Patrick Woodcock has made his reputation as a nomad: his residences have included such far-flung locales as Russia, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Columbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Echo Gods and Silent Mountains finds him among the Kurds, a dispossessed nation that resides in the mountainous border areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Woodcock spent two years in Northern Iraq and has emerged with a strong and moving collection that is intensely personal, a sort of poetic journal of experiences, impressions, observations, thoughts, and transliterations of local writers. Structurally, the book is mostly comprised of short free verse and prose poems, with the odd dash of formalism thrown in. Having dwelt among a stateless people who live pulled between the notions of community and tribe, it is fitting that Woodcock’s principal image is one of blood. For the Kurds, blood is the force that binds them: “They will burn right before you / encompassed by red Blood names will surround you / from kitchen to bed” (“Blood Names”). Of course, in a war-torn place, the blood that is spilled is equally important as the blood in one’s veins: “For as long as I am an artist / I will spill both blood and oil For as long as we refuse to learn / my canvasses will be here on hospital floors” (“Blood, Oil and Art”). For the Kurds, art is essential, mixed with the blood of the people.
Not surprisingly, much of the book’s tension comes from Woodcock’s perspective as an outsider on this desolate part of the world where fighting is commonplace. In “Note to My Canadian Self,” he cautions himself against laughing when a friend tells “about his village being bombed” because of the incalculable nature of the situation to his Canadian privilege; he knows that his own wanderings are by choice, not by design.
The book switches gears for two longish poems at the end that focus on the political situation of the region. Woodcock wisely eschews the thorny question of Kurdish statehood in favour of stressing the human cost of such conflict. “Sardasht Osman is Not Dead,” told from the point of view of a slain Kurdish journalist, shows both the peril and necessity of fighting for freedom of speech: “In my land there is no blind eye, no tears / to blur our vision. I record it all.” “Silent Mountains” uses some rather original imagery to highlight the plight of the Kurds trying to normalize their lives when the threat of war is ever-present: “dialogue flies here in / all directions like hail off a basketball.” Woodcock ably demonstrates the nefarious effects of politics—the misaligned priorities, systemic corruption, ignorance, misused resources, bizarre instances of cross-border globalization (of which Woodcock’s presence is an example), widespread criminality, and interference of the international community—on those who just barely scrape by and even those who try to get a little ahead with “their desire to / be greater than what their parents desired everything is not dramatic / not all is on fire.”
Echo Gods and Silent Mountains is a heavy book but not a bleak one; Woodcock has a talent for locating the undiminished human spirit and should be praised for his skilled and insightful treatment of such complex subject matter.
Christopher Doda is the author of two poetry collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson. He is currently working on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.