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Abigail Welhouse
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OPENING THE MOUTH OF THE DEAD
 
Poems by Catherine Woodard
Art by Margot Voorhies Thompson
 
The central character of Woodard’s first full-length poetry collection, Opening the Mouth of the Dead (September 7, 2017 | art by Margot Voorhies Thompson | lone goose press | trade paperback edition $17.95 and limited-edition letterpress edition $1,700) is a third-grade girl growing up in 1960s North Carolina who uses the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to navigate her complicated relationship with her father. She struggles to reconcile her heart with her brain in a family where her father grapples with alcoholism and depression.
 
Both versions of the book feature artwork by Margot Voorhies Thompson, with additional art included in the limited-edition letterpress edition.
 
The main character of the book is also interested in the relationship between images and words, and the power they have together.
 
“The decoupling of brain and heart confuses and worries the narrator as she pores over pictures and spells in the Book of the Dead for clues to help her father,” explains Woodard. The narrator finds comfort in Ba, which she calls “Soul-Bird.” In ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife, Ba refers to the part of a human soul that is like the modern notion of a personality. It is often drawn as a creature with big wings and a human head, and its job is to protect and console its mummy.
 
The young narrator is precocious, and asks adults questions that they prefer not to answer. In “Joseph Rescues His Family and Egypt,” she asks her grandmother “if depressed is a way to iron dresses” and her Sunday school teacher how the Egyptians wrote down the story of Joseph before the Bible. The teacher’s response is to say, “Nothing / Came before the Bible but desert and dirt” and hand her a Baby Moses to color.
 
Many poems refer to coping and vulnerability. The narrator’s mother appears in several poems doing laundry, bringing the narrator to church in black patent shoes, and instructing her and her brother, Luke, how to behave when their father is drunk. In “For Not Playing Dead,” Woodard writes, “Mother says we can die / if he’s drinking. / Says to scream, fall. / Kick if we must.”
 
The narrator longs for connection and protection. In “My Father Saves the White Gardenia,” she works with her father to give flowers Miracle-Gro and buries lollipops in the garden because their shape represents life in Ancient Egypt. In “Weekend in Emerald Isle, N.C.,” Woodard writes, “We cook crabs I net. / Crack the claws / Meant to protect.”
 
Several poems refer to Declarations of Not, which Woodard describes as “protestations of innocence to cleanse sins.” Ancient Egyptians believed that the dead spoke this litany to 42 gods in the hope of balancing the Feather of Truth and gaining eternal life. Each line begins “I have not.” The child narrator describes first learning about this ritual from her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Long, who just returned from the 1964 World’s Fair: “The mummy / needs a lot of Nots and no brains to pass the test. / Winners get a ticket to a Heaven of Eternal Reeds, where everyone you love will be safe, waiting.”
 
When the narrator is in college, her father survives a fourth suicide attempt but not a fifth. She returns to the words and pictures in the Book of the Dead to find a way to release and forgive him. In the poem “Searching for Nots in the College Library,” she says, “I have not read a Book of the Dead since Mrs. Long. / I pull out a translation by the Brooklyn Museum, / find a corner in the stacks I can read out loud.” In another poem, “Hieroglyphs, Reread,” Woodard points out that “The word for house and tomb/Is the same, pronounced per.”
 
In the poem “For Causing a Man To Turn in Order to See,” the narrator refers to her father as a “self-made mummy” who used “Vodka and Valium as embalming / As oil of cedar and natron.”
 
The poem “She Said Yes” breaks up the day after the narrator’s father’s funeral into short vignettes, mostly focused on the narrator’s mother. In one vignette, “Mother Thanks Me for Being a Helper,” she says, “You were four when you asked if your daddy was drunk. I said yes. / You left and cleaned up your room.”
 
Woodard shows a family bewildered by grief, reaching for the solace the young narrator sought in Soul Bird. In the poem “Referee,” the narrator describes watching TV with her grandfather five days after the death of her father. Her grandfather remembers his wife, the narrator’s namesake, who overdosed from pain pills. He says, “Never should have left her that night. But what could I do?” The narrator thinks, “He asks as if I referee.”
 
Praise for Opening the Mouth of the Dead:
 
“In this beautiful, haunted book, the author’s granddaddy asks her as a child, “But what could I do?” The grown child says “He asks as if I referee.” The child that survives catastrophic family history inevitably feels that she is a referee. The combatants are gone and were, always, not only powerful but unreadable. This child’s mind, facing a harrowing present and harrowing past, turns to a paradigm that she was given in the third grade: the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The ancient paradigm gives dignity and density to the tragedy of her parents’ lives. Litany, the insistent search for truth amid bewildering fragments, is what the survivor can perform to release, if not to save, the past. This is a superb book.” –Frank Bidart
 
“Yes! This is news. In depth and energy, Catherine Woodard’s poetry penetrates the whole intense story. She has achieved a dazzling work.” –Marie Ponsot
 
“Like a yearning, incantatory prayer, the extraordinary poems in Catherine Woodard’s Opening the Mouth of the Dead build to an exquisite and devastating story of loss. With a child’s precision of observation made especially poignant through her 3rd grade reading of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Woodard’s narrator renders a brilliant portrait of an alcoholic father that is not likely to be forgotten — a poem cycle truly remarkable for its economy, surprising humor, and sharp truths.” –Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women, Our Kind, and other novels
 
“In this deeply moving, beautifully conceived book, the spellbound world of Horus and Ra intermingles with Piggly Wiggly, Moon Pies, and Mrs. Long’s third-grade class where blue crepe paper rolls down the aisle and is a river named The Nile. It is here where the imaginative narrator, whose heart is a muddle, latches on to ancient charms and prayers that she believes will fix her troubled family, will keep them—and her—safe from hurt. These are tender, sad, strong-minded poems of the eternal human desire to breathe life into the lost, to bring them back to us in love and forgiveness, and to learn how to balance the Feather of Truth on our aching hearts.” –Emily Fragos, author of two books of poetry, Hostage and Little Savage and editor of six poetry anthologies for The Everyman’s Pocket Library
 
“Catherine Woodard’s Opening the Mouth of the Dead casts a powerful spell and maps a royal road into several of poetry’s oldest themes– the persistence of sex, death, and family in our imaginations, and the need to speak from beyond the grave events of our lives. Here the heart testifies to its unadorned truths in every poem.” –John Lane, poet, essayist and author of Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems, Fate Moreland’s Widow: A Novel and several nonfiction books including Coyote Settles the South
 
About the author
 
Catherine Woodard swerved to poetry in 2001 after an award-winning career in journalism. She helped return Poetry in Motion® to the NYC subways and is vice president of the Poetry Society of America.
 
Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and CNN online. She co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and has been featured in The Best American Poetry blog for essays about India and the nexus of basketball and poetry.
 
Fellowships and awards include Playa, Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences and Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, Women’s Voices for Change, Unshod Quills and Willow Review.
 
A former newspaper and new media journalist, Woodard chairs the NYC Advisory Committee for the News Literacy Project. She was an early digital journalism editor who led coverage that Columbia Journalism Review hailed as “the most ambitious” and “delightfully irreverent.” At New York Newsday, she won reporting public service awards about the social and political impact of AIDS and HIV, how NYC dodged a possible epidemic of drug-resistant TB and at Newsday how poor school districts were cheated by feudal tax assessments on Long Island.
 
Woodard has a MFA in poetry from The New School, MS in journalism from Columbia University and BA in history from Wake Forest University.
 
She is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. She is married to Nelson Blitz, Jr. and is the mother of Perri and Allie Blitz. She writes and plays basketball in New York City.
 

www.catherinewoodard.com/
Twitter.com/cathywoodard
Instagram.com/catherinewoodard
Facebook.com/catherinewoodardwriter

 
About the artist
 
Margot Voorhies Thompson is a calligrapher, painter, printmaker, and designer. In Oregon, her work is represented by the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland. Her paintings and prints have been collected by the Portland Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Stanford University Hospital, the Printmaking Workshop in New York and internationally by several US Embassies. Her work is also in many private and corporate collections. Margot’s public art commissions include the University of Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), Portland; Portland State University; Kaiser Permanente, Tualatin, OR; the Woodstock Branch of the Multnomah County Library; Doernbecher Children’s Hospital; the Oregon State Capitol on the mall; and the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Margot’s work in the book arts includes commissions by the University of Oregon’s Knight Library Press in Eugene, OR and lone goose press, also in Eugene, both headed by Sandy Tilcock. Margot’s past work with Sandy include books and broadsides with Kim Stafford, Pattian Rogers, Wendell Berry, John Daniel, Rennard Strickland, and Kathleen Dean Moore.
 
About the publisher
 
Since her childhood, Sandy Tilcock has been enchanted and inspired by the physical presence of books. She loved to read, but was also drawn to the weight and feel of books, their symmetry and order. It is this enchantment that led her to establish lone goose press. Over the past quarter century, her work has been recognized for its imaginative designs and impeccable craftsmanship. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alabama, where she studied printing, typography and letterpress printing with noted printer and teacher Richard-Gabriel Rummonds. She was Founding Director of Knight Library Press at the University of Oregon, and served in that position for seven years.
 
As a mathematics major in college, she developed a disciplined, analytical approach to problems as well as an appreciation for what mathematicians call “the elegant solution.” A love of nature led her to photography back in the days when this craft inevitably meant contriving a darkroom and becoming intimate with chemical trays and timers. She was captivated by the sense of revelation in the play of light on surfaces. Over the years she became a passionate gardener. In that domain she tends to shun regimentation—she is the gentle advocate of chaos, delighting in the wild and unexpected. She has recently discovered the art of Bonsai, and enjoys the patient dialogue between plant and person, the gradual teasing out of the elegant solution.
 
Beyond her backyard, Sandy has long been an environmental advocate, devoted to preserving and protecting wild lands and waters. lone goose press derives its name from a passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s curious observation of the occasional solitary Canada Goose during the spring migration resonated with her sense of sudden isolation starting a one-person enterprise after leaving the collegial support of the graduate program at Alabama.
 
Sandy is devoted to her dogs, current census three. They would describe her as loving, generous and attentive, though they would probably agree that she works too hard.
In her work as in her life, Sandy values not just the elegant solution, but peace, harmony and understanding. She still seeks to venture to the outskirts in visual and verbal expression, nurturing an endless supply of dreams.
 
OPENING THE MOUTH OF THE DEAD
Poems by Catherine Woodard
Art by Margot Voorhies Thompson
lone goose press
Available in Trade Paper and Limited-Edition Letterpress
Publication Date: September 7, 2017
https://www.lonegoosepress.com/
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