Ginninderra Press, 2021
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Jane Williams’ Points of Recognition is inherently human poetry. Her concerns are wide-ranging: from empathy to idiosyncrasy, the mundane to the marvellous, compassion to passion, diffidence and restraint to ecstasy and excess. Always she is wondering, inquiring. What does it mean to be human? And what does it mean to be inhumane, even inhuman, in our treatment of others?
As a noted writer of haiku, Williams is au fait with Japanese culture. This knowledge informs both the content and the structure of her collection. At first blush, Points of Recognition seems to alternate between short lyric poems, each with a title, and untitled haiku. However, on closer inspection, we can see that each haiku forms a hanka, a type of envoi that comments on the preceding body of the poem. Thus, the haiku in Williams’ collection do not stand alone; although a haiku could be read in isolation, it is really a part of the longer lyric poem, as in the classical chõkaform of Japanese poetry which always ends with a hanka.
Echoes of Japanese culture are evident in Points of Recognition. The gloriously joyful second poem of the collection, “When women share their stories with other women” (13-14), is a paean to the sisterhood. The poem opens with a string of images suggesting the ability of women to prophesy and produce magic of their own accord. Women are recognised as much more than mere vessels of procreation:
Dust falls from crystal balls
everywhere. Empty fields
signed beware of the bull
call out memory’s bluff
as one by one old selves
old beliefs are drawn forth
shrugged off not without
compassion. A window box
over the Atlantic encourages
bees and daydreams. White hair
signs in streaks of peated whiskey. (13)
Williams avers that, “When women share their stories / with other women,” something amazing happens: “greyscale lifts / from the world’s face revealing / borders crossed and recrossed” (13). This is a moment of intersection, one of many “points of recognition,” as the title of the collection suggests. Indeed, the final line of the poem before its haiku envoi rests on this revelation: “the gaze returned in kind / in renewed and fearless / recognition” (13). Instead of being the subject of the male gaze, women, when they talk as equals and not as rivals for the affection of men, return each other’s gaze in earnest fearlessness.
This phenomenon that Williams describes is reminiscent of the Bechdel Test, made famous in a comic by Alison Bechdel, in which two women discuss their ideal films. One of the women maintains that she applies a test to all movies: she will only watch a film if it features a scene in which two women talk about something other than a man. The rule is more correctly titled the “Bechdel-Wallace Test,” recognising Liz Wallace, Bechdel’s friend and karate partner, as the originator of the concept. In Williams’ poem, there is no mention of men at all, and no hint of enmity between the women who converse together. In this way, women are recognised in their own right, instead of only in relation to men: as mother, sister, wife, lover, or daughter. Williams’ poem sees women reach across national, cultural, and physical borders, implying that the conversation stretches across the Atlantic Ocean. Practices of women in other cultures are alluded to in the haiku:
I turn the teapot
three times each way (14)
In sadõ, the Japanese tea ceremony, the guest will rotate the tea bowl three times clockwise with their right hand. This is a sign of accepting the host’s hospitality. The speaker of Williams’ poem may turn the teapot “three times each way” (14) as a show of gratitude for the coming of spring, the time of rejuvenation signified in the “renewed and fearless recognition” (13) of women seeing and hearing one another.
Recognition is all she asks. Throughout the collection, Williams shows how attuned and attentive she is to human suffering and identity. “Suspension of disbelief” (33-35) opens with the lines:
At sixty-five my bachelor uncle
gave up smoking six months
before his bypass and wonders
tongue in cheek if there’s a link. (33)
Williams’ eye for narrative is evident here. She constructs characters from conversations and remembered moments, anecdotes and observations, as well as imaginings. Her uncle disappears for a time, and the family whispers rumours of love affairs and loan sharks, but she prefers to imagine that he has been whisked away in a spaceship:
Some kindly alien abduction,
no invasive probing just a few
randomised questions about life
as he/we knew it. (34)
The poet is generous in her imaginings, kind in her considerations. There is a warmth of regard for all that is human and a recognition of suffering.
For instance, the envoi to “A short history of the smile” (77-79) observes: “family album / conflicting stories / behind smiles” (79). This notion is echoed in “Men I have worked for” (97-99) when Williams recalls “The café owners who reminded me to smile until my face was / no longer my own” (97). One may smile and smile and be the saddest person in the picture.
Humanity is at the centre of Williams’ verse. “Love is not in the air” (41-43) opens with a declaration of our ability to communicate love in so many ways, each involving human effort. “Love is not in the air,” she observes, “but in the way / we try to shape it / tunnelling through / the rubble of language. / Reaching” (41). Each short line is like a grunt of effort exhaled as we dig that tunnel.
“Mrs M” (44-46) is another poem of remembrance. Williams recalls the life of a friend’s mother again through anecdotes and fragments of memory, reconstructing a personality in the form of a magpie’s nest of shiny details. We learn:
How her keen sense for missing pieces
(the dog walking past without the boy by his side)
saved the neighbour’s son from drowning. (44)
We are all constructed from missing pieces, or so these poems seem to say. Our memories will live on in fragments of memories, the bits and bobs about us that others recall. Our personalities are not so much our own as collective works of art. So, the collection continues, recreating through reminiscences a grandmother and grandfather in “Inheritance” (49-51), detailing a mother’s life recorded in “cursive loops” and “last wishes” (62) in “The Letter” (60-62), and recalling an excited conversation between philosophy students on a train – a moment that might blossom into a love story – in the magnificent “Unexpected intimacy” (66-67). How do we become ourselves? And what legacy do we leave? Williams’ haiku answers such questions in breathtaking brevity:
each year more and less
We grow into our personalities even as we shed shards of memory that others pick up and see themselves reflected in, like pieces of a broken mirror.
“Bringing the world home” (100-102) perhaps describes in its title Williams’ project. We are all in this together, she seems to say, so let us work together to join the dots between these “points of recognition” that unite us. This poem contains the most remarkable couplet: “Tracked across my dreamscape / these imprints of otherness, of usness” (101). There is unity in uniqueness; there ought to be no division in difference. This is Williams’ message: one that the world would do well to heed.