Building a Kingdom New and Selected Poems 1989-2019′ by James W Wood -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Emma Lee is The Blue Nib’s Reviews Editor. Her publications include “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, UK, 2015). “The Significance of a Dress” is forthcoming from Arachne. She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for magazines and blogs at

Building a kingdom

‘Building a Kingdom New and Selected Poems 1989-2019’ James W Wood

The High Window

ISBN: 978-1-913201-08-1, 85pp, £10

The title offers several interpretations: a kingdom from thirty years’ worth of poems, a legacy from parent to child or building a life from scratch after emigrating to Canada from Scotland. ‘Toolbox’ considers a father passing knowledge onto a son, twice as the original son has grown into a parent,

‘for the tricky jobs I’ve had to face
since we put him in the ground. Gone, gone
but not just not forgotten – he lives on 

in each nail struck, spirit level with my son
as his tiny feet trip slowly up the steps:
I’ll give him these tools for the hard jobs to come.’

Other poems look at changing technology, ‘Vinyl Night’

Put the needle on the record when
the drum-beats go like this: digital life’s
too binary-simple: information
overstuff makes me feel sick – let’s have
a single-speaker version of Joanie’s greatest hits.
Instant access? Shuffle off – things were never
meant to be so easy. We’re here
to cherish fire after chopping wood,’ 

Ironically vinyl is making a come-back because of its ability to offer music as it was intended to be heard rather than a clinical digital version. It contains a serious note: pleasures people have worked to achieve mean much more than instant gratification. Sticking with technology, another poem, ‘Secure in the Knowledge’, pokes fun at digital passwords in the connected age,

‘Please press “one” to continue. Alternatively press “zero”
To contact an operator, where you will be put through
All the same steps you have just suffered
Until the prospect of being flayed alive
With whips fashioned from rhinoceros hide
Feels like heaven in comparison. Thank you’

There are sombre poems too. In ‘Catherine Wheel’ the you addressed is not identified,

‘as the fumes filled your car
and your head slumped forward. There
was no sound, no sound but your machine,

an engine turning over in the woods
with no-one to notice or care: you were
a Catherine Wheel blazing brilliantly

in a ploughed field at midsummer, a spark
that might have cloaked us all in fire
if only we could have seen it.’

It captures the idea of someone burning out too soon and the lingering guilt of not being able to do anything to prevent it. It brought to mind the Scottish poet Andrew Waterhouse who ended his life in this way, but the poem could be about someone else. The sequence In Dachau’s Shadow’ hints at hope even in the darkest of times,

‘Still there were songs, voices
no machine could kill, threnodies
that live on in crumpled paper,
torn fingernails of memory,’

In ’88°20’N’ there’s another new/old contrast in modern explorers who 

‘consider his lunacy from your comfortable room,
and contrast it with your own enlightenment,
our own willingness never to risk a limb,
to venture fearlessly into ourselves, boldly
going where no-one has ever gone before,
nor ever would want to go.’

Whereas the original arctic explorers, 

‘EXHIBIT 145: Unidentified corpse, thought to be late
nineteenth century, Inadequate planning, poor equipment
and an excess of idealism led to many failed expeditions
to the North Pole, resulting in death or, at best,
lasting injury to all involved.’

The poem tries to remain neutral on whether the risks taken by the original explorers were worth the expansion to human knowledge. The poet’s own journey from Scotland to Canada features in several poems, including, ‘from The Emigrant’s Farewell (2016): Coda”

‘but mud on which immigrants rest

their cornerstones. Language and history,
poutine and whisky all concur:
Canada’s past and Scotland’s future
merge and mean less and more
as time passes, things fade, lives
get forgotten for convenience
and a new culture brews. Though
Scotland slips from view as we fight
or a phase we’re shuffling through?/

There’s a sense of clinging to the past as well as opening up a new kingdom. The last poem, ‘Departures’ explores this conflict too, 

‘how we excuse failure with the defence
that the route changed from what we were planning,

the heavens shifted. So set sail for life,
keep steel in your eyes. Hold hard to your course

and let the storm clouds rise.’

Through ‘Building a Kingdom’ James W Woods explores Scottish and Canadian identities in a way that acknowledges and includes both. The poems use a plain, straight-talking vocabulary but alter their register to suit both subject and telling. The sombre notes are balanced with flashes of humour. They relate recognisable situations told with empathy and consideration. ‘Building a Kingdom’ does not shout for attention but builds from a solid foundation.