Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

"I knew the bride" by Hugo Williams (Faber and Faber, 2014)

The first poem is "New Year Poem", which begins with "The day is difficult to start./ I leave it at the top of a hill/ the night before. Next morning/ I release the handbrake/ and the whole rickety contraption/ chokes itself back to life. I come to a stop about here." - an extended metaphor (a device he's keen on). Then later he has "Sleep is the great hobby,/ with footnotes on the subject of desire", a soundbite (another device he's keen on).

The plain diction shouldn't disguise the suddenness of the domain-switching in poems like "Eucalyptus", which has "My favourite type of creativity/ is collecting eucalyptus leaves/ and threading them on strings/ the way we used to in Australia,/ or sticking them together with glue/ to make sailing ships./ I half close my eyes/ and imagine them bursting into flames.// My room is full to the brim/ with all manner of representations,/ but the lighting's not too good".

But "Soul Singer" shouldn't be there. "Hotel" is an extended metaphor (hotel room = swinging birdcage). "Falling" is an aphorism padded to look like verse. "Love Poem" starts with "I suppose you're right and breaking up/ would be quite a good thing", continuing in that vein for 16 more lines. In "Early Morning" someone picks out these features of a significant other - "her bedside manner, her sense of etiquette ... the satisfaction she takes in getting it just right ... her saying certain things, her throwing out one arm" and how the persona was allowed to touch her hair in a difficult dream - nothing dramatic, little that's specific.

And so on. "I was like" begins with the disjointed "Stairs are the sort of place/ where unnatural tenses/ produce the effect/ of treading water". "The Chinese stock exchange" is lucid line by line but puzzling overall. "Garments" and "At the Pillars" are too slight.

And so on. The book ends with a section called "From the Dialysis Ward" - 18 poems which could be prose journal entries (particularly "A Healthy Interest"). In 2014 he wrote that "if I don't want the line to be broken, I break it in an inappropriate place, forcing the reader to go on, as if there were no break" - an unhelpful attitude, one I don't understand. "The Angel of the Needles" is weak. I liked "The Dog". "Diality" ends well with "Dialysis is bad for you. It takes you by the hand,/ but doesn't lead you anywhere./ The shock of remembering,/ having forgotten for a second".

I guess it takes nerve (or the security of a contract with Faber) to take a simple idea as far as you can using simple language, stopping when you can't say more. Poems will end up "simple and strong" or "simple". He's not much into artifice or even the prop of Form (when he tries witty villanelles he fails).

Other reviews

  • Ben Wilkinson (The Guardian) (Poetry of the subtle yet resonant gesture, after all, has long been Williams's speciality. Free from the smokescreen of showiness and the obscure erudition favoured by some, his poems are risky in the real and rarest way – chancing sentimentality and the plainness of being understood. They work to make emotional intelligence appear effortless, rarely ignoring the presence of the readers ... The critical flak he has taken at times is pretty dismaying too, though if dismissing tonal ease, deceptive simplicity and pitch-perfect tragicomedy as mere "charm" and "style" doesn't stink of jealousy, I don't know what does. That said, when Williams's poems fail to reach beyond their surface themes, there is a two-dimensional and overdramatised quality that can grate. ... For the most part, though, I Knew the Bride is surely Williams's most accomplished and memorable collection to date ... It confirms Williams as a poet of profound existential concerns, but one who talks levelly about life, love and death, from one solar plexus to another. He is currently one of the best poets we have.)
  • Karl Miller (Spectator) (I Knew the Bride is a marvellous, memorious collection, once it moves away from the cryptic poems of the early pages.)
  • Dave (The poems feel rushed and unpolished, and some of the writing’s underlying messages are unexamined and harmful. There are a few moments of real accomplishment, but these are few and far between the book’s formally and thematically scattershot entries.)
  • Frank Black (Williams is first and foremost a poet of loss ... Not all critics are convinced by Williams's embrace of a looser, more inclusive poetic style. Robert Potts has called him a 'one-club golfer...a charming and stylish prose writer (whose) poems don't think hard (nor) encourage anyone else to.' For Craig Raine, Williams 'leaves out the music in poetry,' adding: 'The weaknesses of the Williams method - or lack of method - occur when the rhythm has been so successfully repressed that what remains is chopped-up prose...' Similarly, Williams has repeatedly raided his long-running Freelance column in the TLS for poetic ideas. And while not as hooked on wholesale poetic revision as Derek Mahon, Williams does like to tinker with and redraft earlier poems, often giving them new titles, while also cutting or extending earlier versions.)

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