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‘Neck of the Woods’ Marks Poet Amy Woolard’s Debut

3.5 Stars

Cover art of "Neck of the Woods."
Cover art of "Neck of the Woods." By Courtesy of Nectar Literary
By Joseph P. Kelly, Crimson Staff Writer

“Neck of the Woods" is the debut collection of poetry from Amy Woolard, a legal aid attorney from Virginia. As the name suggests, much of Woolard’s collection centers around the exploration of the speaker in a small rural hometown — the speaker’s own neck of the woods. Woolard’s verses beg to be read deeply; each line she writes is in service of the larger narrative, but also can be treated as its own puzzle to be solved and interpreted.

Woolard mixes in a variation of forms, from long stream-of-conscious, paragraph-like stanzas to poems containing stanzas with consistent line patterns. Woolard doesn’t seem to restrict herself much in terms of form or meter, but lets her poems wander in numerous directions. This idea of letting her poems breathe in their own unique ways is no more apparent than in the poem “What She Didn’t Leave,” which is constructed so as to look more like a painting than a poem. The words are dappled across the page with inconsistent and unpredictable spacing. It’s also worth mentioning that this particular poem is oriented perpendicular to the rest of the book, running from bottom to top as opposed to from left to right, and continuing onto the next page as if it were just the extension of the first.

Woolard’s voice often employs puzzling symbolism and metaphor and weaves in a colloquial dialogue that interjects and accompanies the more cerebral language and imagery. The stories she portrays pertain to small town living, neighborhood gossip, longing, love, and a particular fixation on front porches.

Woolard’s collection is divided into four sections, all consisting of 17 to 20 pages. Each section begins with a poem titled “Spoiler” which seemingly spoils the outcome of some aspect of the story (whether that be that section of the collection, the collection as a whole, or the story that can be constructed using these disparate pieces from the speaker’s portrayal of her neck of the woods). The first poem in the collection begins with the line “It ends with the house in the sky” and “Spoiler” number three begins with the line “I’ve likely told you too much already”.

In this way, Woolard engages with her audience in a unique way; instead of placing the reader into the shoes of some subject referred to as “you” as many third-person poems do, Woolard addresses the audience. She lays out, unambiguously, that she is spoiling something if the reader cares enough to look deeply enough into the poem with a magnifying glass and a comb to pick out what that element actually is.

Woolard constructs the titular “neck of the woods” that the speaker depicts through stories that mostly display cultural norms and interactions rather than explicit descriptions of imagery. With stories of dirtied youth and reactionary norms of the town, the speaker renders her origin in a way removed from the physicality of the space.

Many of Woolard’s poems are in conversation with one another. For example, a poem entitled “Straw Man” is followed by a poem that contains the line “Straw is to heartless body as I lied when I said I hope I’ll see you all again is to Come home.” Woolard’s collection consists of disparate poems and stories that reference one another, creating an air of consistency and continuous storytelling — or at least creating a continuous portrait of the neck of the woods. The poem “Neck of the Woods” perfectly exemplifies this holistic view of the collection by referencing titles and nodding to lines from the other poems. As this poem finds itself as the titular player in the collection, it adds to the notions that these poems are seemingly disparate pieces to a puzzle that, when consumed and viewed as whole, work together to aid the reader in conceptualizing and understanding the speaker’s neck of the woods.

Woolard crafts a beautifully written, dark, emotional, cerebral, and, at times, humorous collection of poems that explores what it feels like to look back upon the places our lives were lived from. Woolard leans into the idea that poetry is a playground for subjectivity and interpretation whilst still remaining decently forthright in its emotional significance and its contextual weight. At points, the ambiguity could be seen as too intense, entangling the emotional effect in loose, difficult to follow metaphor the message. This method of poetic storytelling, however, is a matter of preference and Woolard is decently successful at creating a collection that speaks to lovers of more amorphous ‘feeling’ poems as well as those who are more inclined to read poetry that tells a cohesive and understandable story. With that having been said, Woolard’s poetry does require a more involved reading and those who passively consume poetry may find that the story is somewhat lost in the language without more intricate inspection.

Woolard writes a sinuous exploration and stylized depiction of the stories that come together to create the larger picture of where you come from and conversely the ways in which the place influences the person.

—Staff writer Joseph P. Kelly can be reached at and on Twitter @JosephP_Kelly.

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