Susan Wood, The Book of Ten
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
2010, 83 pages, paperback, $15

THE CONFLICT OF human nature versus societal morality has long been a topic for the arts. Susan Wood’s new collection, The Book of Ten, contains a series of poems based on the Polish television drama series, The Decalogue, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and Wood uses these films as a vessel to explore human imperfection. The line between moralities is often blurred, and Wood delves into the blurriness head first. The focus she maintains on The Decalogue films and their intense tales of ethical inadequacy are thought provoking and inspiring. Wood integrates the stories from the mini-series and translates them into her poems, gutting the emotion out with her blunt, candid words. She takes what is tragic in the scenes and expresses it in an objective voice we can all relate to. The first commandment, “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me,” inspires this beautifully earnest passage from “Decalogue: Thin Ice”:

As a parent, I’d call it The Thing You Must Not Name.
It’s the break in the ice we all fear most and secretly
believe we deserve, that if God were just
he would rain down punishment on us
for all our little failures of attention,
for every time we were too tired, we were
too busy, every time we lost our tempers
and yelled, lost our tempers
and slapped. And not just any punishment,
but This One. We all have our little gods, of course—
the little god of self, for example, its ooze
and shine, its groan and moan—I’ve known
that kiss

Each poem has a confessional quality; the language Wood uses is direct, sincere, and easily accessible. Although the subject matter is dark, Wood maintains a sense of comedy in many of her poems. For example, in the poem, “In America,” after fearing there is a gun in a young, black man’s paper bag, the speaker soon discovers that it is a ring for the young man’s girlfriend. The speaker is then left confused with her own conflicting emotions:

In two minutes, I’ve gone from fear
for my life to fear for his life, and I’m relieved when the train arrives at last
          Because I don’t know what to say
about his dreams, which I believe will come to nothing, because this is
    where the poor stay poor and hope
is not, as Emily Dickinson said, a thing with feathers, but is, as someone
          once said of the comb-over,
an acceptable convention that doesn’t really fool anybody.

In a manner reminiscent of Sharon Olds’ work in The Golden Cell, Wood confronts ethics head-on without fear of offending her reader’s most delicate sensibilities. Wood’s poetry delves into problems of incest, racism, family conflict, and even challenges God:

Oh, and don’t try to tell me
this is beyond our understanding, that it’s all
part of God’s plan, because the god who’d plan this,
he doesn’t even deserve the name.

Through the portrayal of human experiences, Wood questions the simplicity of the commandments and morality as a whole, conveying the idea that the conflicts and quarrels within the human soul are too complex to be subdued by a short list of virtuous regulations. In true confessional style, Wood admits her own failures in this life, imparting the idea that morality is flawed in the same ways we are:

Oh, God, if you’re there,
What commandments did I break?
I know I broke many. All.
Especially the unwritten one,
The one that should have read,
Honor thy children.

Wood suggests that we all share the same fears and fallibilities, that we all have “our little gods” we give in to out of sheer imperfection. Wood is not seeking justification, but looking to share the emotional turmoil we face as a culture whose values have changed throughout the decades. It is the sincerity in how she sees herself and society that is truly welcoming. In the end, the reader is left with a sense of acceptance and hope and with Wood channeling the ultimate act of letting go:

And maybe I’ve carried my failures around too long,
          carried them around like marbles in a glass jar, trying to count them, to go over
and over them, as if that would tell me anything I didn’t know, carried them around
like a little box of ashes I could cradle in my arms and sing to in the night,
           as if that would comfort me. I don’t think I want to carry them anymore.

—Denise Rodriguez