Wendy Klein finds much to enjoy in an ambitious new collection by David Attwooll

Sound_Ladder_Cover_final-96x150The Sound Ladder
David Attwooll
Two Rivers Press
ISBN 978-1-909747-09-8
82pp    £8.95

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The poet Jenny Lewis notes on the back cover of this collection that the excitement of reading David Attwooll’s poems lies in the poet’s ‘intense relationship to language and the verbal and textual musicianship (italics mine), with which he treats his subject matter.´

Certainly Attwooll introduces music everywhere, adding unexpected lashings of it to many of the poems in the three parts of this collection: ‘Surfacing’, ‘Ground Work’ and ‘Soundtrack’. In the title poem, ‘Surfacing,’ he makes a contextual shift from the noise of road grinders, which conjure up a battle scene in an old film, to the listener upstairs where a trombone soundtrack swoops like a boy with arms outstretched, loops the staves, teasing the contours… The poems race up and down the poet’s sound ladder from the highest rungs, the cries of the red kite in ‘Milvus Milvus’ Set to their reedy bosun’s pipes… to the lowest … a friend playing a farting sousaphone… (‘Port Meadow’).

A poem in the shape of a cricket ball is a widow’s poignant memory of her husband’s death at Salonika; the small weight of his signet ring, sent back to her in a pack from the quartermaster ..was scuffed / and dented to a flattened ellipse from pre-war / cricket balls in Kennington. I am not normally a fan of shaped /concrete poems. but this is a piece of cleverness that works well, as does the playful ‘@’ where the poet replaces the language of actual places, …the street where she lives with virtual images so that the email address of the subject becomes the focus of fantasies surrounding her. Also enjoyable was ‘Wiggy in Cornwall’, a tender and humorous memory of father and son watching seals together off Kelsey Head, reminding the poet of his own conception in Cornwall:

                                       the adults inert,
speckled and fecund, draped on rocks;
their young whooshing through waves
like spermatozoa

The scope of the first section of this collection is impressive, including hospital episodes and admirable political pieces such as ‘Freedom from Torture’. Here the poet uses a baking group, where immigrants from different places meet, to embody the whole refugee experience. In only 15 lines, interspersed with the words for bread in different languages, what needs to be said is expressed simply and elegantly, summed up in the final line: the smell of wholeness, home, before.

The second section of the book, ‘Ground Work’ contains the poems from a pamphlet created by Attwooll, with illustrations by Andrew Walton, relating to the floodplain bordering Oxford and the Thames. It is made up of twelve meditative poems, one for each month of the year. Pieces permeated with nature’s lushness and daubed liberally with history are both interesting and enjoyable, though occasionally, in my view, a bit over-written. The poet waxes lyrical in the prologue:

the slow clouds in a huge sky, suffused with a muted light.

and in the second/third stanza:

And as we trace our filmy overlays, the black rainbow

bridge is really chalky pine here, zigzags capping
a wild and tangled world, reflected in a fish-eye
distorting lens.

History marches forward in December where:

our feet decipher hillocks, ditches of grassed-over
rubbish dumps, Iron-Age barrows; ghosts of a racecourse
Civil War fortifications, the lost aerodrome –

He hits his stride in January:

Snow is a changeling
   shifts in the arms
   of the land, redrafts
where it rests, its outlines.

Oh yes! And in July he lays the foundation for the final section of newer poems ‘Soundtrack’. ‘Nightwalking’ is dedicated to Philip Sidney, 14th century English poet and courtier and Charles Mingus, jazz musician:

The moon in jive-ass slippers dances close
to offer back neglected things we’ve lost.

‘Soundtrack’ almost deserves a review of its own, bringing together all of the Attwooll themes in a soundtrack for the world past and present. It is packed tight with images from everywhere. From Mexico, ‘On the Bus from Oaxaca’, ‘Morning in Chapultapec’ and ‘Ball Game’, a poem in which wi-fi on a Mayan Island brings news of the death of a friend or acquaintance. Technology is woven in again in ‘Murmuration’ as he introduces the avian phenomenon via a YouTube recording, noting how

Neural networks more subtle than markers
conjure an aerial screensaver 

Here the poet has nature mirroring technology mirroring nature; and he makes it work mostly, closing with a tender and lyrical 14-line sonnet-or-not titled ‘Nesting’ where a wasp’s nest is used as a metaphor for time and memory: wrapping a maze / in a brain’s husk full of forgotten things.

All in all, this is an ambitious, wide-ranging collection, sometimes a tad too self-consciously clever for my taste, but humane and thoughtful with so very much to enjoy.

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U.S.-born Wendy Klein has lived in England most of her adult life. Winner of the Havant, the Buxton, the Cannon Poets Sonnet or Not, and the Cinnamon Press Single Poem Prize in 2014/15, Wendy has two collections from Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013). She has agreed to work on a third collection with Cinnamon Press, out in late 2016/early 2017.