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Broken Cage

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Joseph P. Wood
  • Date Published: August 2014
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-936767-29-8
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 78pp
  • Price: $15.95
  • Review by: Elizabeth O'Brien
Joseph P. Wood's most recent poetry collection, Broken Cage, is a short book that takes ideas of symmetry and formal constraint to the extreme. Broken into three sections, the poems grow longer as the book progresses, and then shorter again in the third section. Wood focuses most of his energy on the triolet, an eight-line French form that includes rhyming as well as repeated lines.

Emily Dickinson's influence looms large here. Repeated lines are told slant, to borrow her phrasing: "Even on fire I wouldn't piss—you left me" later becomes, "Left on fire—couldn't give a piss—lose me" in the first stanza of "A Hot Mess." The em-dashes breaking lines throughout the book also ring of Dickinson, and this is clearly no accident: Wood invokes her explicitly in "A Hot Mess," rendering her as something of a sexually frustrated "indecisive" ghost.

But while Emily Dickinson compresses meaning into scant, spare lines, in Wood’s work there is more a sense of orderly claustrophobia. The triolet sequences come two to a page, with each stanza formatted as a long-lined block of text. These are counterpointed by the much longer "Gutter Catholic Love Song." A lengthy poem operating as a visceral rant, it begins:
Up on the roof, you don't think St. Barbara's on the rag or Michael's
taking a piss break over behind the boiling vat of tar hitched up to the
contracting truck, you think Let me raise this hammer . . .

Over the course of the poem’s seventy two stanzas, Wood sometimes echoes Burroughs, and sometimes faintly Joyce, while name-checking the Sydney Opera House, Donkey Kong, Tasty cakes, "eco-fem-Nazis," former DC mayor Marion Barry, "the Napalm girl," and a parade of Catholic icons along the way.

Alongside this menagerie, a surprising amount of action is taking place—Wood takes beheadings, parachuting, falls, and electrocutions as occasions for his poems. In Broken Cage, even laundry is energized, as descriptions of it "falling" appear in two different poems. But the book is consistently preoccupied with a kind of hyper-masculinity which presents itself through images of sexuality, the body's depravity, and graphic violence. This is most interesting when deployed in juxtaposition with more sentimental moments, but at its most heavy-handed the violence becomes desensitizing rather than shocking.

Still, form is engaged to wonderful effect here, and the poems are always sonically and syntactically interesting. The visceral language makes the book’s more romantic moments—there are a few of them—stand out all the more, as when Broken Cage takes a gentler tone in its third section. "Lost Leiden Hymn" becomes unexpectedly elegiac, and ends with an address to the sun:
You hammer
the white out of sand,
the diamonds from water,
the walk home oranged
as reeds ghost.

In a collection with a more idyllic sensibility, lines like this would be lost among the rest. But here, pausing Broken Cage’s cramped frustration momentarily, they offer a respite that is all the sweeter for its rarity.

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Review Posted on October 01, 2014

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