London Grip’s poetry editor is pleased to discover that, in his most recent collection, Hugo Williams continues to use his distinctive poetic voice to remarkable effect.
It is almost twenty-five years since I first encountered the poetry of Hugo Williams; and at the time it struck me as something of a revelation. How was he able simultaneously to be so engaging and so undramatic? How did he seem so immediately accessible and yet avoid giving himself entirely away? More than any other poet had done so far, Williams spoke convincingly to me about male vulnerability and uncertainty – yet his poems retained a note of cautious but fairly persistent optimism.
All these years later, Williams is still writing not quite like anyone else. And no one else writes quite like him. He revisits many of the same themes that delighted me in that Leighton Buzzard reading in the early 1990s: sex and the puzzle of relationships; recollections of school; a theatrical family background; mortality. The balance between these ingredients may change but Williams continues to find both new things to say and new ways of saying some of the old things. As he puts it himself
Experience suggests we go on
feeling the same about everything
no matter what happens. I do anyway.
. [“Love Poem”]
From the start of I Knew the Bride, Williams pulls one of his frequent stylistic tricks of standing just a little outside himself and his circumstances. “New Year Poem” finds him in a position where My eyes look over my shoulder / avoiding my gaze. But in the event of implied self-criticism he must close ranks: I feel obliged to side with myself / to make it all more fair.
In this poem and those that follow there is a persistent low-level sense of struggle (pedalling uphill in the rain) which calls for outlandish remedies or imaginative introspection. Sometimes both are employed at the same time. In “The Work”, Williams actualises self-analysis. How many people can say they have / penetrated the inner space of their being? he asks. But the way in which he pictures himself doing it is unconventional to say the least:
The hardest part was piercing the bony wall
of the skull, just above the right ear.
Once that was done, the drill passed
easily enough through the grey matter ..
Nor does he not stop at this level of self-harm and for an encore …
… it occurred to me to pass a length
of picture wire through my skull
and hang myself on the wall.
This suggests a certain ambivalence about being put on display; and this ambivalence occurs again in “The Golden Conjuror’s Outfit” where the make-up, the wig, / everything is exactly right / for appearing in public and also in “A Twitch of the Mouth” with its teasing question If nobody can see me, / does that mean I’ve won? That last quasi-naive question has an unmistakable Williams touch.
Just over half the book is taken up by two sequences. The first of these, “Now that I’ve forgotten Brighton” is a retrospective account of a relationship and it is made more authentic by those incidental details which stick in the memory even though there is nothing apparently to distinguish them from all the other details which get forgotten. Williams persuades us of the significance of A tin of salmon / a flash of lightning or the bathroom window which is still open from when you were here. And we also believe in the importance of the moment when
I saw your bare arms
when you took off your coat
and let it fall behind your chair
coming as it does after a three stanza character sketch which recalls how you slipped a smile to the maître d’.
There is an almost haiku-like economy in “Falling” which observes that, when we are helpless under the action of gravity, what matters is how we come to a stop. Or to put it another way
We’re OK, as it were,
so long as we keep falling.
Yet there are few who of us who would remain sanguine while tumbling from a high building because we know too well what is going to happen next. A similar sense of the probability of future harm frequently surfaces in Williams’ poetry. Thus: I imagined a chopping-up knife / going in under a finger nail (“Something More Serious”); Someone’s banging on the front door / trying to get in with the wrong key. (“A Late Caller”).
The book contains a couple of mildly surprising departures. In “Actaeon” Williams briefly steps outside the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and appeals to Greek myth to imagine himself fleeing from his own romantic history pursued by indecision and regret and being torn apart by little pointed teeth just as Actaeon was destroyed by his own pack of hunting dogs . And “Twenty Yards Behind” is an accomplished villanelle which is, I think, a comparatively rare example of Williams adopting a standard form.
It is very understandable that Williams should choose to name the collection after a tender elegy for his late sister. But for me the stand-out achievement of the book, which might well have given it its title, is the closing sequence “From the Dialysis Ward”. This is a remarkable distillation of the experience of making regular journeys to St Pancras Hospital (not the most inviting building in London) where a machine performs the trick / of sieving you clean of muck / for a day or two. The eighteen-poem sequence begins with the walk through the neighbouring church cemetery where gravestones are crowding round the old tree / like children listening to a story and goes on to put on a wry face for the opening exchanges with the staff:
They always ask how you are
when you arrive,
but they know already of course.
Subsequent procedures can initially be as ritualised as a game:
The home team appears
in a blue strip, while the visitors
keep on their street clothes.
But matters become less playful as the staff get down to business. At least three of the poems deal graphically with the matter of needling. You find out early on / that some of the nurses / are better than others. But once “on” the machine there is ample time for reflection:
The beauty of dialysis
is that it saves you the trouble
of working out what you’re going to do
with your afternoons.
Williams seems less detached from himself in these poems than in the earlier ones. He allows himself to engage with staff and other patients and is disarmingly frank about the shock of remembering / … / that this isn’t a cure, / but a kind of false health,/ like drug addiction.
On the first occasion when I heard him read, Williams presented a newish poem that has since become one of his best-known ones. “When I Grow Up” (from the 1990 collection Self-Portrait with a Slide) offers a cruelly bleak catalogue of medical misfortunes presented as a kind of wish-list which stands a better chance of being granted than prayer requests of a more conventionally optimistic sort. That poem asks the rather despairing question What shall we do with me? Twenty five years on, Williams takes a gentler and possibly less pessimistic view in “Prayer Before Sleeping”, the final poem of the dialysis sequence:
Send me a poem, God,
before I go to bed.
Slip me some sort of clue
that knows what to do with me
and I promise I’ll be good.
This book – especially the final sequence – is remarkably rich in delicate, well-crafted and truthful poems. It was deservedly short-listed for both the Forward and the TS Eliot prizes: and I would not have taken it amiss had it won either of them. Or even both.
. Michael Bartholomew-Biggs