review by Dan Disney
The first poem, ‘Aesthetics’, from the much awarded Outside temple boundaries (1998), immediately apprises humans behaving oddly. The wheelchair-bound subject is described as ‘a glass slipper’ among ‘princesses’ who, shopping at a market jewellery stall, remark:
as if the subject is absent, an inanimate non-person. Williams has been shocked into italicising this moment of unintended dehumanisation, and so often her desire for things (and people) to be different pushes these poems into critique: often, the commentary is from a metaphysical angle. Thus in the texts from Outside temple boundaries there are allusions to the stations of the cross, Mary Magdalene (who euphemistically holds ‘his man-ego like a chalice’ before baptising him ‘over/ and/ over/ with her scandalised mouth’ ), angels, and martyrs; indeed, these early poems frame human behaviors as imprinted with (and yet operating outside the confines of) religious containment. In ‘Final Draft’, Williams reimagines the creation of Eden, where a god asks:
but Eve has disappeared and Adam is missing; the snake is all smiles and, tellingly, “only the fog is real” (10).
This real fog in imaginary gardens (to turn Moore’s credo) traces the discernible drifts of human behavior, a preoccupation which extends into Williams’ next collections. In The Last Tourist (2006), a disembodied hand waves ‘a welfare cheque/ like a warzone flag the other warming/ the handle of the getaway pram’ (20); elsewhere, veins are concealed by a train station toilet’s ultraviolet blue light, eking out ‘like old disco’ (22); in ‘How the Heart Works’, the poet wonders what would be the upshot if no distinction were made ‘between the heart of a man/ or a pig or a lion’ (24), the implication being that, sometimes, there is no difference. But it is in ‘Tips for the last tourist’ that an ethical centre to this New and selected poems is situated; inthe first of nine sections in the poem, Williams advises readers to:
Here is a subtle critique of place, a place in which ‘on a good day you are living in paradise’ (31), and its peoples’ well-intentioned wrong-headedness. Williams’ attention then shifts to a tourist who has missed the last ferry from Bruny Island back to Hobart:
Cultural inheritances cannot be disinherited, and this poem is an echo sounder locating the contours of strangers ‘in a strange land’ (31). The poem, in other words, functions as a cooee to the colonisers.
More broadly, though, Williams tells us she is talking a ‘universal language of the homesick’ (40), and is nostalgic for a reality beyond the small affective explosions that punctuate her texts. Hers is a way of apprehending in which:
These post-Keatsian lyrics treat the poem as a depth test for reality, and are suffused with a spontaneous overflow (after Wordsworth) of powerful feelings. When Williams asks ‘can a free spirit have roots?’ (31), her books supply ample response: these poems can be said to be rooted in ‘an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals’ (as academic Isaiah Berlin defines Romanticism), and this is an energy which sustains the poet. Indeed, addressing a deceased brother, Williams candidly admits that, ‘(a)s you predicted my poems leave me with more questions/ than I start out with, which keeps me writing’ (34).
And continue to write she does: in Begging the Question (2008), Williams makes appeal to our intuitions by reminding us, perhaps terrifyingly, that ‘you are exactly who you think you are’ (47). Part of her project seems a reorientation through purposeful disordering (after Rimbaud), in which ‘I lose my sense of direction/ and have to play tourist to find my way home’ (52). On the next page it is a sleeping body that ‘is its own home’ (53), in stark contrast to the ‘drug induced sleepers (who) dream dreams they won’t/ remember’ (56). Increasingly, the sense is that Williams is at large within herself—a tourist who finds succor not in the world but, instead, accesses experience through poeticising reality-as-waking-dream. Apprehended thus, these poems are travelogues toward the ideal dwelling of reimagined places, where no one quite looks the part anymore. Williams is precisely in the business of problematising appearances; were she a poet from the Platonic Republic, she may have been marched out of town long ago. As it is, Williams performs the role of weird sister, impelled (after Stein’s rose) to incantatorily remind us (and herself) that ‘It’s all good it’s all good it’s all good’ (60).
City of Possibilities (2011) extends the instructional mode; ‘On entering the city of possibilities’, the imagined addressee is counselled to:
Here is a poet treating all cities (communities, cultures) as regulated with rules which, when defamiliarised and viewed from an outsider’s perspective, seem breathtakingly strange, perhaps wondrous; in this poem Williams again situates her poetics:
as if the unappeasable yearning that impels these poems shifts us (after Aristotle) from particular to universal, resonant apprehensions of near-belonging. In proferring the poem as a dwelling, these texts each enact a homecoming, to psychic sites burnished by ‘a light burning/ in the ruins.’ (67)
Williams directs her gaze, often incredulously, toward the many who surround her: the unmoving sleeping bag ‘behind the salvation army/ charity drop-box’ (72) is tonally congruent with the man who cries ‘over the fate of his girlfriend/ who only ever lifted credit cards/ from neglected handbags’ (79); elsewhere, ‘I had a spew and now I’m right’ (82). These are the personae that at once astonish and disrupt Williams: her random interactions leave her with more questions than answers, but also sustain that unquenchable desire to understand the real as weirdly-dreamed.
In the uncollected poems that complete this New and selected poems, Williams crystalises her critique as an extra-systemic mode; this is poet-as-silhouette, engaged and immersed and yet set apart and disconsolate with ‘the kind of loneliness/ only company can evoke’ (98). At heart, what these poems confess to yearn for is simple – an enduring connection:
These final poems shift ever inward, and ever toward affectivity. The settings, though, expand beyond an Australian context and the imaginary gardens are now sites of entry for Williams, who ranges from Russia to road kill, weddings to Ireland, google, National Geographic, adult children,Singapore, and beyond. Inside these lighter poems, there is a spirit still toiling within the deep longing of finding/making a home, though these final texts may trace a turn: here is a poet who has been only fitfully ardent within the spaces of confined experience, but who now perhaps finds herself on the cusp of new (and newly invigorated) exploration.
Dan Disney currently teaches in the English Literature Program at Sogang University (Seoul). His latest book, Mannequin’s Guide to Utopias, is published by ASM (Macao).
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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo