Joseph P. Wood
reviewed by Amish Trivedi
The relationship between the use of the triolet form, along with its variations, and content in Joseph Wood’s Broken Cage fascinates me. Form for me means something prescribed, a way one is to go about doing things and a set of guidelines by which one should write. In a way, form represents to me a restriction, a binding of language into set rhythms and schemes. Form sometimes brings with it a certain obligation to create a poetic voice within a work, but for Wood the forms used are the only nod towards reigning in chaos of thought that is exhibited in the whole of the book. The poems of Broken Cage are, unlike many experiments with form, neither prohibitive nor restricted but, rather, are allowed to go anywhere they wish and, sometimes, where we do not wish them to go. Wood never holds back and never tries to quiet any of the swirling chaos down. Wood allows language to run roughshod over the forms he uses, creating a spectacular cataclysm between what the poems are doing and how they those things are done.
My relationship to form is a strange one in that I often feel that the rules surround rhythm, rhyme, etc. serve only to constrain thought, so to receive a book that is made up of variations on a form kind of confounded me. How was I, a lapsed user of form, to interact with a book in which form is employed heavily? Are we not always using form in some manner, after all? What does a formless poem even look like? How does this make me feel? Is there a way to critique form beyond its correct usage and adaptation into the work we are reading? Further, do these concepts require the forms surrounding them to propel the book forward?
First, Wood does an amazing job balancing everything within the book. The poems are laid out in a strategic manner which allows the reader to bounce through various methods of poetic form, specifically variations on triolets, which allows the reader to never get bogged down in any one way of reading for more than a short sequence. This isn’t to say the book feels disjointed at all, but rather forces the reader to take a moment before moving onto the next poem. This is crucial for the reader of this book: there is a LOT to soak in; a lot to deal with and those moments are often the only breaks to be had in the swirling cosmos created from Wood’s world. And there is a world in these poems that is chaotic and leaning into the void, the poet reaching back away from the abyss while acknowledging that the reader may find it difficult to come along. However, all of this nuzzles up to the mundane, a nearly-Baudelairian sense of the trauma in every day existence.
Beyond the challenge of this reintroduced form, Wood’s poems in this collection gave me the sense of being tossed around – there is no normalcy anymore. There is no everyday poem or poem for a quiet moment. No, the poems of Broken Cage are the long, jostling train ride we’ve always imagined taking through a part of the world we have always wanted to visit. The chaos present in Wood’s poems – and indeed his language – never allows one to settle and creates, by the end of the work, a dizzying array of experience and terror.
His language, or rather, his manipulation of the language we share, is often times jarring and creates a wonderfully uncomfortable sense when reading. I do not mean “uncomfortable” in any kind of negative way here: rather, I want what I am reading to make me feel uneasy, especially when the sense the poems create is already to be one of unease. At the start of the last poem in the first section, “Nathaniel Bacon,” Wood delivers, very quickly, a set of lines which immediately took me aback:
Little worm busting out a bunting’s eye, Virginia falls like second-rate laundry.
Beyond the immediate image of a worm doing anything, especially busting out, the words here don’t quite fit together grammatically to create anything concrete. This, in fact, is one of the strengths of the book: constantly creating these uneasy juxtapositions which force us to try and construct some kind of sense around the experience they are providing.
Where I am challenged most in the book, again, is its use of forms. The triolet is used in a variety of ways throughout the book and Wood does not attempt to get around the rules of this form, even when he is changing how they appear. Rather, what Wood does masterfully in poems is uses the rigidity of form to create the jostling sensation I mentioned earlier. Rather than attempting to fit into the forms, in “Poor Ex,” he allows form to be the vehicle of his chaos:
The brainpan—here lies a gray meatloaf— resigned like rain—some days owned me— beneath this—the stalk of a thought—aloof—
Here, Wood fits his ideas into the triolet without forcing his thoughts to be complete within only the space provided by the form. They overrun, run off, run off and swirl around as if someone dwelling on the same experience repeatedly and allowing that dwelling to ensnare their other thoughts.
We are taught that form is necessary for poetry, that form provides with the rhythms and rhyme schemes necessary to define a poem. Here, however, Wood uses form as pure restriction, a way of holding together the challenges of thought which are occurring. This is not to say that thought is in any way constrained here, just that, without form, there would be nothing to contain the chaos, to provide a check to the mass of language spreading across. Form here provides the base which allows Wood to go everywhere and anywhere he can very quickly, often within a single line. By varying how he uses the triolet through the manuscript, Wood allows for a shape to emerge which is one the reader ought to recognize but never feel insulated by.
Broken Cage is a difficult book filled with difficult poems. I realize that “difficult” is a way to dismiss something, but I mean it in quite the opposite way: it’s the kind of challenge that, even if never conquered, provides a lot of pleasure in reading. There are some truly beautiful moments within the text that come out as all the elements that make up the book’s poems fire together. Like any artistic project, there should be some challenge in understanding its complexities.