this hall of several tortures’ by Reuben Woolley -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Emma Lee’s 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), is Poetry Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs at

this hall of several tortures’ Reuben Woolley

‘this hall of several tortures’ 

Reuben Woolley

Knives Forks and Spoons Press

Reuben Woolley makes use of the multiverse concept, a science fiction staple, by creating a young, unnamed woman on a parallel world who is able to view events on earth through a membrane. She doesn’t reveal much about her world. In the title poem,

 ‘                i don’t need
or fingers not here
in empty rooms where
only we can see 
through bone

i won’t be 
off stupid.not

             not hardly

i dance on horizons
& don’t cast shadows’

The ‘empty rooms’ seem s to be her way of saying she is not observing to influence events on earth. Her intentions are benign. Life on earth, being unaware of her, continues without knowing she is observing it so cannot be changed by her. This ability to observe without being seen, is one she seems to enjoy, in ‘playing new games’

‘like here
it’s different
                                               she said

to one side
a shift’

The line ‘she said’ becomes a motif through the collection. It suggests she is reporting her observations back to the writer who is recording them. It is presumed his recording is faithful. Reuben Woolley’s approach to poetry is informed by free jazz and he uses blank areas on the page to fragment ideas and give readers space to engage and absorb what is being said. The young, unnamed woman in a parallel world is knowledgeable on history which suggests research has been done.  In ‘time comes counting / one two zero (for Antony Owen)’,

‘              the skins

they left
on walls / on 


heroes / my
Hiroshima angels

they’ll not see
not yet / not ever

& the cherry trees still flower

tears for generations’

She has seen how events in the Second World War still have an impact in contemporary times. She regards the collective memory as hopeful: trees still flowering even though the trauma is passed down generations. The act of remembering is significant even if not acted on. The young, unnamed woman also considers the aftermath of more recent conflicts, in ‘palaeontology.look (for a yazidi girl)’ that looks at the persecution of Yazidis primarily by ISIL,

‘& she counts 
truths in fractions / can’t 


                  & dying
i have no doubt

there are no names
in such
             a thousand
granite         flint       sand
what will our fossils say

& she is silent

very loudly’

The fractional truth a reflection of the fact that communication breaks down during war and it is hard to investigate and get to the core of what is actually happening. The Yazidi girl is ‘unwhole’ because she’s been stripped of agency and pushed into slavery. She has seen others lose lives through massacres or suicide and left in mass graves with no markers. When humans are named, they are recorded. Those buried without are denied a record, until historians in a distant future uncover the remains and piece together what happened. 

In the final poem, ‘closing doors on present spaces’

‘                       i don’t want
a tired death / i’ll leave
in arms & a cup to
overflows our cracked design

& he’s taking off the shine
                                             oh where
is a help when all the rooms
are empty

                                                                           this is her pure

i’m here for the closing

my broken body in the wind

where they measure in holes

& red’

The poem finishes on a note of grief and violence. She has been observing with no effect on life on planet earth but what she’s seen has affected her. The earth she witnesses is dystopian and frightening. She has no answers and feels redundant.

The use of this young woman who is an independent observer, Reuben Woolley has created a witness to humanity’s crimes against fellow humans. This approach moves the poems away from the lyrical ‘i’ and offers a way of seeing human actions without changing them. It aims for a purity of record which, when mixed with the jazz-inspired format that leaves spaces for the reader to absorb what is being witnessed and think about it afresh. The reader becomes the commentator, providing interpretation in a way the young woman cannot. ‘this hall of several tortures’ feels complete and the right length. If there were more poems, the parallel world observer risks becoming a gimmick but this collection avoids getting carried away with the novelty of its concept.