Borrowed Tales

by Deborah Woodard

Central Question: How do you know you are always the same person?
Publisher: Stockport Flats; Author teaches at: Richard Hugo House, Seattle; Author also translates: the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli; Catherine Ferguson Academy also appears in: Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli; Maddening aspect of contemporary publishing highlighted by this book, among many others: prose poems printed without right-justified margins, making it hard to know whether or not to read them as verse; Longest poem title: “Flashback: Negro State Fair, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1924”; Last poem title: “Junior High School Bathing Muse”; Representative sentence: “Lorelei habitually rolled down her tube socks to reveal the tattooed flame beneath.”

Not fan fiction, not persona poems, not capsule biography, and never just collage, Deborah Woodard’s beautifully confusing, densely charming collection draws on all of those genres nonetheless. Her long, sometimes ungainly lines and off-balance sentences explore slices and moments, memories and oblique views of people real and fictive: a friend who served in the Peace Corps and wrote letters home; a teenage diarist fleeing LA; Ophelia and Hamlet; graffiti writers (“Tags covered what they did not own, if all / went well”); pregnant teens and their teachers at the (real) Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit; a deaf man unjustly confined in a North Carolina asylum. The poems become facets of each person, pieces of lives we never encounter whole.

That means that the poems do something odd indeed, or rather that they do two things in an odd combination: they present characters, and they grate and scrape against the idea that we can come to know all of a person, that we can explain all somebody’s actions and know that person as a whole. Instead, Woodard’s elaborations say, there’s more to anybody, even to fictional characters, than we can understand. Her poems based on Hamlet are mysteries in the best way, like long-forgotten, partially legible letters from summer camp; to wit, sometimes their protagonists sound like teens. “Ghosts just want to talk it out,” Woodard explains to (or perhaps in the voice of) Ophelia. “She seemed really young / for her glasses. Do you like my poems? she asked. Her birdsong tugged at me.” Horatio, on the other hand, tries to imagine adulthood: “Dude, you drank it away,” he begins, but then produces a figure for maturity: “We keep getting simpler so, in the end, we don’t have to be. We get furry, put out leafy tips.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

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