Earth Walker: Ros Woolner, Offa's Press
Ros Woolner grew up in the Thames Valley. After studying and working in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Germany and West Africa, she now lives in Wolverhampton, where she works as a translator. She is a member of Bilston Writers and Cannon Poets. She won the Guernsey International Poetry Competition in 2021 and was shortlisted for the Women Poets’ Prize run by the Rebecca Swift Foundation in 2022. Her debut pamphlet, On the Wing, was published by Offa’s Press in 2018.
Woolner’s first full-length collection of poems is wide-ranging in style and subject matter. Several poems such as ‘O Lawn!’ and ‘Pruning the Laurel’ betray an interest in gardening while others, such as ‘Life Force’, ‘Supporting Role’ and ‘Unspoken’ speak specifically of the resilience of nature in the city. The natural world, and birdlife in particular, comes to the fore in ‘Song of the Wood Pigeon’ and ‘A Rambler’s Guide to the Seasons’, the latter inspired by images in ‘Meadowland’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Her storylines are sometimes cryptic and disturbing, dramatic and surreal. Many poems such as ‘Recoil’ and ‘Giselle’ are not only inventive but also very satisfying. Some of the visual poems, such as ‘Like Cattle’ –a poem whose lines walk diagonally down the page - and the triangular-shaped ‘Tipping Point’, a clever poem which on one level appears to be about ideal growing conditions for edelweiss but on another refers to that fact that the world is now at a tipping point with regard to global warming, are executed extremely well. Another visual poem, ‘Scraps’ would work well in performance if read out by two people, one reading the left column, the other the right.
In the equally clever ‘de:face’ Woolner pitches the concept of freedom and anonymity against surveillance and the ‘Big Brother state’ using facial painting as an extended metaphor for the preservation of anonymity and its near-sounding relative ‘facial printing’ for surveillance, while the real message is spelt out in italics using the language of strikers chanting on a picket line:
One, two, three, four
Facial printing’s at our door
What do we want?
Freedom to be
out in public
Two other poems that caught my attention were ‘To Every Thing There is a Season’ which won first prize in the adult category of the Chiltern Arts Festival poetry competition 2023 and whose title brings to mind not only verses from Ecclesiastes but also the song title ‘Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)’ sung by The Seekers, and ‘In This Version The Hare Lives’, which was shortlisted for the WV Postcode prize in the Wolverhampton Literature Festival poetry competition 2023. This poem opens as follows:
The brassy notes urging
on-on-on stop and hang
over the frozen field
then turn tail and stream back
no-no-no to the horn
in the hand of the huntsman
on the ridge, fill his cheeks.
The clamouring dogs fall
silent one by one retreat.
Note here how on-on-on is reversed to no-no-no in keeping with the change in direction. It’s little things like this that make Woolner’s poems so rewarding when doing a close reading.
In other poems Woolner shows skill in handling big subjects like mass migration, the pandemic, street protests and global warming. This is undoubtedly an ambitious and impressive collection. That said, the presence of some notes in relation to a few of the poems would have been helpful in order to make their meaning more accessible to the reader.