Review: Sphinx by Cat Woodward

Cat Woodward, Sphinx, Saló Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0993350870

Sphinx, the impressive debut poetry collection from Cat Woodward, is a surreal and unsettling book. These poems explore what it feels like to exist as a female subject in language, in all its wonder, violence and strangeness, or as Woodward puts it in the poem “I Have Seen This Before IV”: “in her brayed ugliness-song I am a me”.

The collection mixes sprawling prose poems with shorter lyric poems. “I Love the Moon” is representative of the prose poems. It begins “the moon rises over a tree with a robot’s muteness one part gutspill two parts mind your god damn business her agelessness has a [. . .]” and carries on in an unpunctuated stream of associations, sometimes funny, often disturbing, until it takes up nearly the whole page. Knowingly-cliched images and ideas are disrupted by the unexpected, “femme fatales” appear alongside “horny crustaceans”, and the poem refuses to go pliantly along with poetic conventions: “how am I supposed to know what the nightingale says”. The result is a poem which darkly and playfully sabotages the moon’s conventional use as a feminised poetic trope.

This fighting back against poetic conventions continues elsewhere in the book. Some of the shorter lyric poems can be seen as hate-poems which turn the conceits of love poetry into something brutal, opening up the ways in which the lover’s address to their beloved can contain a sinister power-dynamic. One such poem ends:

stand there  

where I can see you  

and, as if you were dying,  


These lines are blackly comic in their bluntness and there is humour in much of the collection, not all of it so dark, for example the poem “Dream of Houseboat with Solitude and Wicker Chair” starts with the lines “think about the opposite of job / that is / think about cats”.

As well as humour, there are also plenty of moments of strange beauty and compassion. In the “Planets Suite”, a sequence of poems which describe various fictional planets in the manner of an intergalactic guidebook, “planet silver” is described as “Upsidedown snow, hello. Lung-tooth, tears on hiatus where it’s birches all round and the sky forever lavender.” Some of the lyric poems, in contrast to the hate-poems, are strikingly affectionate. “Tender” is a love poem that wears its weird heart on its sleeve:

  these are not my colours of wanting

            this is me as a nanobot

as savaged seashell

i am an Easter Island head

and the cold black stars

who love that head

In Ancient Greek mythology the sphinx was a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. Those who failed to correctly answer her questions were gobbled up. Sphinx is a fitting title for the collection. The poems in this book are often questioning and often violent.

One such question is asked in “Reply to Richard”, a poem which responds to a glib Richard Brautigan poem in which he compares a woman taking a birth-control pill to a deadly mining disaster. Woodward’s poem asks: how to speak for yourself when other people are speaking over you, when “we hear not ourselves but the noise of sons and fathers shouting are you stupid now as well as a whore?” This is perhaps the most directly feminist poem in the collection and it responds to Brautigan with a defiant anger which culminates in a bodily reclamation of language: “I am also letter O when I hold on my tongue at last the word for ‘no’”.

What is at stake in Sphinx is important: to be able to exist in language. Woodward’s poems fight for their own place in language and create something captivating in the process.

Adam Warne


You can buy Sphinx here.

Adam Warne was born in Suffolk in 1988 and has lived there most of his life. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and is currently working towards a PhD at the University of Roehampton about fools and madness. His debut pamphlet, Suffolk Bang, will be published by Gatehouse Press later this year.


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