Posted July 23, 2014.

Woodstock Baby, by Joan Dobbie, reviewed by Tim Volem

Woodstock Baby
by Joan Dobbie

The Unforgettables Press
(dobbiejoan@yahoo.com)
ISBN 978-1-4923138-3-0
2013, $9.00

Joan Dobbie’s Woodstock Baby is described on its cover as a Novel in Poetry, and while it is not technically a verse novel, with a formal structure (stanzas, rhyme scheme), it is composed of short free verse poems that tell a story.

The story is set in Boston in the late 60s/early 70s and documents the lives of a network of friends who are immersed in the counterculture of that time. It is an insular community, focused on the art of living, more than on making a living, and its characters are artists and dropouts, students and cab drivers, Viet Nam vets and young parents, particularly young mothers. As Joan Dobbie says in her Introduction, addressed to friends, her work is fiction and “like most fiction, it is based upon life.” In the work, Joan is named Ruth who marries a young man named Ryan and they soon have a daughter named Jenny Fay. In an Afterword, Dobbie lists the cast of characters whom we’ve come to know from reading the short poems. The list describes the characters’ roots, which display a range of cultures and class. But what connects the characters is their youthfulness and the lure of Boston (most of them are from someplace else). There is a compelling sense that the immediate is open to great possibility.

A central theme in Woodstock Baby is pregnancy and its attendant developments- childbirth and childrearing. The poem that is reprinted on the book’s back cover, with the following two-line title, captures the focus of much of the story:

Don’t let anybody tell you different
PREGNANCY IS CATCHING

All summer I stayed with Mitch
& Marlene
who was pregnant.

All summer I studied
the Pink Pregnant book, rested
my hand on her belly,
breathed
the salt spice of that baby.

That was the summer before
the summer my baby was born.

Dobbie’s poems are mostly short and use white space liberally, making for ease of reading. Often there is a central image that captures a scrap of time and easily conveys character, like the poem “Onion Soup,” presented early in the story:

ONION SOUP

Joby will never be poor
hates

She will be a rich
& charismatic writer

& so

cooks onion soup
which she says is the soup
of the wealthy

& grand.

We top it with croutons & sharp
cheddar cheese.

We hold our spoons
with pinkies

Sometimes a wry humor is presented in the snapshots of life in Boston, as in the following, one of the longer poems in the novel:

BEWARE OF MARRYING A PAINTER

If your new husband
is an artist
& you’re just beginning
to show
& you’re still
very young
& tight
& pretty

then you may
end up spending a lot
of long shivering hours

standing absolutely stark naked

(absolutely
no moving)

in the middle of the frigid
landlord-green
living room

(which is your only room)

probably by the mantel
(& the fireplace boarded up)

probably with your right arm
raised
like Miss Liberty

& your left
on your hip & your back

arched seductively.

In addition to Ryan and Ruth’s friends and housemates, there are appearances made by her parents and her brother and sister, too. An inclusiveness prevails in the apparent casual living being experienced by Ruth in Boston. The poem “Jenny Talking to Grandma” is one such appearance of immediate family:

JENNY TALKING TO GRANDMA

on the phone,
she presses

the heavy black
receiver

to her ear,
swinging

her right leg
back & forth

back & forth

like little girls do
& her eyes

are the river
at night.

As the novel proceeds, there are challenges presented to many of the characters we’ve come to know, and Ruth of course is no exception. In small increments, we come to learn much about many of the inhabitants of the rundown house in Boston.

What seems like a casual collection of impressions does develop into the fabric of a story and builds to an ending that leaves Ruth in control but on the verge of a future that is filled with unknowns. Woodstock Baby documents a version of the 60s zeitgeist in a seemingly casual manner but the effect of all the short poems is one that stays with the reader. And upon completion, this reader found himself visiting the story again and gathering a greater sense of the characters as they engage in concerns of their youthful lives.

Copies of Woodstock Baby may be ordered directly from Joan Dobbie (dobbiejoan@yahoo.com). The book is also available online through Amazon.

Reviewer Bio: Tim Volem is a member of the Lane Literary Guild in Eugene and has published poems in The English Journal, Tiger’s Eye, and Carapace.

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