“Equivocations in the Plainest Sign” - Greg Williamson: A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck

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Greg Williamson at the bookstore & Amazon order information A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck - the third poetry anthology from Greg Williamson (Waywiser Press, 2008)
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“Equivocations in the Plainest Sign”

Greg Williamson: A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck

(Waywiser Press, 2008)


Each of Greg Williamson’s first two volumes (The Silent Partner, 1995; Errors in the Script, 2001) contains a poem about a visit to an optician’s. In the poem “Eye Strain” in his first volume, the patient responds to the doctor’s instruction “Read this line” with the words “what line?” At that moment the patient realises “that all those times he thought / he couldn’t believe his eyes, he couldn’t”. However, the very moment he understands that his eyesight needs correction is also the moment he begins to appreciate the distortions of his vision: “what he freshly saw / was a whole world of blurry lines…” Willamson’s second volume deliberately reprises the same situation: this time, in the poem “Binocular Diplopia”, the patient, instructed to “[r]ead the chart”, responds “Which one?” The poem continues with a fascinating exploration and celebration of double vision: “everywhere he turned, / His second nature brazenly returned / Equivocations in the plainest sign…” The suggestion clearly is that the distorted view of things is itself a gift of vision.

It has been widely recognised that Williamson is fascinated by questions of perception. His poems frequently feature and dwell on such objects as cameras, windows and mirrors. The two early volumes describe attempts to capture the world in a “crop of photographs”, backward views of life from trains, glimpses of Medusa’s “reflection in a flame” and the sight of “gilded filaments of light” in a swimming-pool. In one poem, “Three-Sided, One-Way Mirror”, the titular subject is given voice, to recount its

      Ongoing project, my Scintilliad
                  Collecting if you will,
      In what I call a retrospectacle,
                  Back glances, indirections,
      Sparks of insight, gleaned from long reflections
                  On myself…

The portmanteau word “Retrospectacle” is beautifully chosen: it contains punningly within itself both the notion of a serious reflection on time and our perception of it, and a suggestion of celebratory flamboyance—practically a one-word summary of Williamson’s poetry.

He is clearly intrigued by how we look back on things—and forward to new ones. In a short series of poems in terza rima about the international date-line, he ponders on the paradox of this geographical invention, which is “the cusp where all the tenses clash”; he wittily describes it as “a perfect present from the past”.

This obsession with double vision reached its poetic climax with the sequence of 26 poems gathered together under the title “Double Exposure”. In this central section of his second volume, probably his most famous work so far, doubleness becomes intrinsic to the very structure of the poems. Each poem describes two different scenes, which have been photographically superimposed on one another through double exposure; by typographical means the reader is invited to read the even-numbered and odd-numbered lines as two separate poems—and subsequently to read them together as a single poem. In this way, through the sheer technical brilliance of the poet, the double vision of each poem ends up by providing a third, more complex vision. Each poem is shown to contain in fact three poems—or three visions of life. As John Hollander says on the book’s blurb, the sequence deploys “a technical device which totally transcends gimmickry, and, itself a fecund metaphor, allows the poems themselves to raise fascinating questions about knowledge, memory, and their own stability and truth.”

Another essential subject of Williamson’s poetry is the question of how we represent reality; he is forever exploring the complex connections between language, perception and reality. As with the metaphysical poets, puns are far more than mere moments of light relief in his poems; they testify to his fascination with the ambiguities of the language we use. When Williamson uses poetical forms that make use of repetends, such as the pantoum, he delights in maintaining the words but shifting the punctuation, so that they provide an entirely different meaning. In a sequence of four poems on the approach of winter, “The Dark Days”, he plays the same trick with the opening line (“We should have seen it coming back”), while the last line has a series of words that are very slightly and very subtly altered:

      “And the dark days of the cold war.”
      “And the dark daze of the cold ward.”
      “In the dark days of the cold world.”
      “And the dark days of the cold word.”

The sequence is as much about our perception of the seasons, and the metaphors we create for, about and with them, as about the seasons themselves. He is exploring the possibilities of figurative language and examining what such language says about ourselves. The second poem of his first volume finds another angle of approach to this question; by an ingenious paradox he gives a literal meaning to the expression “Figures of Speech”, which provides the title to the poem. The poem describes a group of deaf people, whose “passionate hands maneuvered like wild birds, / Embellishing the air with figured speech / Whose meanings I could not put into words”. Even as he describes his inability to capture the meanings of their communications, he manages to picture for us—in words—the beauty and intensity of their silent language. It is as if his poem were paying tribute to the creativity of fellow artists, even if they work in a medium different from his own.

Williamson clearly takes joy in depicting creative acts, however simple or unsophisticated. A clear instance is to be found in the opening poem of his first volume, “Origami”, which pays homage to the “nimble fingers” of children that “Double and fold and double fold the pages, / Making mimetic icons for all ages.” The poem takes off from the description of this skilful activity to explore the numerous metaphorical possibilities of this action, concluding wryly with the poet sitting “at my little desk in mid-July / Throwing snowballs at the Sheetrock wall”; with typical wit, Williamson manages to involve even the brand-name in the verbal and figurative play of the poem.

A poem like this, in which the writer delights in releasing a teeming cascade of ingenious metaphors, clearly contains a strong ludic element (suitable enough in a poem about children). However, the figurative language would not work if the original images were not so strongly rooted in reality. As Alan Sullivan has pointed out in an essay on Williamson’s poetry, he “is sustained by his robust love of the real and the particular”. [1]  It is perfectly clear that the poet has truly observed the “nimble fingers” of the children at work and has faithfully listed the ingenious objects they create—“Songbirds that really flap their wings, rare cranes, / Bleached bonsai trees, pale ghouls, two kinds of hats, / Dwarf stars, white roses, Persian copycats, / Small packet boats, whole fleets of flyable planes”. Similarly, in the poem “Kites at the Washington Monument”, his own nimble syntax and flyable stanza forms succeed in recreating the antics of “stunt kites” that “Chandelle, wingover, and roll / To dive from conspicuous heights”.

We have the clear sensation, as we watch Williamson at work, that he takes delight in creating or seeking out forms that will provide perfect matches for the material he is dealing with. Merely flipping through the pages of his two first volumes one cannot fail to notice the great variety of stanza-shapes, all of which he handles with the agile dexterity that he admires in the children in “Origami”. [2]  The nonce-forms that he creates testify to this unflagging desire to match word and world—and this quest is often itself the very theme of his poetry. Alan Sullivan has shown how strong an influence Richard Wilbur is on Williamson; he describes the central stanza from “Waterfall” as being “a near-perfect counterfeit of Wilbur”. The concern with the relationship of language to experience is, of course, a major concern of Wilbur as well, as can be seen in such poems as “Lying”, “An Event” or “Advice to a Prophet”.

The last stanza of Williamson’s “Waterfall” reads:

      So too with language, so even with this verse
                  From a pool of syllables, words hover
      With rich potential, then spill across the lip
      And riffle down the page, for better or worse,
                            Making their chancy trip,
      Becoming sentences as they discover
                  (Now flowing, now seeming to stammer)
                  Their English channels, trickling over
      The periodic pauses of its grammar.

The sentence itself mirrors the action that is being described, as it flows through the only apparently irregular stanza-shape; the very enjambments (“spill across the lip / And riffle down the page”) are self-descriptive and the parenthetical line serves to break the flow and forces the verse momentarily “to stammer”. In this way he brilliantly illustrates the reciprocity that exists between form and subject, each conditioning the other to mutual benefit, so that the finished poem is a product of both craft and serendipity.

At the same time as he celebrates language’s “rich potential”, he is aware of the possible criticism that he is laying himself open to. His playful use of language is likely to arouse the same criticism that his puns do among the children in “Origami”: “No, really, Mr. Greg!” and “you crazy!” He himself, in this poem, as he begins a sequence of metaphors, addresses the reader in parenthetical self-deprecation: “(you’ll recognize the trick)”.

In the poem “Kites at the Washington Monument”, he describes one particular kite that catches the people’s attention momentarily but then collapses anticlimactically:

      And while the audience claps
                  At the aerobatic buzz,
      It flutters, quiets, then it snaps.
                  But that’s about all it does.

This, he seems to say, is the risk of all such technically flamboyant poetry. Alan Sullivan, in his essay, quotes Robert Frost’s remark that “all metaphor breaks down somewhere”. Williamson seems to be exploring how far metaphors can be pushed—while remaining aware of the risks he is running.

Of course, there is nothing new in a poet who, while clearly taking pleasure in his inventive gifts, demonstrates a certain uneasiness about the “tricky” aspect of his “aerobatic buzz”. An emblematic case is George Herbert, whose religious faith imposed on him a distrust in the “winding stairs” and “the quaint words and trim invention” of conceited poetry, and who, in verses of exquisitely crafted ingenuity, expressed a desire for the homely plain speech of “something understood”. Greg Williamson seems to share some of these concerns, even if they are expressed typically with rueful self-irony. In one of his best poems, “The Counterfeiter”, he seems to suggest a parallel between the art of poetry and the forgery of bank-notes. And in another poem, with the marvellous title, “The Muse Addresses the Poet (and getteth alle up in hys face)”, the Muse’s first words to the Poet—and never can the Muse have spoken in more gloriously direct demotic—are:

      Just where do you get off, pal? Whoop-de-doo,
      You found out words are fickle, that they lie
      Right to your face. You boob, of course they do.

Each stanza of the poem concludes with a line from The Canterbury Tales, repeating the words addressed by the Host to Chaucer himself, after he has embarked upon the tedious tale of “Sir Thopas”: “Thy drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord.” Difficult to get more plain-speaking than that.


It might seem, at first glance, that in his latest volume, A Marvelous Piece of Luck (beautifully produced by Waywiser Press, as one has come to expect from this publishing house), Williamson has deliberately reined himself in. Not only are the poems all in one form—the sonnet—but each sonnet has a very similar structure. In each poem the volta comes in line 9 with the word “Until”. The final word (in just six cases, final words) of each sonnet is a repetition of the title. And each poem addresses a certain “you”, who would seem to be a kind of American Everyman. (In his previous volume, this role was attributed to Wile E. Coyote, from the cartoon series.)

However, as soon as one starts to read these sonnets, it becomes clear that his inventive powers are as lively as ever. There is clearly the same wish to look at things in new and surprising ways and the same desire to explore the vagaries and ambiguities of language. N.S. Thompson, in a review in the TLS, acutely described the sequence as resembling an “emblem book”. Each sonnet has the title of some object, item or phenomenon (ranging from “Time”, “Space”, Stars”, “Sun” to “Taco”, “Beer”, “Mountains”, “Black” and “White”); the octave in general seems to embark upon a kind of dictionary definition (if of an extremely non-academic or unorthodox kind) while the sestet relates it to the human experience of “you”. And, as might be expected from Williamson, the poems generally seem to be as much about the way these things exist in language as about the things themselves.

The epigraphs to the book clearly indicate a continuity with his previous volumes. There are three of them, a quotation from John Berryman, one from William Shakespeare and one from the cartoon series South Park. The range of cultural references is typical: 20th-century American poetry, the great tradition of English literature (the quotation comes from the most famous soliloquy of the playwright’s most famous play) and popular contemporary culture. The same heady mixture is to be found in the language of the volume as well, which ranges from the highly cultured to the hippest of modern demotic—together with a hefty input from the world of contemporary science. This time, however, the scales are definitely tipped towards contemporary American vernacular; as one sonnet says, punningly, it is “a mall world” that he is describing.

Indeed, much of the humour of the book derives from the way the poems continually relate cosmic and scientific phenomena to small-town America and its contemporary rites and rituals. The poems depict a world of Country Clubs, of “black tie class reunion[s]”, of “ribs-on-the-smoker Saturdays”, in which “you” spend your time “rickshawing Suze from Sears // To Soccer on your lunch break”.

However, these images of homely contemporary life are interspersed with a host of literary references and quotations. Some of them are explicit (with quotation marks and sometimes with the author’s name), but many of them are quietly concealed in the text. The quotation-marks themselves are no guarantee of absolute accuracy; Williamson allows himself to use lines parodistically and occasionally makes slight but telling alterations (“Melodies unheard of…”). The authors referred to or quoted from include Keats, Hecht, Rilke, Shakespeare (often), Bacon, Spenser, Voltaire, Yeats, Wordsworth, Browning, Merrill, Milton, Larkin, Gray, Miller, Jarrell, Pope, Dylan Thomas, Frost, Sidney, Marilyn Moore, Shelley, Coleridge, Poe—and, of course, Anon (as in “Western Wind”); undoubtedly there will be others that I did not catch. There are also references to the Beatles, Seinfeld and Dan Brown.

At times the quotations seem acts of literary homage, as in the quotations from Anthony Hecht’s The Venetian Vespers in the sonnet “Clouds”: “Soft coral reefs and powdery tumuli”. Sometimes they serve to give literary and historical weight to a subject, as in the quotations from The Faerie Queene (with the archaic spelling preserved) in the sonnet “Trees”, or the quotations from Bacon and Voltaire in “Gardens”. Elsewhere there is a clear comic intention, evident in the distance of the work cited from the argument treated, as in the references to Yeats’s Byzantine poems in “Taco”: “A taco of gold and gold enamelling, / A fulgent, gong-tormented, gilt / Ur-taco.” In some poems a plethora of literary references gives a sense of the range of intellectual exploration of the subject; the poem “Soul” cites Aristotle, Nietzsche, Boethius, Shakespeare and Robert Montgomery (“the soul aspiring pants”); this poem concludes with a buried punning reference to Donne: “as toiling church bell bottoms tolled / Not just for thee, but every living soul.” Often the literary references testify to a clear sense of shared attitudes and concerns; this is the case with the frequent references to James Merrill, the quotations from Frost (“Mountains”), the already-mentioned lines from Hecht and at least two quotations from Larkin (the words “the holy end” in “Church” and the last words of “Road”: “Down to the left on Cemetery Road”).

Indeed, one could almost consider these poems as light (or at least lighter) versions of Larkin’s tremendous “Aubade”. As the epigraphs announce (the one from Berryman, for example, which provides the title for the volume, reads: “-What happen then, Mr Bones? / - I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died.”), the principal subject of these poems is death. The word “Until”, at the turning point of each sonnet, generally serves to direct the poem towards the subject of personal extinction. A great many of the sestets glide, with rueful wit and beautifully controlled syntax (several of the sonnets, like Robert Frost’s “A Silken Tent”, consist of a single sentence), to the final words of the poem, which, by typographical setting, dangle apart from the rest of the poem, like a quiet epitaph. Here, for example, is the sestet from the sonnet “Hat”:

      Until your haberdasher blocks your last
      (Stone) hat, and under the cover of “masonry,”
      You join the – ssh! – that centuries-old frat,
      Keeping the lore, the Templars’ secret past,
      The undreamt scale of the conspiracy –
      Mary, the Pope, Grail (Jesus) –
                                                      under your hat.

Even when death seems not to be the poem’s final destination, there is a clear sense in the sestet of a downward path. In sestet after sestet, “you” embark on a journey “Along the smooth Sea of Tranquility” (“Moon”), “move back home / To a one-bed basement in suburbia” (“Earth”), “box / Up your life’s work, archive the ardencies, / The once hot, test-tube topics, and retire / To country climes” (“Fire”), glide downwards in the “Winter Games” on a luge, “Snow-capped, flat on your back” (“Ice”), “go down the adit-hole” (“Ocean”), “get a bunk in steerage / Aboard That Ship Has Sailed” (“Marriage”), “sign up at the old folks’ home” (“Salt”)… In all of these cases, the liveliness of the language and the vitality of the metaphors are ironically at odds with the overall parabola of the poems, with their inexorable descent towards extinction or retirement.


Another literary presence is perhaps rather more surprising. Shelley’s poetry is explicitly quoted only once (as far as I could recognise), in the sonnet “Mountains”, which borrows the phrase the “old and solemn harmony” from his poem “Mont Blanc”. However, there is something distinctly Shelleyan in the lively use Williamson makes of scientific terminology. When Shelley wrote “The Cloud” or “Ode to the West Wind”, he combined his wide knowledge of classical mythology and history with an openness to new scientific theories; the “Ode to the West Wind” contains these lines about vegetation under the ocean:

                                         far below
      The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
      The sapless foliage of the ocean, know 

      Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
      And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

Shelley appends a note to these lines, which reads: “The phenomenon alluded to at the conclusion of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathises with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce it.” What is remarkable is not just Shelley’s decision to make use of this item gleaned from his scientific reading, but his ability to transform it into a memorable and meaningful image.

Williamson’s imagination is clearly stirred by scientific theories and notions in very much the same way. He clearly enjoys the technical language of science: “In addition to thermohaline circulation, / The ocean provides for foraminifers…” (“Ocean”). He takes pleasure in combining homely terms from folk knowledge with the more precise language of contemporary science:

      Woolly bears, red skies, bones … then, supercomputers.
      Now we would tell the weather, plug in the data –
      Isobars, dewpoints, vectors, “thermal polluters” –
      Rap on the screen and punch up a sunny day.

I’m prepared to bet that very few other poets have addressed poems to “The Hubble Constant”, and even fewer have included mathematical formulae (“Where Ho=v/d) in their opening lines. It comes as no surprise in this volume to find such a poem, nor to discover that it marries this language with images taken from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.

One of the paradoxes of this volume, as already hinted, is the combination of the sheer liveliness of its language and imagery together with the underlying sombreness of its central theme. Greg Williamson clearly gets a good deal of enjoyment out of this world, even as he watches its and our downward spiral. He continues to revel in language, both its fruitful slipperiness and its sheer abundance. One way in which he shows this pleasure is in his fondness for lists. Sometimes these lists seem to celebrate, in thesaurus-fashion, the sheer riches of American slang, as in the poem entitled “Spirits”, which includes the catalogue: “moonshine, hillbilly hearse, / Catdaddy, mule back, stump, skullcracker”. The poem “Hat” indulges in a more puzzlingly esoteric list: “Snood, Shako, Tam-o-shanter, Shriner fez / (It’s – ssh! – it’s Turkish), coonskin cap, toupee, / The Pope’s ear-trumpet (God’s lips straight to his), / Spiked pickelhaube, French art fop beret…” “Train” includes a nostalgic list of italicised names: “Orange Blossom Special, Wabash Cannonball, / You loved them, Zephyr, Flyer, Burlington, // The Chief…” This may remind us of a poem from his first volume, “Junkyard”, where the speaker broods over the names of wrecked cars, reflecting:

                                         In the names
      We see the way they must have seen themselves:
      De Soto Coronado, Phoenix, Bel Air,
      Roadmaster, Nomad Wagon, Maverick,
      Rambler, Galaxy, and Eldorado.

In the sonnet-sequence, the speaker’s reflections are invariably more obliquely or indirectly stated; indeed, one of the undeniable difficulties for the reader is to grasp exactly where the speaker is situated (let alone who he—or, less probably, she—is).

The sense of vitality that we take away from this book is inextricably bound up with this very slipperiness. The images (or emblems, to adopt N.S. Thompson’s notion) wriggle from our grasp as we attempt to follow the dazzling sequence of metaphors that they give rise to in the poet’s imagination; clearly the purpose of these poems is not that of pinning down the subjects. Instead, each image/emblem seems to open a Pandora’s Box (if that is not too doom-laden a term) of associated images, metaphors, slang-terms—and puns.

Williamson revels as never before in double- and treble meanings, senses and entendres: “and see your trophy swept / under the stars” (“Stars”); “the woman’s ova / office” (“Sex”), “wham bam – copula” (“Sex”), “With more spouse-farms, shrink-wrap, and psychosprawl / Than you can shake a ‘stick it’ at…” (“Marriage”), “a metrist / Whose range transcends not taco, a shell / Of a man, a maize, a latterday taco belle lettrist” (“Taco”), “the golden fleeced, the last of the pyriteers” (“Gold”). Elsewhere he draws attention to the “multivalent witticism / In ‘HERE LIES, that paradox the slow rains put / ‘Under erasure’” (“Criticism”). This most venerable of puns is here employed alongside a sly reference to Derridean criticism—and perhaps there is also a gesture towards Hardy’s poem, “During Wind and Rain”.

One of the most proficuous emblems is constituted by the word “Line”; the sonnet on this subject follows immediately upon “Criticism” in the volume. Williamson plays with the multiple associations of the word—“To walk it, hold it, toe it, and be fed it”—before referring to the efforts of the poet, “Screwing around with metrical substitutions / In the slim hope of finding a line of credit” (and, as one might expect, both lines contain trochees and anapaests alongside the regular iambs). The sonnet concludes with the lines:

      And laurel-less, caesural, you recline
      Under the crowning achievement rains erase,
      The monumental work, written in stone
      And pretty well summed up
                                             in the last line.

This gloomy vision of annihilation is counterbalanced by the gleeful succession of puns and paradoxes here; the central word “caesural” is clearly suggested by the reference to “laurels”, a traditional attribute of both poets and Caesar, but it is also deliberately placed to break the line. The “crowning achievement” looks forward to the sonnet “Hat”, referred to above, in which the gravestone is “your last / (Stone) hat”; all of the positive associations of the words “crowning achievement” are, however, cancelled by the reprise of the image of the erasing rain. The words in the hanging half-line, “in the last line”, refer both to the name on the stone and, inevitably and self-reflectively, to the poem itself.

This sonnet is ingenious and suggestive. However, it is—for me at least—even more slippery than most. The sestet opens with two lines containing a quotation, “place / Or the holder”, attributed parenthetically to a certain Robert Schreur. I frankly admit to having used Google and other search-engines frequently while reading this volume; it helped me with many of the more abstruse references and with the scientific language. However, the search-engines were of no assistance in this case, so that I am sure that a good part of the meaning of this sonnet has escaped me. I enjoy what I have got from it but must own to a certain frustration at the same time.

This is not an uncommon feeling when reading this volume. Even while one delights in the vivacity of the language, its playful exuberance and wit, one is often left baffled by the overall direction of a sonnet. The earlier volumes contained many poems which, while engaging in metaphorical flights and wordplay, told stories; the narrative element gave the reader a useful sense of orientation. This new work perhaps could do with a little more of that narrative clarity at times.

To explain what I mean, it might help to examine one of the sonnets and compare it with an earlier poem. The final sonnet in the volume is entitled “White” (following upon “Black”). It opens with a quotation from a manifesto by the Ukrainian painter and art theoretician, Kasimir Malevich (as I discovered through Google):

      “Only when we kick the habit of mind
      Which sees in pictures little corners of nature,
      Madonnas, shameless Venuses shall we find
      A work of living art,” saith the lecture.

The poem then goes on to address “you” as “the hack, the scribbler, with your dumb grin / Of sentiment, sign, self, the vulgar heart / Of content, tint, text…” We might well feel that the poet (if that is who “you” is) is guilty as charged. His poems resonate because they are so far removed from abstraction; even while meditating on cosmic phenomena or abstract concepts, they are full of images taken from a recognisably real world—from “little corners of nature”. The final four lines of “White” describe “you” as pursuing

      Your final undertaking, to ghostwrite,
      In air, a palimpsest of pure technique,
      Stripped of allusion, mediation, you:
      Moonlight on Snow with Wind in White
                                                                     on White.

Nothing, we realise, could be more removed from Williamson’s own poetry than this description. While his technique may be pure, there is no way he could ever strip his verse of “allusion, mediation”—or, indeed, of “you”; the writer’s personality never fails to come across.

The final line, which brings the whole sequence of sonnets to a self-cancelling conclusion, also reminds us of the poem that opens the volume Errors in the Script, “Origami”. There too he plays a series of verbal riffs on the image of whiteness (paying homage, among others, to Melville and to Frost in the course of the poem):

      The page is a flag of surrender. I surrender—
      To the rustle of programs before a serious talk,
      The sound of seashells, seas, the taste of chalk,
      The ghost of snow, the ghost of the sky in December,

      And frozen surfaces of ponds...

Although the final sonnet in A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck is clearly intended as a witty reflection on the contradictions inherent in the notion of “Abstract Art”, and, indeed, serves as a refutation of it, I can’t help feeling at times, while reading the volume, a certain nostalgia for the immediate clarity and palpability of the scene described in “Origami”. The sequence of images in “Origami” is as inventive as anything in this later volume, but the fact that they arise from a clearly defined setting and situation helps the reader (or at least this reader) to get his or her bearings.

To put it simply, while reading A Marvelous Piece of Luck I occasionally long for the poet to throw some definite paper snowballs at a Sheetrock wall.

However, I don’t want to end on a negative note. I am grateful to Williamson for his wit, his technical gifts, his vitality—and also his willingness to experiment. The poems contain, just like his early volumes, numerous examples of lines that lodge themselves in the reader’s mind thanks to their witty deftness and lyrical elegance. Perhaps the most suitable conclusion to this essay would be simply to quote a few of these lines, like these ones from the sonnet “Snow”:

                  a snowflake, silent as a schwa,
      Its fractal lacework cast in free-fall’s foundry
      And metaphor’s first flurries’ dazzling crepe…

Or this sestet from “Water”:

      Until, blue wavelets glinting like doubloons,
      You demonstrate the swan-dive’s “brilliant bow,”
      Your backstroke’s clean technique (“he’s a regular otter”),
      Hobnobbing in gin-tinctured afternoons,
      Making a statement in your chic maillot,
      Another one whose name is writ
                                                                   in water.

Or this description of “you”, who, although wishing upon and reaching for the Stars, played

                              A walk-on cast as “Ibidem,”
                  An extra in the movie of your life.

Or this finely honed piece of misogyny in the sonnet “Woman”:

      XX, kiss kiss, but one X shy of poison...

Or this wittily alliterative miniature portrait:

      moonstruck femme fatale in forties flicks.

Perhaps what is most striking is his ability to marry a gift for witty concision with a sense of imaginative openness; the phrases strike one for their pithy pointedness and then expand in the mind thanks to their evocative and suggestive power. A fine example is his neat encapsulation of the history of mankind after the discovery of fire in the first quatrain of the sonnet entitled “Fire”:

      Imagine that first fire, the doubletakes
      Among the vegans, cold, dark wet: Cave guy
      Strikes flint and, boom, you’re grilling mammoth steaks,
      You’re holding hands, you’re hooking up, you’re dry...

A lot of history there: anthropological, social and scientific; and all got across with laconic humour and colloquial sharpness.

An even pithier example of concentrated meaning can be found in the first four words of the very first sonnet in the book, “Time”:

      Time was, it wasn’t.

From this abrupt opening, the reader feels assured of an invigorating if occasionally bewildering journey. And Williamson certainly does not disapppoint. While I doubt I will ever fully understand all the poems, I know that I will continue to return to them and to delight in the riches of what he refers to in one sonnet, with comic self-deprecation, as the “enlaced rhyme’s lamentable, loony verse”. And I can’t wait to see where Williamson goes from here.

[1] “Pulling Out All the Stops”, Seablogger.

[2] Williamson not only takes on such challenging forms as terza rima (in two sequences, the already-mentioned “On the International Date Line” and the short narrative “Walter Parmer”), but tackles a form that has been described as one of the most difficult of all: the poem “Nervous Systems” has the same form as Dante’s “Amor tu vedi ben che questa donna”; this has been inaccurately termed a double sestina, but actually has just five end-words, distributed over 65 lines. The form seems not have been used again after Dante (in English, at least) until Auden wrote his poem “Canzone” in 1942; other poets who have taken it on are Anthony Hecht, James Merrill and Marilyn Hacker.