A review of Farhang Book One by Patrick Woodcock

Reviewed by Maria Dickinson

Farhang Book One
by Patrick Woodcock
ECW Press
September 2023, ISBN: 9781770417519, Paperback, 144 pages

(Some insights were made after listening to the authors audio notes for Farhang Book One on his substack page – (https://farhangbook1.substack.com/)

In such a detailed and complicated book of poetry as Patrick Woodcock’s Farhang Book One, you would think the reader would be overwhelmed by its content, but this could not be further from the truth. Woodcock’s book has been carefully edited, and the poems have been shaped and crafted wonderfully. Book One takes place over the span of thirty years and fifteen countries. Each poem is twenty-eight lines long, occasionally twenty-nine when the poet needed to use the title as an extra line to further his message. What this leaves the reader with is one poem per page that moves from top to bottom. The width of Woodcock’s lines inevitably shift to either expand upon or mirror the content. Each poem is a work of art to be read and revisited time and again. Like a painting, the line length and shape of the poem can be continuously analysed and when we look at Woodcock’s work this way, we notice that even the most thematically brutal of poems can contain exquisitely beautiful images, full of nuance, subtlety and shade.

In the first section ‘Monoliths” Woodcock presents his poems as a block on the page. The monoliths are divided into thematic pieces on language, our senses, or ones that introduce the character of Farhang who is supposed to be true author of this book; a story which I have learned will be developed in books two and three. Some of the Woodcock’s finest lines can be found with these sections. In monolith ‘I’ the first three sentences are a stunning introduction to the book:

What measurements endured? The speed to walk and

the   speed   to   run   and   the   hour  to  liquefy  and

disappear. There  were  uncountable  fear  of   woods,

of   darkness,  of   language   and   transport,   of  the 

percentage  in  bottles  and  the  percentage  of crime. (Monolith I)

This introduction intimates at what this book will address. What endures in us as we age. As time and distance and statistics begin to weigh upon us more and more, how do we engage with them. In monolith ‘VIII’ Farhang finds one solution: ‘This was his salvation, he had to watch what should die, dying.” Whether Woodcock is talking about people, places, countries, architecture or even animals, we do not know. I also believe this is not what Woodcock believes to be an absolute and this is why he has Farhang state it. In Farhang Book One, Woodcock is struggling with how to honour what he wants to remember while trying to understand how to let go of what he wishes he’d never witnessed or experienced. But unfortunately nothing ever truly disappears. Memories to Woodcock are like the waste in the hamlet of Paulatuk in Canada’s Arctic where he volunteered for two years:

like the garbage here,
I am forced to accept nothing ever goes
underground or gets barged away. (Amiikkiqtainagaa)

I want to now focus on some of the lines within these poems that have drawn me to revisit them over and over again. In the poem he wrote for a friend lost to suicide he creates a dream sequence where his friend is on a train, metamorphosizing into someone else, drinking and entertaining others before falling to sleep:

… he left
the pulsing panorama of the pediatric tomb
to rock within the chug chug chug of train
and pint, for another’s song, another’s story,
another’s moonlight when waterfalling to sleep. (The birth and suicide of my Peter Shaw)

Although we are dealing with the death of a friend, the poem is an anarchic celebratory dance, but only a few pages later we can feel a different form of sadness for another who jumped to his death:

Before it is my turn, tell me, did you find the tonic
for what you fled? Was the pavement dear, tender? (Michael’s Dive)

What Woodcock illustrates here is that while some loss can be celebrated in verse others must be mourned and left in peace. 

This is not only a book about loss, but also one full of alarms. In “The Yellow Room” Woodcock describes his visit to the Kigali War Memorial in Rwanda. In this six-poem section, he writes about how the colour yellow has been altered by entering the room and then writes specifically about the children memorialized in it. Within the statistics of how the children died, Woodcock addresses the religion, science, technology, racism, colonialism, and the national and international propaganda that fostered an environment where such a massacre of innocents could occur. Here are three of the most moving passages from this section:

Is the red the same red from shower to soil?
Is the red planet red for we bled their girls first? (taken from Irene and Uwamwezi)

When a childhood is heaved and the wall
doesn’t move, no work was done, by gods,
governments, humanity, none. (taken from Filette)

They did not need to cut and clear
children, they cannot be harvested
or replanted… (taken from Red Roses for Patrick)

Within the second and longest section “Pharmakoi and Filaments” Woodcock moves through fifteen of the over fifty-five countries he has lived and worked. Moving from Poland to Colombia, from The Kurdish North of Iraq to Tanzania this section contains eighty-three stunning poems. Although I am hesitant to choose a favourite since every re-reading lends itself to a new appreciation for the work, the poems written in Iceland have constantly moved me. They celebrate the lives of friends, the tombstone one of the world’s strongest men, and the Nobel prize winning writer Halldor Laxness. This section begins with a poem where Woodcock mourns the loss of his mother by comparing her battle with cancer to a helicopter looking for a jeep lost deep in a crevasse. But it is the final poem, ‘Sometimes trampolines are made of cello’, one of the few in the book that combines different geographical locations, that I have returned to the most and I find to be one of the best in the book. In it, Woodcock begins by talking about how he used to bounce on the moss in a cemetery in Iceland, from here he moves to the caves his friends hid within in The Kurdish North of Iraq to finally end in Tanzania, watching the children he taught bouncing on anything windblown and landing at their feet. But it is not an eccentric genre painting of people who need a break from touching this flawed planet. In the final two lines of the third stanza Woodcock writes:

Sometimes trampolines
are only the remains of trampolines, discarded
by the pearly and gated.(Sometimes trampolines are made from cello)

By introducing religion and opulence into the poem, Woodcock has moved the reader away from specific scenes towards a more universal critique. Our wastefulness and how we too often rely on nature to clean the canvas of our waste is now introduced. But the final four lines are what he has been building towards. Woodcock writes that we live in a world that has historically favoured one gender, and within this gender an even smaller percentage have the ability to bounce because their skin is ‘lighter’; and while aloft they only observe to condemn – they rain down vitriol and judgment. It is a beautiful grouping of lines full of rage and stunning in its articulation:

But most modern trampolines are made from
the stretched fabric of time,
for men with light skin, who want to deliver
their uproar from above.

There are five sections in Farhang Book One and each one is breathtaking. You don’t have to know much about the countries he writes about because he does not write too specifically about them; he writes about their people, animals and landscapes with a unique mixture of celebration and shame. It is a book full of love and frustration. If you have compassion for others, especially those born into repressive or repressed countries, you will feel and connect with these poems. This is also not a book of generalizations from afar, but the work of poet wanting to honour and memorialize the friends and colleagues he has made around the world before his inevitable end. Woodcock wants us to see what has shaped and changed his life while at the same time reminding us that our worst offense in today’s internet driven world is self-pity and indifference. There never was and never will be an excuse for our apathy. In a recent interview when Woodcock was asked how such things were still happening in 2023, he responded: Why did they ever have to happen? If there was ever a time for benevolent yet politically charged poetry it is now and Farhang Book One is the most important and relevant book I have found in ages. As he states in a poem whose title is taken from the YouTube link to a documentary about two members of the Black Panther Party who were forced out of the USA and befriended him in Arusha, Tanzania:

We are a shallow people, who never learn to rage against
the right enemies. They are many, growing, and travelling
at the speed of light in neocolonial cables.
But there are none to fear on this road. No monstrosities.
Never were. Never will be.

Patrick Woodcock’s Farhang Book One is full of celebration, mourning and a warning that there are many battles still to be waged. Whether it is on the street, at the ballot box or in a book of poetry; we cannot turn our backs and hide within the safety of our more privileged houses and countries. Poetry, passion and politics have rarely united so powerfully as they do in Woodcock’s exceptional Farhang Book One; a must read for those who want these harrowing times to finally end.

About the reviewer: Maria Dickinson is a Welsh-Canadian educator and writer currently living in Montreal where she is completing her second play Within the ocean.