Training to be a priest in Rome, St Peter’s Basilica inspired awe and reverence. It wasn’t just because the dome soars to the heavens, shot through with shafts of golden light. No. A visit to the excavations below the Basilica, where I walked the streets of the Roman necropolis just beyond the site of Nero’s circus, was enough to make any faithful Catholic stop and think about the veracity of the claim that this church is built, both physically and spiritually, upon the bones of the martyred Peter.
However, I was never quite able to look at the place in the same way after viewing the eight faces of the plinths on which Bernini’s great baldacchino rests. At first glance, each is carved with a relief of a woman’s head and a whole lot of scrollwork. However, viewed in sequence, you’ll see a woman’s face contorted in the agonies of childbirth and the scrollwork below… Well, that contorts and enlarges too – until a baby’s head pops out. There, as tourists gawp at the great baldacchino, and at the Altar of the Chair of St Peter, the Renaissance asserts its riotous secular carnality. Blink and you’ve missed it.
For many, the sonnet is love poetry, often presenting love as inexpressible, spiritual and immortal. In Pistol Sonnets, John Hartley Williams delivers something more carnal. In Naples, the reader is transported to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, but not in the rapt tones of the TV art evangelist. Although we have eyes, we fail to see the ‘Boys whiter than Venus / Girls with thighs like Zeus / The museum is bedroom / In which marble has fun’. Composed as a series of simple statements, this gender bending glam rock hedonism ought to be obvious to even the most simple-minded. Yet, to the tourists, ‘Its cool and boring in here / The tourists look sick with innocence’. ‘Cool’ and ‘boring’ have a range of connotations: to the uninitiated, the marble might look cold, lifeless and dull, but cool also suggests stylish, classy sexual attractiveness. Suddenly ‘boring’ feels more virile than dull. As Williams moves into the sestet, a cruel line of dialogue satirizes the tourists’ tepid terms of endearment and itinerary-driven lack of spontaneity: ‘O look, dear, this is the Farnese Hercules’. Jupiter replies with contempt as an X-rated Ozymandias: ‘Yes, and I’m Jupiter / I’m the filthpot of the planets. Watch me / Sex a nymph’s stone crotch with my tongue’.
This sets the tone for much of Pistol Sonnets: a warm-blooded and often unsettling experience in which desire and sex keep the world spinning. The Bastille, whose Sadean title evokes male dominated sexual violence, presents women as sacrificial, as martyrs at an auto-da-fé: ‘Between your legs is a field of razed stubble / They have set light to you, burning you off / The smoke of your scarred skin fills my nostrils’. Again, Williams plays with uncertainty as ‘razed’ evokes images of destruction and mutilation, as well as shaving. Either way, the woman’s body has been appropriated to satisfy desire. However, at the volta the tables turn and, like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, she is able to use desire as a weapon. ‘What excites me / Is the drawn sword of your satisfaction / Your implacable withholding of basic supplies / The curved block of your sex / The falling blade of your sighs’.
Williams attacks the sensibilities of his gentle reader at every turn, mocking bardolatry in the same terms as his attack on gallery crawlers. In Guest List, the guests are dull and predictable: ‘Bankers with crocodile handkerchiefs / Teachers holding bitten-into apples / Neighbours for noodle salad / Cyclists with one clip too many / Then, of course, the lovers in bandages / And those truth-soured Judases, the poets // The ear-splitting obviousness of the latter / What makes them think we’ve not heard it before / Spouting rhymes as they corner the Queen of Occasion / Savouring each morsel of thee, thou, thine…’
It’s hard to disagree with Williams’ sentiments. Poetry was dark, sexy and dangerous way back when, so why shouldn’t it be now? This is a world-weary, noir collection of sonnets in which there is no easy correlation between desire and relationships. If Robert Browning were around today, then he might have been writing sonnets like these.