Karen McCarthy Woolf
(United Kingdom)   
Karen McCarthy Woolf

The title poem of Karen McCarthy Woolf’s pamphlet – a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and New Statesman Book of the Year in 2006 – came about as a piece of serendipity: “I was sitting at my desk wondering what to write,” says the poet, “so I cut a Sharon fruit in half. The result was The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers.

This attention and receptivity to the world around her – its colour and detail – and her gift for mixing the strange with the familiar, typify McCarthy Woolf’s poetry, with its riot of sense and form and dailiness.

Karen McCarthy Woolf was born and raised in London, and London is an omnipresent force in her poems. In ‘War’s Imperial Museum’, the Imperial War Museum (which used to be a famous mental asylum) becomes a setting for thinking about Auschwitz and what it means:

. . . The name has changed but it is still Bedlam.
Departure is harder than I think,
it takes time to exit this predatory basement.
Out past jaunty fighter planes that dangle
in the atrium. Out past the thrusting
guns, two of them, long as a street.
Out into the air, grateful for frost
and buses, which glow like lamps,
luminous in the dark afternoon

She writes about pigeons (in ‘The Ascension of Pigeons’ “The poor bird was dead as an autumn leaf”) and the “patch of no-man’s land between Kennington, Oval and Vauxhall”, which “just wasn’t the place for the only pub with a pool”: “All those dreams dreamed too big and then made small again by life” (‘The Only Pub With a Pool!’).

In 2005 she wrote a play for BBC Radio 4, based on the life of Dido Lindsay – a mixed-race girl who grew up in Kenwood House in the 1760s. Londoners are very familiar with Kenwood house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and there is a painting of Dido which places her firmly in 18th-century London life.  The play, Dido, has had performances beyond the radio, including one in the orangery at Kenwood House.

McCarthy Woolf’s poetry reflects in subterranean ways the mixed heritage of her English and Jamaican parents. Her imagery – from the pomegranate seeds, blood and star of her title poem to the languorous, “vermilion-winged miracle” of a Red Admiral butterfly in Tottenham Court Road (‘The Butterfly and the Whale’) – speaks of colour, warmth, and an easy slowness amid the tense grey of the city. When she writes “The only green was the traffic lights changing”, she creates a plausible green, even in the midst of “mourning all that is swallowed by the city”.

Karen McCarthy Woolf was one of ten black or Asian poets who featured in the anthology Ten, in 2010. The book, edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra, was a step towards redressing the fact that only one per cent of all poetry published in Britain is by black poets. The poems she featured in the book are to do with the stillbirth a year earlier of her baby boy, and they appear to mark a new departure in her work. In the immediacy of their grief they splay themselves across the page, they are urgent and unconcerned with manners, they are intense and stark.

The sequence ‘Yellow Logic’ presents moments in colours, moments in shapes:

Upstairs in a room facing north
a summer
    marries immediately.

Our job was to get her to drink.
It took a seismic shift to get changed
    after dinner.

    (‘I. The Weather in the Womb’)

‘White Butterflies’, the fifth in the sequence, is a white-on-white white-out of a poem in which “the artichoke spikes/ in the walled garden” are the only colour.

In the second poem, ‘My Limbs Beat Against the Glass’, she becomes the butterfly:

a Victorian lepidopterist with walrus whiskers
skewers my solar plexus
and pins me to a felt-backed board . . .
. . . as he tightens the frame to a vacuum.

In an introduction to her work in the book, her mentor Michael Symmons Roberts writes of “her ambition, wit and sureness”, her interest in politics, ecology and history, and “her continuing exploration of poetic form”. He writes, “Her poetry was already concerned with love, how close any of us can get to each other, and the risk and fear of the loss of that love.” The poems concerning the death of her baby achieve a synthesis of McCarthy Woolf’s elements: love, risk, fear, grief, and sensory impression.

shallow roots torn
                         a broken bird
                                    song explodes
                        on a frequency of earth and lime
                                                                             too high to hear
          – we haven’t got –
                      a heart                          beat
          –    haven’t got five minutes . . .
  (‘III: Mor Bleu’)

Karen McCarthy Woolf has taught creative writing for The Photographers’ Gallery, City Lit, Southbank Centre, English Pen and The Arvon Foundation. She has been writer in residence at the Museum of Garden History and literature development agency Spread the Word. Her poem ‘The Wish’ was a runner up in the Cardiff International Poetry Prize; judges Don Paterson and Philip Gross said, “The poem has grand litanical urgency and insistence to it.”

McCarthy Woolf also edited the anthologies Bittersweet: Black Women’s Contemporary Poetry (The Women’s Press) and Kin (Serpent’s Tail). She is an associate editor at the international literary journal Wasafiri, on the editorial board of Magma magazine, and reviews for Modern Poetry in Translation.

© Katy Evans-Bush

The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers, Spread the Word, London, 2005
McCarthy Woolf’s book An Aviary of Small Birds is forthcoming from Oxford Carcanet in 2014.
Editor, Bittersweet: Black Women’s Contemporary Poetry, The Women’s Press, London, 1998
Editor, Kin, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2004
Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra, eds, Ten: New Poets Spread the Word, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2010
Jackie Kay, James Proctor, Gemma Robinson, eds, Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2012
Karen McCarthy Woolf’s website
McCarthy Woolf investigates the creative process at Open Notebooks


Subscribe to the newsletter

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (international)  

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (Dutch)