2009, A Pillow Book, A Suitable Cane, Anseo, Elsie Byers, Faber and Faber, Facebook, Ghost Train, Hugo Williams, Paul Muldoon, poem, poems, Poems to My Mother, Poetry, Reckless Records, review, Slapstick, The Cull, Twitter, verse, West End Final
Twice a day, I studied the cigarette stubber riveted to the melamine back of the bus seat. Ash threw the lattice filigree into relief. Discarded cans were lulled by diesel acceleration. Although the top deck was frowsy with children and dulled by winter, through the headphones of my Walkman, the effortless bend of David Gilmour’s guitar created a world of shimmering purity. That is, until Comfortably Numb’s furious outro withered like heated cellophane as the cassette eviscerated itself. Today, listening to the track in lossless fidelity, Gilmour’s guitar still unravels like jammed magnetic tape.
In Reckless Records, Williams’ speaker rediscovers the vinyl of his youth. ‘I wonder if this is my own copy / of A Swingin’ Affair! / which I took to a party in 1961 / and never saw again. / I was dancing with Belinda Davey, / the first one to speak to me / in that warm cheek language / of swaying on the spot / to ‘I won’t Dance’, / or ‘Nice work if you can get it’.’ The enjambed lines create an atmosphere of reverie and free association as one thought leads to another. Before too long, even the memory of unheard music has allowed Williams’ speaker to experience the ghost of physical sensation as the ‘warm cheek language’ is recalled. However, in this deceptively simple poem, Belinda Davey is an infatuation and not an enduring passion and the stanza break suggests that the estrangement suffered is from the intimately known music of our youth. ‘I lost touch with Frank, for a few decades after that’, Williams writes, as nostalgia gets the better of us all in the end and we make the mistake of returning, only to discover, like Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino, that the music ‘is not so sweet as it was before‘.
The trick with nostalgic urges is to recognize that they are as pernicious and habit-forming as full-blown vices and should be resisted. In The Cull, from a sequence entitled Poems to My Mother, Williams’ keenly observed poem demonstrates the power of the pen, as ‘You sit with your address book / open on your knee, / gently but firmly / crossing out the names / of old friends who have died. / ‘I wonder what happened / to Kay Morrow?’ you ask. / ‘It doesn’t matter, / I never liked her really.’ / Your pen hovers briefly / over the head of the bridesmaid / we’ve heard so much about, / then slices her in two’. Like all cleaning, the Godlike mother starts with the clearly defined task of erasing the dead from the book of life but cleaning has a habit of going wrong: before you know it, the kitchen’s taxonomy requires redesigning before another rotting vegetable can be removed from the fridge, and soon the living also find themselves slipping away. The bridesmaid is not even granted a name, so far has her stock fallen over the years and the clinical stroke of the ‘cull’ reminds us that this is a necessary decimation of the ranks of addresses for the good health of those left. Curiously, this poem feels as relevant to the age of Facebook and Twitter as to the age of snail mail. Today, people worry about the possibility that the friend will observe their absence from the roll of honour and that they will take offence at the slight. So, we read tweets and status updates begging the fair weather friends to unfriend themselves in a bizarre form of suicide.
West End Final begins by presenting a series of childhood vignettes and, amidst the domesticity, Gothic horror emerges. Williams’ eye is acute and his disarming economy concentrates the power of his words. The title, Ghost Train, for example, invites the reader to imagine the lurid dumb show of the end of the pier. What Williams’ terse lines and two quatrains presents us with shakes our preconceptions, as ‘We disappeared into tunnels, sucking sweets’. The sweets invite us to read this as a Just William moment but the word ‘disappeared’ hints at the horror of a permanent darkness. The second quatrain becomes a parallel train, reflected in the dark glass: ‘How long ago and far away we look, / sitting together there without moving / in the dark train / that is travelling beside our own’. The collection offers a few moments like these and Elsie Byers, in which an unlucky doll is buried in the garden, reads like an understated horror movie.
The childhood Williams presents is a dark one. A Suitable Cane, which begins with a child being sent to choose and buy the instrument with which they will be beaten, reminded me of Paul Muldoon’s Anseo. As the casual brutality of Muldoon’s school system creates Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward, the future IRA commander who has been ordered to cut for himself the ‘stick with which he would be beaten’, so Williams’ 1950s are tainted with a sickening connoisseurship, as Ollivander’s wand shop is crossed with the Marquis de Sade. ‘At Thomas’s I ask to see a selection / and the old gentleman takes down / various items for my approval: / the knobbly ‘School’ cane, / the curve-handled ‘Pop’ cane, / the straight but bendy ‘House’ cane. / I can’t make up my mind.’ The hushed gentility of a gentlemen’s outfitters is in dark, hilarious opposition with the debauched violence of the school Library, ‘a book-free zone, plastered with nude pin-ups / of French and Italian starlets’. Then, with a good sense of comic timing, Williams presents the reader with the next poem, ‘Slapstick’, where the speaker is ‘Grim-all-day’.
At the heart of Williams’ collection is A Pillow Book, a sequence whose title nods to Sei Shōnagon‘s tenth century collection of poems and court gossip. As the twelve numbered lyrics move full circle around the clock face, they convey a sense of inevitability and cyclic futility: the heat of passion becomes a memory. In number 12, the lover is finally eroded, remembered as a set of actions and not as herself at all. ‘Is that you over there / in your nightdress, / standing on one leg, / looking at the sole of your foot? // It must be you / because all your things are still here – / face creams and cotton buds, / cleanser and eyeliner, // scattered across the table / where you put on make-up / and do your hair’. In number 1, the lover told us that ‘I lie in bed, watching you / dress yourself in nudity’ and this passion, this deflated expectation haunts the room like the child eating sweets in the dark train in the tunnel. The lover must now be covered. Nudity was a costume donned for a performance but, now the show has closed, clothes are for keeping out the cold.
Reading Williams is a candid, intimate, unsettling experience. Our lives are theatre and, viewed up close and without stage lighting, the costumes and make-up reveal them to be a tawdry affair. Thankfully, Williams’s even-handed collection is shot through with a warmth and humanity which makes his bleaker moments bearable. Yet, even though my digital copy of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is perfect, I know that David Gilmour’s exquisite guitar solo will never sound the same again.