Apr 7 2023
Poetry review – SPIDER TIME: Alex Josephy explores intricate connections between poems in William Gilson‘s new chapbook
‘Spider Time’ is an intriguing concept, one which immediately attracted me to William Gilson’s new Wayleave pamphlet. Spiders and spider time appear in the first poem, and at intervals throughout the sequence Gilson returns to them, spinning an evolving web of meanings. On a simple level, ‘spider time’ is defined as that time in late September ‘when spiders appear.’ The arachnid in the title poem is closely observed creating a web that expands to become profoundly philosophical:
…bellying upward like one of those illustrations of space-time and gravity showing how the past is never completely done.
This sets a delicately sad and wondering tone for the poems that follow, exploring the unfinished past.
Another of the qualities I first noticed and enjoyed is Gilson’s engaging use of proper nouns. Named people and places have a grounding effect; the reader is invited to step easily into a world that stretches from the poet’s native New England to Cumbria where he now lives. In the first poem, for instance, we are quickly introduced to ‘Beth’s two little girls’ and ‘that summer cottage by the lake’, as if we already know them. Friends and relations rub shoulders with literary figures, Melville, Clare and Dickinson interacting in a familiar way with the poet and other characters. Some of these people and places recur in different poems, much in the way that memories return and regroup. “What Some of Them Did” is a moving tribute to manual workers among Gilson’s American relations and neighbours. He finds an understated poetry in his father’s work tuning a card-sorting machine, in Rocco Ferruci’s labour in ‘a pit under vehicles’, and in his mother ‘feeding wet clothes between the rollers’. Each of these mundane activities is given a slight gleam by virtue of its place among all the others.
Gilson is also a writer of fiction and is is adept at characterisation, speech patterns and narrative; many of the poems read like stories, or fragments of story. The last few lines of “Night on the South Branch” are pretty well perfect in this respect, I think, recounting a poignant coming-of-age moment in which teenage cousins, out fishing at night, balance on the edge of sexual awakening:
The worms twist as if in pain. As we set our bobbers for similar depths our fingers touch, just once. She bails some more, then I bail, then we lower our lines and wait.
Men in times of war feature in several of the central poems, lost in battle at different times in history. Some are reflecting with guilty schadenfreude on individual survival, as in “No Combatant, I”. Across the collection, the poems have much to say about men and how they do and do not articulate emotion. “Early”, another story fragment, offers a visually spare scene redolent of loss, as in a Hopper painting:
…It is winter, the MacDonalds in the new mall has been brightly lighted for half an hour, and five old men sit smoking cigarettes.
This quality of saying more by saying less plays out at different levels. In some poems it takes the form of clipped, concise expression, as in the impressionistic “Small Burial Grounds” in which several gravesites are described in small dabs of words. In others, the poet enters the consciousness and intense perceptions of a non-human creature – a crow, a dying dog:
cheek lick to the boy she knew in blindness as she knew the old red rubber dish come nightly, after supper and with table scraps.
By presenting the animal’s sensations without ascribing a human interpretation, Gilson avoids falling onto anthropomorphism, although this dog has something in common with the “Old Man with a Pencil” in a later poem, who:
…sees that the tree has dropped another branch.
The spiders return, making surprising connections in a long poem in which the poet tussles with time, memory and physics. And in the final poem, Gilson links them to the summary of a day, “The Friday That Made No Difference.” An old man considers the small details of his existence; he hoovers his house, but spares ‘the spiders and their webs.’ They seem to embody, among other possible interpretations, both memory and rational thought, the ability to discern and process patterns. Gilson’s achievement, as I read it, is to focus our attention both on the slow process of ageing and the curious business of living.
After reading the pamphlet, I returned to the cover image, a fitting complement to Gilson’s concise and crafted words. These are poems of sharp intelligence and compassion, elegantly presented in Wayleave’s characteristic style.