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John Hartley Williams

John Hartley Williams
Newcastle upon Tyne 1997
1 85224 431 3

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I’m about to read Canada again, which I suppose is a good sign. And yet I have the distinct impression that slow digestion rather than earnest and troubled re-re-reading holds the key to this bewildering collection. Weighing in at almost double the length of many slim volumes — certainly VFM, Canada is an undoubted heavyweight in other ways too; the term postmodern could have been invented for this… ‘Cumulative…’:

There is a sailboat of question marks fishing in the gulf
And the children disappear like cutlery
Stolen perhaps, from the Hotel Splendide after the executions
When it is raining & there are no more poets left alive

Intimations of totalitarianism in a nonsense landscape? The shortest poem in the book blows the assumption that short poems might be easier to interpret brutally out of the water. It quickly becomes clear that ‘Canada’ doesn’t represent Canada so much as the idea of a certain elusive and semiologically charged terrain. The piece quoted above is representative to a degree, in that it clearly has designs on its reader, in inviting and then repelling interpretation. The analogy between terrains geographical and textual is the connecting trope which runs throughout an extremely heterogeneous assemblage of materials.

Canada is divided into three longish movements and a short postcript; ‘Bean Soup’, ‘Pistol Sonnets’ (in three books), ‘Canada’ and ‘Deuce’. ‘Bean Soup’ broadly takes the form of fragments from a surrealised autobiography-cum-travelogue, with some sharp glimpses of European cities. ‘Canada’ uses the idea of territory and space in increasingly liberated and unexpected ways. But the volume is possibly dominated by the long middle section of sonnets. The poet draws on the erotic energy instinct in this exploded little genre, and plays coy games of semiotic striptease with his reader. Sonnet after ‘sonnet’ reinforces the explicit analogy between the eroticised body and the teasing prospect of clear understanding (held just out of reach); divesting is revelation:

I was holed up in bed with the dumb blonde Meaning
And a flask of Scotch…

I wedged an encyclopaedia
Under the waterbed to improve the wallowing…

Androgynous creature in the shower
Dewy nipples of a just-pubescent girl
Adorable minxette, wearing no perfume
Except the tentative aroma of assent…

And rows of tiny people desmember books
With desire’s fingers, tearing obstinacy small

This last example seems to me particularly explicit in drawing the analogy between sexual and textual exploration. Access to the promisingly veiled erotic body becomes the analogue of access to the poems’ frustratingly suppressed contextual information which will release their manifold meanings. This has certain implications: for one, a gendered structure is suggested between the fertile text and the penetrative interpreter, which may be unwholesome to some. And for another — readerly desire, progressive versus digressive energy, the delay of satisfaction; this is something of a hoary old chestnut in narratology, and instils the unworthy suspicion that Hartley Williams’s obscurity may not be very ‘hard won’.

However, it is often said that ‘nonsense poetry’ is a particularly difficult style, and it may be that Canada demands the lassitude of a comic reading in order for its energies to be appreciated to best effect. Certainly, the ingenious and witty titles look in this direction; Hartley Williams seems very drawn to that trick perfected by Wallace Stevens in which the title doesn’t so much describe the poem or readily assume a place within it, as stand in amused and incongruous tension with the material which follows. And there are some fine ‘comedy’ titles here: ‘Nothing Like a Good Old-Fashioned English Murder Mystery’… ‘Almost the Finale of the Movie, Then This Had to Happen’… ‘Paint This One, Picasso’… ‘Mouth With Its Teeth Firmly Clamped in the Hand That Feeds It, Refusing to Let Go’… and (surely everyone’s favourite) ‘Whoops, Wrong Bathroom’.

When the narrative or spatial focus is tight, and when the poet’s surreal imagination is a little restrained, there are some brilliant and beautiful poems here (‘The Breakast’, ‘Turtle Beach…’). Too often, however, I suspect that the backwoodsman-poet is intent not on controlling and mapping his bristling landscape, but on hiding in the undergrowth. There is a moment in ‘Pistol Sonnets’ when the poet is being interrogated by a sceptical voice: “‘Robert says yr poems are rather hard to understand. “‘ Whoever Robert is, I think I’d like to buy him a drink.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw


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