Reviewed by Kyle Flemmer
You can’t bury them all. ECW Press, 2016.
You can’t bury them all, Patrick Woodcock’s ninth book of poetry, documents his experience living and traveling among three disparate regions and their people: the Kurdish north of Iraq, the Aboriginal community at Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories, and the post-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. His style is richly observational, and Woodcock succeeds in transporting readers into the worlds he visits by articulating each scene with the clarity and vivid nuance of an expert’s eye for detail. Though his collection explicitly aims to explore hope, horror, and the way we deal with disinterred traces of human suffering—an aim he ultimately does accomplish—Woodcock occasionally blurs the line between speaking about a people and for them.
Woodcock’s formidable powers of observation illuminate a world perhaps unknown to readers with a level of precision that convincingly belies his own status as a traveler. In “Amedi,” the book’s second poem, he describes the town of Amadiya (formerly Amedi) in Iraqi Kurdistan: “Take / the red-brown, orange and blues of the juniper berries. / The white, brown and blacks of the Egyptian vulture. / The wealth of greys from the Eurasian griffons, the gold / and light orange of Radde’s accentor” (4). The palette Woodcock chooses gently reveals much more than the town’s appearance or the flora and fauna common in the area. It invokes the political and historical influences at play in the town and the cultural pastiche that is present-day Kurdistan. “Amedi / will remove the black eye mask and cut the white throat / of the Orphean warblers” (4). Furthermore, by using the name Amedi rather than Amadiya, Woodcock forces us to consider the town’s Assyrian heritage and subsequent political unrest. In doing so, Woodcock appears committed to representing the historical reality of the circumstances he encounters. In fact, his judicious selection of details throughout You can’t bury them all demonstrates a deep engagement with each of the peoples and spaces related for us.
In “Wells,” Woodcock confesses the core of his artistic obligation: “It is our duty to record all” (39). As has been mentioned, he accomplishes this with skill. And yet, his observational style sometimes approaches a sort of voyeurism in that it records and speaks against human suffering while profiting from its documentation: “I sit on the backs of seagulls,” for example, foregrounds the perspective of the author in composing a witness testimony: “I sit in the palms of the street beggars you ignore, / cover myself in grass and straw to watch mothers, / unlike you, mourn” (72). The poet positions himself as both the eyes of the reader and the mouthpiece of the people, though he must then also assert, “But I am not / a spy” (72). Woodcock thus reassures both parties of his innocent intentions, though we do well as readers to be somewhat on guard for the appropriation of tragedy in works of this nature. While this criticism by no means condemns the book, Woodcock could potentially have done more to acknowledge the precarious position of the traveler in accounting for the history of other people, especially those who have experienced suffering.
You can’t bury them all is at its best when Woodcock allows the people he has met to speak through the medium of his poetry most directly. “Landscape Portraits” does just that, combining material from an Elder’s Calendar with facts Woodcock learned while volunteering in Fort Good Hope: “I was born below Hume River. / I am mountain people. I was born at 40 below. / A tent was put up, a stove was put in. / But not in time. / I was almost born outside” (44). Woodcock’s decisive curation of personal information crafts a portrait that can speak for itself, a great service as far as documentary poetry is concerned. Contrast this with “We will eat our sick ancestors,” a poem that inserts the author straight into the local intergenerational cycle of life and death. Unlike the people Woodcock documents, the author has the option to leave, a fact he brings to our attention at the end of “Amedi”: “I look / back at you in my taxi’s rearview mirror: magnanimous and clean” (7), and again with the author’s return to ‘The Great Green Monarchy’ at the end of the book. You can’t bury them all is as compassionate and sincere as it is perceptive, and Woodcock’s vision of a battered but undefeated human spirit in the midst of recurring misery does well to unearth the injustices to which he speaks.
Kyle Flemmer founded The Blasted Tree Publishing Company in 2014 as a community of and outlet for emerging Canadian artists. He graduated from Concordia University with a double-major in Western Society & Culture and Creative Writing. Kyle is passionate about social satire, philosophy, and science, and enjoys writing poetry, short stories, and critical essays. Other hobbies include DJing under the alias Hydrogen Jukebox, tattooing, and the unmitigated pillage of second-hand book stores.
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