‘A Thirst for Order’
A Review of ‘Controlled Hullinations’ by John Sibley Williams
Review by Darren J. Coles
The title of John Sibley Williams’ poetry collection, ‘Controlled Hallucinations’ conjures a contradictory state of mind: a sensual disturbance that is both strange yet restrained, an experience that pushes the limits of meaning yet remains within familiarity. The poems themselves are an expression of the philosophy of life as a mixture of opposites that cannot always be reconciled. Williams’ images are suitably contradictory, as he sets about posing the question: can the poet move beyond existing language, with its preconceived meanings, in order to create new paradigms of expression where dissonance and harmony co-exist? The answers to such grand propositions are purposefully unforthcoming, as Williams’ collection attempts to articulate intangible experiences with illuminating, confusing and frustrating results.
Williams’ poems describe a distinctly existential predilection for imposing meaning on the external world. The ‘I’ of most of the poems portrays itself as an isolated element of a larger environment: “Birds don’t know/the weight placed on them./They look down and see/us looking up.” (IV) The poet/narrator places himself on the outside, observing a world he cannot access only through the inadequate medium of language. Most of the poems ruminate on the futility of poetic composition, and how such a process can actually distort or destroy the object it describes. Poem ‘I’ illustrates this idea effectively, depicting reality as a malleable collage and the observer/poet as the arranger – he ‘cuts out’ the background of a man on a roof, as well as a mountain in the distance, using the constituents to create his own scene. However, the process soon disintegrates, as the poet jumbles up his carefully-spliced reality, replacing the man with a woman, a horse, and finally a piano. The tone is one of humourous resignation, although the final lines: “And I wonder is this/what it means/to touch?” overstates the point.
Symbolism is employed heavily throughout, with recurrent images such as mirrors, scissors, photographs, houses, bridges and cutlery becoming metaphorical instruments of unification and fragmentation. Occasionally these images are striking: “Another sign of restoration/another white-knuckle prayer” (XX), but often they are over-complicated or obscure: “To bear the seeds/To bear the seeds of a small-scale hell” (LVI) Metaphors such as the latter are not elaborated upon or developed thematically, leaving the reader to do most of the interpretative leg-work. Although the task of interpretation is made even more difficult by Williams’ frequent mixing of metaphors and use of abstracts, making each poem seem ungrounded – more vague and incoherent than esoteric and mysterious.
The problem with ‘Controlled Hallucinations’ is primarily a structural one. Many of the lines seem chosen for their preciseness, but instead of establishing and then building a coherent metaphorical structure, the poems switch haphazardly from one image to another, sometimes as if at random: “Consider the sea a skewed mirror/and churning your uncertain limbs through its waves/an attempt to untangle light.” (XXVI). Poems such as this could have benefited from more metaphorical and tonal coherence, perhaps selecting more concrete, literal objects to illustrate a particular theme. Abstracts such as “this steady/inconsistent/eternity” (L), instead of sounding like a succinct insight, actually approaches cliché, as Williams overreaches himself and succumbs to the temptation of explaining his poems outright.
However, when Williams’ poems do have structural coherence and fewer abstracts, they express genuinely interesting perceptions without resorting to wilful obtuseness or self-conscious grandiosity. Poem ‘X’ is the stand-out of the collection: a strange, funny and tactile portrait of poetic cannibalisation and regurgitation, illustrated both metaphorically and literally. Williams recounts how: “I carve up my mother/with the delicate edges of leaves” with a cold detachment, before describing how he chews them slowly every morning in a particular order. It is a darkly comic spin on the collection’s familiar theme: that poetic composition is akin to dismemberment – violent and disorientating.
This poem, amongst one or two others, demonstrates that Williams has a distinctive voice, capable of rendering clear and evocative images that destabilize conventional meaning whilst simultaneously remaining within its confines. But, as it stands, ‘Controlled Hallucinations’ remains an uneven, undisciplined mixture that, measuring at a length of sixty-three poems, could have benefitted from considerable editing. The poetry of John Burnside is a notable comparison, in that he is someone who strives to communicate the mysteries of existence, yet does so in a way that carefully maintains the balance between the strange and the familiar, exposing a reality that is hidden in plain sight. Burnside’s poems possess a logic that is ultimately astonishing in its clarity. If John Sibley Williams applied a similar control to his ‘hallucinations’, then they could well gain the ability to astonish also.
Controlled Hallucinations is available from Amazon for $13.75
The Honicknowle Book of the Dead
Review by Richard Thomas
In his debut collection of poems, The Honicknowle Book of the Dead – a deviation from the infamous Tibetan book – Kenny Knight makes a nostalgic, amusing, witty and often peculiar recollection of the Plymouth suburb he grew up in.
Even though Kenny occasionally touches on surrealism in these poems: ‘and a mythological island rises/ like a large blind hippopotamus,/ with for sale signs stuck in its back/ like harpoon flags.’ (Blush), the poetry here is generally deadpan, it is poetically monotone, he remains humble to his voice and there is still a poignant simplicity to his language which keeps the surrealism oozing from it’s source smoothly as opposed to stuttering out brashly.
When reading this collection, I felt that these poems, that present a distorted, child’s eye view of the world Kenny grew up in, nod towards the kitchen sink drama – if the genre was to be transferred from screen to page. There is a definite working class feel to them, in both their subject and their phrasing – there is nothing pretentious or trite, or trying to be anything they’re not, which I admire in Kenny’s work. Knowing Kenny, and having heard him read his poetry, I am able to relay the complimenting factor that his poems read on the page just as he reads them on the stage – when you read these poems, the voice is truly that of Kenny Knight, it isn’t embellished, fancied up or elaborated in any way, a skill that pays tremendously in his favour.
Kenny uses humour throughout the collection to great effect, it is as dry as the ‘…bottle of Plymouth Gin.’ the Queen Mother carries with her as she ‘…passes through West Park/ on her way to the Tamar Bridge/ with a pair of pink scissors.’ (The Honicknowle Book of the Dead) and just as absurd as that idea. And through humour Kenny manages to swing from first girlfriends, (I Met My First Girlfriend At A Bus Stop on Honicknowle Green), to childhood (Grade Four), to the Dalai Lama (Ruth Padel and the Dalai Lama), to the Cold War (The Cold War), to Cancer (Cancer), with a natural ease and flow that shifts the reader from one subject to the other effortlessly.
And then there’s his invention of The Buckingham Shed, an imaginary creation which acts as a staple and a reference point throughout the book, home to the sound of The Buckingham Shed Collective who ‘…once played/ Fanfare for the Common Man on Gardener’s World.’ (Back in the Days of Pounds Shillings and Pence), a place which The Royal Family never visit, yet Kenny insists on it’s importance to them and the rest of the world as a brain-box for culture and nostalgic-dream-epiphany. A nod again towards the Surrealist movement.
Kenny’s writing style also makes an unassuming nod towards the Beats, the New York School and the Black Mountain poets collectively, often hinting at the admirable subtlety of the likes of O’Hara. And like those poets who were very interconnected, praising and plugging each other within their poems, Kenny also, throughout his book, gives way to his thoughts of his friends and peers: ‘I want to take James Turner’s humour/ out to the edges of stage fright./ You can forget about Alistair Crowley,/ I want to be an icon like Norman Jope.’ (The Left Eye of Mae West). I find this kind of commenting on his own literary community very endearing, and in all poets that do it, and do it well, to be sweet and adding an extra dimension of personal space.
You see though, it’s hard to pinpoint Kenny to specific individual poets as although there is a clear, direct influence from those American, there remains something very British in the way Kenny writes, like the way he ‘…first learned to/ pour tea in Honicknowle/ in those dark old days/ before central heating/ closed down open fireplaces/ and lights went out in coalmines’ (Lessons in Teamaking): some of these more mundane images suggesting the clinical craft found in the work of the likes of British 30’s poets like MacNeice. It’s this crossover of styles that molds Kenny as his own poet from this 20th century literary dough.
Kenny’s first collection is impressive, it holds all the qualities of an experienced poet. I recommend you read it, then take a trip to Honicknowle, Plymouth, England. I passed through on a bus just the other week and saw the Dalai Lama revving up his Vespa outside of The Post Office and thought nothing of it, other than The Honicknowle Book of the Dead.
The Honicknowle Book of the Dead is available from Shearsman Books for £8.95
Find out more about Kenny Knight here
‘The Dream Wakes’
A Review of ‘turn push | turn pull’ by Kit Fryatt
By Darren J. Coles
‘turn push | turn pull’ is a title that seems to accurately reflect the content of Kit Fryatt’s latest poetry collection, a work that concerns language, etymologies and meanings, or lack thereof. It is a title that yields multiple interpretations, none of which can be settled upon. The punctuating ‘|’ is wedged through the sentence, prohibiting the formation of any cohesive meaning. ‘turn push, turn pull’ marks a moment of tension, a wrenching within language that contorts it into unfamiliar shapes. But the ‘|’ also suggests division and dissection, forcing us to examine language’s constituent parts and to question how they relate to each other.
The first few poems are a loose cluster of words suspended on a largely white page that demands the reader pay attention to their exact spacing and spliced sentences. Each word seems to have a fragile connection, double or triple-spaced in places to emphasize an imminent disconnection as well as the creation of any possible number of meanings. But such meanings threaten to shift, break and reform anew. The final four words of the poem ‘a pallet of timber’: ‘stamp/thumb/petal/tender’ are positioned in such a way that it defies us to read in the Western lateral tradition of left to right. Multiple meanings can be found up, down, left, right and diagonal. They don’t just abound: they hide, wriggle free and mock, in a way that’s playfully cryptic.
‘Dream’ is a recurrent word in the book. Some of the stanzas, ones that include hyphenated single letters, spliced sentences and half-words, mimic the garbled yet vaguely recognisable fragments of sleep-talk. The portmanteaus and onomatopoeia reflect the liminality of dreams by blending both sounds and meanings together. Through unique metaphors and symbolistic language, Fryatt poses the question: is there something we can point to beyond language? In Fryatt’s own words: ‘conceptual thought is anterior to language’ (it does not exist by a play of words), and Fryatt’s surreal, dream-like imagery is an attempt to translate the largely non-discursive process of dreaming into language. For Fryatt, dreams are a hinterland between consciousness and unconsciousness where we can loosen the bonds of standardized language and disclose a place of fragmentary, incomplete meanings.
It would be tempting to suggest that Fryatt selects her words for their sound or sense alone, but each poem is so pared down, the words so isolated and bare in places, that we simply have to confront the multiplicity of its meanings. Each word already comes with baggage, with history, and Fryatt points toward this space of possibilities without having to settle on a definitive preference. In the poem ‘Slobpeadar’, words are placed together and separated by a dividing line: ‘straoille | struwwel | strowl | streel’. The four words are variations of ‘stroll’, but with secondary meanings ranging from ‘prostitute’ to the Irish vernacular for ‘untidy child’. Here as elsewhere Fryatt traces an etymological lineage. Like an etymologist pinning moths in a display case, she lays out subtle variants on the same ‘species’ of a word. The affects are alienating as well as engaging, because, by showing the inner workings of a word, we see how elastic and mutable they are, how their original forms have long been extinct yet some semblance of the words still survives.
But Fryatt causes further disruption in her poetry as archaic phrases and colloquialisms intrude into her poems. However, the overriding sense is one of fondness for the colour of provincial language and Fryatt skilfully allows multi-lingual tongues from past and present to wag in each other’s ears. Travel is a key component in Fryatt’s poetry, whether it is on foot or by ATR 72 airliner (it does not exist by a play of words) and the sense of transition and liminality is emphasised on a physical as well as psychological level. Dialects have always been and will continue to be uprooted to travel vast distances, to travel through time and space, where they intersect with other dialects in a process of continual fragmentation and synthesis, of pushing apart and pulling together, which further undermines the ideal of linguistic cohesion. Yet Fryatt highlights the part language has to play in expansion and migration. In the poem ‘Oblique Story’, an Irish speaker brags: “I’ve land in Croatia, if any of you want it.” Language, like land, is always changing hands, another continual flux that Fryatt notes with good humour, gently mocking claims of ownership with her ironic assertion that: ‘every grain atom & drop in its entirety is protected by copyright.’ (Little Sparta)
Kit Fryatt’s poetry collection is distinctive, yet in some instances the experimental syntax and grammar is a little too obscure. James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ seems like an apt comparison, and lines like ‘dull hourpalings’ and ‘stump towards timeweird’ (dark) imitate Joyce’s humorously playful attitude towards language and meaning. However, much like Joyce, such language experiments have a tendency to become overly intellectualised and therefore wilfully alienating to the reader. Fryatt’s best moments occur when she is being less openly self-conscious about the difficulty of expression through language and instead indulging in wordplay. The poem ‘Great Ouse’ is an excellent exercise in tactile language, the phrase ‘Goosefeather fletch & shaft of ash’ has an emotional resonance that some of the more fragmented poems lack.
turn push | turn pull is available from Corrupt Press for 5 Euros
Solecism by Rosebud ben-Oni
Visual Artists Collective
Review by Joe Massingham
Rosebud ben-Oni is a true multinational and Solecism, her new book of poetry, is equally multinational, though perhaps with a greater focus on those places connected with her own heritage. Her father was Jewish and a fair amount of this book reflects her own learning about, assessing and accepting or rejecting the new world of Jewishness encapsulated in the new nation, Israel.
On another level, searching out her heritage also involves ben-Oni searching out herself. In the book she explores the fragmented world around her and mirrored in her own fragmented background. Disorientation and ‘unbelonging’ are central themes in the poems, underscored by the form on the page of much of her work. This disconnect is also echoed in the presentation of her ideas and thoughts in words and phrases that are as ‘unlyrical’ (or lyrical) as the world she is seeing, reporting and reflecting on.
For my money the form in which she chooses to write does her no favours. It often detracts from the messages she is trying to convey/share. Split lines and different positioning on the page may add to the strength of her message but they also run the danger of deflecting the attention of the reader, leading to a net loss at times.
Robert Louis Stevenson observed that ‘it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. This work is essentially journeying, often apparently without hope. Sometimes searching, sometimes accepting, sometimes rejecting, seemingly without reason, it is a book that makes the reader work to unravel its messages and gives them plenty to think about.
However, I think it only fair that I should say that I admire ben-Oni’s endeavours. She doesn’t flinch from laying bare the wounds and fractures inherent in what she finds nor, from time to time, revealing a sudden and unexpected tenderness towards the downtrodden and lost folk she meets on her journey.
Solecism is available from Visual Artists Collective for $15.00
Giacomettrics by Amy Hollowell
Review by Joe Massingham
Given the difficulties which Giacometti had in expressing himself in his works to a level that satisfied him, it is a brave person who takes on the task of writing using Giacometti’s ideas and methods to produce a book of verse which illustrates those ideas and their application in understanding Giacometti himself. Amy Hollowell not only takes on the task but performs it in a praiseworthy way.
In this extremely brave effort Hollowell does a good job of thinking with Giacommetti’s mind, seeing with his eyes, expressing with the words he would approve of and producing conclusions that he would recognise.
Giacometti worked largely with models he was familiar with and with whom he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Hollowell reproduces on the page various attempts to describe or explain ideas, images, conclusion – or perhaps failure to come to a conclusion – so as to replicate Giacometti’s failing attempts at sculpting the likenesses he was seeking.
In his work figures appear to be isolated and incomplete. In several of her poems as they appear on the page Hollowell uses a variety of phrases and images set out in differing patterns to give the appearance of isolation and separation from other parts of both the present piece and other parts of her work. This produces images in the reader’s mind that are often as frustrating and unsatisfying as Giacometti found his work. He may have seen “this work without end” whilst Hollowell sees ‘Paris sans fin.’
It would be tedious and unrewarding to work through all of the poems in this book one by one and it would achieve even less than Giacommetti achieved with his multiple attempts at producing the effect he was seeking. However, it may be worthwhile briefly looking at a few of them which I think work either well or not not so well.
Not surprisingly Giacomettric is a key work. It starts well and strongly and then seems to fade and dribble away. I believe this pattern to be deliberate to illustrate the progression of so much of the sculptor’s progress in real life until yet another attempt is abandoned as a failure. To visualise a sculptor at work, to recognise the frustration of failure and then to replicate those things in words is a signal achievement. At the other end of the scale I have to say that Burial Ground didn’t work for me at all. ‘Six feet under’ might be an appropriate place for it.
Meantime is another very good poem always coming, never happening. It gives a good impression of waiting for the end of a piece of work to come. By contrast, again, I found August pedestrian. Overall, I think Incessant would be my choice for ‘best in show’.
Hollowell uses a variety of verse forms and page presentations to good effect; some didn’t do too much for me, but then I can think of very few books of poetry that I like in their entirety.
A major consideration, of course, is whether it is ever possible to replicate activity in one artistic form in another. In this volume I suggest that the author has come close to the replication on a number of occasions and has failed on only a few. This seems to suggest that near complete replication may be possible, given sufficient effort. Whether this is worthwhile or not is a matter for others to judge. In the context of consideration of Giacommeti’s multiple attempts to achieve particular goals and the multiple failures to achieve those goals this movement from success to failure, in between the two and sometimes abandonment, Hollowell does a good job of illustrating the ongoing pattern but does not seem to understand or choose to comment on its multiple failures.
Of course, that lack of comment may be deliberate; perhaps all she wants to do is to illustrate the pattern not explain it. If that is the case I think it would be fair to say that she has done a good job.
Whilst reviews like this one should focus on the work being reviewed, I think it would be churlish of me not to also commend breaks with the publishers, corruptpress, who have bravely taken the risk with a book that is certainly not a sure bet in the world of poetry where clinging to yesterday’s proven winners always has a strong temptation.
Giacomettrics is available from Corrupt Press for 12 Euros