Short Story

“You don’t need a driving license to buy a fish pie,” she said, and we both laughed.

I put it back in my wallet.

“But people need a license if they walk their dogs with those fucking long extending leads,” I added.

She didn’t reply.

I could see the rapport was broken like the death of hope.

And I can’t even be certain if it was the expletive or the doggy downer.

This shitting world is really getting to me.

‘the hall of several tortures’ by Reuben Woolley – Knives Forks and Spoons Press


Last year I read and reviewed Reuben Woolley’s two previous poetry collections [see here], and both introduced me to his distinctive style of writing in which space and positioning on the page are critical to conveying the intense but fluid focus of his poetic thought and feeling. When Reuben asked if I would review the latest collection this hall of several tortures I was genuinely happy and keen to do so and I am therefore saddened I didn’t complete this before his recent passing.

On Reuben’s I am not a silent poet Facebook page, there were hundreds of heartfelt messages of sympathy and condolence as well as appreciation of his writing, but most importantly deep gratitude for the support he gave to other writers. Reuben’s backing for fellow poets seemed to stem entirely from a generous personal spirit: in sustaining regular posts of poems on his I am not a silent poet publishing site and then promoting each and every one through social media he was remarkably unstinting.

Then there is a further significance in the stated ethos of his site’s welcoming platform for writers, which is:

‘I am not a silent poet welcomes quality poems of protest. We have been seeing such increasing evidence of abuse recently that we felt it was time to do something. I am not a silent poet looks for poems about abuse in any of its forms: colour, gender, disability, the dismantlement of the care services, the privatisation of health services, the rape culture, FGM, our girls in Nigeria are just some of the examples that come to mind at the moment. It is not a site for rants.’

My review posted now takes place on the day of the Conservative Party’s re-election here in the UK, and in honouring the fundamentally caring and helpful nature of Reuben Woolley I am sure he would have been wryly aware of the deeply ironic coincidence of this pairing.

I did a while ago on a first reading of this book write the following paragraph which I will still use to lead this review. I do so because it is completely apt, but I won’t follow on so much with a further ‘analysis’ of the writing and thematic perplexities of it. Rather it is an overview, an impression of style and substance to genuinely urge other readers to explore and enjoy for themselves. That first impression is:

An analysis at the individual words level of this collection would account for an etymology of conveying darknesses. The task would be as bleak as what it seemingly discovers, but there are less finite factors at work in the overall construction of meaning here, not least the structures of absence and fragment and disorientation. Otherwise, there is always the search for difference in the gaps provided, either through our imagining or in other glimpses.

Going to the poems, we quickly encounter a storytelling to intrigue and question, and the recurring ‘she said’ offers a persona to hear rather than immediately want/need to examine,

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[opening title poem]

And the dialogue/listening/other speaker is also introduced to further draw us in,

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[title poem]

It is the spoken narrative of unthings that dominates from this opening title poem and compels us to listen to it,


At the poem’s closing lines,

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it is therefore the unshadow we still read and see throughout – those gaps we fill out of curiosity/need/hope/desperation, because if we don’t/can’t [possibly the poet’s experience] then this is what we get,

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[turn the page over she said]

In terms of style there is the lyrical [often darkly tinged within] as in the poem another blue requiem, and in these next compelling lines, music – as with so much of his poetry – is a telling reference,

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[tell me a life tell me a story]

The music is here too and the impact of line pacing through placement is sustained in the next whole and beautiful poem,

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And once more on these line placements – as Paul Sutton observes in his back cover blurb ‘I’ve never read a collection where the spacing between words works so well. That phrase is so often a cliché, but not here’ – we see the also simple effectiveness in this,

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[come quiet now]

The ‘she said / she cries’ driven narrative is, despite the beauty occasionally punctuating, informed most by hardness and damage whether this is specific references to stone and/or naturally abrasive elements or blood and bleeding and further injury. We see this across five poems , palaeontology.look [i]; elsewhere i breathe [ii]; so poor a process [iii]; two ways out [iv]; the tides she leaves in disarray,

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For all the threads and repetitions and re-versionings that go on in this collection, reading each individual poem is still such an energising discovery or demanding perplexity – and again we experience the loss and then fill in the gaps [as we will] to, as I invert the chronology you will next read, ‘scratch the little fucker’ in order to find ‘happy’,

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You will especially find a ‘happy’ in this collection’s final poem because it is a wonderfully lyrical and conversational piece and I think presents some humour in its confrontation with further loss and anticipation of more. It is a consummate poem in the most general sense of experiencing a writer wholly honest and open and revealing, but also in that specific way its ‘style’ is so distinctively Reuben’s, and in its naturally unforced way.

You can buy the collection here.


[for Trevor, 17.9.1947 – 11.12.2012]

I am sixty-five now too and
see a different landscape

though understand well the
relentless grey and cloud.

We did discuss further
darknesses, you illuminating

there and then with
lessons from history

and the depths of your
knowing, those roots in

experience and a prodigious
reading to inform others.

Today you’d make searing
jokes about Machiavellian

truths, then draw incisions
across these lies to expose a

lineage of treachery. Your
line speaks to the despair

of it all, how hard it is to
repair when no one listens

or hears. How in such wit and
wisdom there can be doubt

speaks to now when there
will be yet more ignoring.

The Man and the Boy and the Fish


The man holds a fish
and this small boy

swims on a floor
in a sea of purulence.

The man does not
see or hear the fish

speaking; he cannot feel
how it flapped and gasped.

The boy can only hear
his breathing as it

struggles in the cold
and hard waves lapping

like a pummelling, like
a punishment.

The fish is empty inside
and this boy survives.

The man still holds his
dead fish, but doesn’t

look it in the eye. He did
not understand anything.