March 2018

Back to Issue 3

Parts of the Main

By Jane Williams

Ginninderra Press, 2017.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.

The late British poet Geoffrey Hill once remarked that “difficult poetry is the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings.” Hill’s poetry was often labelled “difficult” due to his penchant for unusual words and obscure historical events. By contrast, Jane Williams’s Parts of the Main is “difficult” even as she avoids archaic language to achieve a primal simplicity of statement. Her plain-speaking, highly-palatable style is the very thing that renders her poetry “difficult” as it is coupled with often disconcerting content. 

Williams’s subjects find their worlds at once confronting and comforting. Both drowning and waving, they suffer and surface as their voices intermingle with the voice of the poet. Williams does not presume to speak for others but she does, albeit hesitantly, speak up for others. This hesitation apparently rise from a determination to avoid appropriation; its counterforce is the compulsion to write empathically to render worlds in words.

Williams does her readers “the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings” by seeking from us solutions and resolutions. Her poems offer neither a beginning nor an end but, rather, form part of the earthly continuum, each a juncture or a junction but, unlike Robert Frost’s two paths that diverged in the woods, Williams neither reveals which path she has taken nor deals in absolutes to tell us that her choice has “made all the difference.” Eschewing the more egocentric elements of the confessional style, she observes suffering, primarily the agonies of others, and calls her readers to action in a way that deftly avoids the didactic. Indeed, Williams is at her most adroit when she bonds intuitive empathy with fine observation. She is, above all, a poet of the human.

Her resolve to solicit action and answers from the reader and her commitment to the human and the humane are most evident in the opening poem of the collection, “Still/life,” “after a drawing by a pregnant woman on Christmas Island who asked if her baby could be adopted by an Australian family.” The speaker can only imagine the mother’s “joyless face,” extrapolating its features from the “incarcerated self-portrait with foetus” that has been “pencilled in grey” on “detention issue paper.” In this masterful poem, Williams strikes exactly the right unbalance between empathy and sympathy, bathos and pathos, rage at injustice and desperate hope for compassion from the Australian Government. She resists dictating solutions, instead asking for answers without guile: “How much time do you spend rocking to sleep? Does / your joyless face dream-smile?” She concludes with a challenge to the reader: “What happens now? What happens next?”

The prose-poem structure of “Still/life” asserts itself on the page with the gravity of a paragraph from an official inquest as if to reassure the flighty lines of other poems that shy away from the borders of their pages like a horse from its captors. One sentence in particular blazes in the reader’s mind with the truth of recognition: Williams’s inspired articulation of the mess of feelings inside poet, reader, and above all addressee, who remains unbowed and vital and whose life still begets life while in detention: “Your unborn baby’s / speech bubble begs for misspelt help because, like love, help / is one of those words we should recognise before we translate, / interpret, process.” Here, the word “process” denotes the mental process of understanding (as in all three meanings of  “comprehending,” “reaching accord,” and “feeling sympathy”) and connotes “offshore processing”: the policy of incarcerating asylum-seekers outside Australia to deter further arrivals by boat.

“Australia” is a mute, empty space in both poem and picture. Williams describes it using sentence fragments as devoid of verbs as we are devoid of action: “At the bottom of the page the outline of / Australia. A cut-out blank. The ignoble space and silence of / it.” “Australia” and “it” are dropped casually over the edge of the enjambment, just out of reach of each line in the same way as Australia is just out of reach of the woman and her unborn child. “Still/ life” is both a bold stroke of the poet’s calligraphy brush and a promise to reveal more poetry of depth and precision as the sequence unfolds.

And that promise is made good. “Everything about us” richly describes the experiences of tourists trying to avoid touristy places in favour of a more responsible and engaged travel experience. The speaker piles up beautiful images as she tries but does not quite succeed through metaphor and simile to connect with the people of the foreign place:

                                                                                        …  A new

ethos sidles up to the old one, we let parts of it in — no more or

less than we need. Children signal our unbelonging in hand-

cupped whispers. The mosque’s blue domed minaret, zigzagged

with gold, is striking as lightning in a cloudless sky. Motorbikes

and pedestrians move in practised, haphazard synchronicity,

suggesting accidents happen anyway, anywhere. Hijabs

form part of the landscape — their colours and patterns individual as

dreams …

Although this heap of images is an attempt to capture the essence of the place, it only forms a barrier to understanding. A connection is finally made when the image-wall crumbles to reveal a solitary woman bestowing kisses on her son “before watching him disappear through the school gates.” In a series of staccato fragments which are the broken bricks of the wall of words, the speaker astutely observes: “And this is the familiar. The anchor I hold to. This gesture / of loving separation. This unified prayer that all we see in our / children will be seen. As we hand them over. As we let them go.” Imagery is, ultimately, insufficient: only through seeing a person in all her singularity can the speaker comprehend their shared humanity.

What is it that is most disturbing here? Is it the threat of “accidents,” the “unbelonging” threatening to beget violence, the fear of “letting in” the unfamiliar, the “letting go” of our children in a necessary and loving gesture, or the voyeurism which no tourist can quite resist? Williams handles such content deftly and with insight into the many conditions of the human. She has an impressive gift for pinning down the bathetic moments that reveal our shared humanity. Thus, in “Comfort,” she writes movingly of the moment when a fellow diner in a restaurant has a stroke and the victim’s husband turns away briefly from this scene “of mounting anxieties” to eat a spring roll. Perceptively, the speaker observes that “this would be darkly funny / if not so familiar.” “Renewal” describes the rejuvenation of a flagging relationship that occurs when the couple are unexpectedly parted in the streets of an unfamiliar town before the time of Google Maps and mobile phones but are serendipitously reunited after their separate adventures.

Like these lovers, motifs merge and part to reunite in new combinations throughout this collection: poems call to one another using the language of finely-judged imagery. In “On World Heart Day,” a lover’s surgery scars are “lifesaving stuck zippers” while, in “Sister moon,” the beloved loses and finds himself in “the tidal push-pull” of his “divided heart.” In “Brogue,” Williams shows an ear attuned to the “melody” of speech and confesses to making “an art / of eavesdropping”: a conceit that reemerges in “Confessions of a serial eavesdropper.” This found poem of sorts sees the disparate voices of over a dozen unidentified speakers combine in ways that are both comic and confronting while the reader is left to ponder the self-reflexive nature of poetry.

A further metatextual reflection is prompted by “Hooked to this” in which Williams repurposes the well-worn trope of the poet who professes that they would rather be doing meaningful and productive manual labour only to retract their assertion in the volta. She writes convincingly of being “seduced by the potential / of a single word added to another” and glimpsing “the deeper / first language of blank space.”

Seductive indeed is Williams’s deftly-crafted poetry: a generous feast of verbal victuals which should sate the appetite of those readers who long for the flavours of home spiced with the occasional exotic ingredient obtained from afar. There is much of the homely and something of the unheimlich in this collection which sees the poet find new ways of imagining old conundrums, conceits, and conversations. Parts of the Main is less an apology for poetry than an appreciation of the capacity of words to personify. With this collection, Williams has truly established her voice as an Australian poet with a global conscience, an eye for the exceptional in the everyday, an ear attuned to the aurally-alluring, and a heart for the oracular. Her poetry is the best kind: intimately, enticingly, melodiously human.