it sculpts it kneads it
Into abstraction displays it
Sometimes spotlights it……….

Some of the poems here are called sign poems by the author in a note at the back of the book. One of these is called “Fragile Roof.” The poet’s ingenuity with form and perspective creates these forays into the theme of threat. The ending of “Mimosa” has a unique wordplay that gives the poem a miraculous ambiguity. I will not discuss this more, leaving the audience hanging, but I will encourage readers to experience that poem for themselves and discover its ambiguous revelation. Two thematically linked poems “Miniature Book Collection” and “The Miniaturist 1828” follow. They show off Ms. Woodworth’s creative ingenuity in dealing with a word that has different manifestations. Though there are many more poems with different images, different themes in this section, one of my favorites is “Empty Beds’

Beds are crying themselves
To sleep in this forgotten era,

If sleep comes at all
To beds that can’t afford a doctor

Or the price of learning
Or a gun-less room,

To beds that have lost their job
Or their pension, or beds

Unable to trust neighbors
Behind the scrim,

Or beds that fear dying for a lie
Or being exiled for the truth.

Beds meet dawn in chaos,
Sheeted-sweaty, sheeted-curled,

And at an angle to the wall.
Desperate beds cannot

Open doors, cannot walk out
Into a reddish dawn.

There is such a wealth of poetry and narration in this book. The skill and imagination of the poet is enormous.

Section 4 is titled  “Innocence & Guilt.” They are the two poles of this section. Various manifestations are explored. “Over-Abundance” discusses food and gluttony. An innocent vice or a guilty vice? The poem leans hard on the truth.

Other titles are “Happiness”; “Sign: Coffee! You Can Sleep When You Are Dead;” “Infidelity” based on a found letter;” “Jealousy” but not ordinary jealousy. Here are the 2 opening lines of this poem: “She’s jealous/ of his arthritis.”  The poem is such an ironic creation. Talking about irony there is a poem titled “The Irony of Tuam, County Galway, 1925-1961.” The only teaser I’ll drop on this one is the last line “But the greatest of these is irony,” I urge the readers of this review to search out the poem and discover what the word “these” refers to.

Trouble is a treasure map of poetry. Some of the gems are like events and bejeweled objects that one views wholly when reading. Others show you the range of this poet’s meditations. You may have to dig a little for some of the formal and verbal wealth, but nothing is esoteric. One of the goals of this poet is to communicate. She succeeds. We are richer for her insights and for traveling the stylistic paths she chooses.  

© Anne Harding Woodworth and Dan Cuddy

Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of seven books of poetry and four chapbooks, She is a member of the Board of Governors at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst MA, and the Poetry Board of the Folger Shakespearean Library in Washington, DC, where she lives, when she isn’t at a beloved cabin in the mountains of Western North Carolins.

Dan Cuddy was previously a contributing editor with the Maryland Poetry Review and with Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has been published in many small magazines over the years, such as NEBO, Antioch Review, and Connecticut River Review. In 2003, his book of poems, Handprint On The Window, was published by Three Conditions Press.

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