Junk and Gems


jUBILANT THICKET by Jonathan Williams
[$20.00, Copper Canyon Press].


No my Caps Lock was not accidentally on; jUBILANT THICKET is the title of a new collection of 'poetry' by Jonathan Williams... em, yes, the lower-case 'j' is as-is... there mUST be a reason but I am still working on that.

This collection is somewhat intimidating; over 300 pages and larger than the standard A5 size and so before even opening the book I played with the title, something I discovered later that Mr Williams would undoubtedly approve of. An anagram surfaced thus: jUNK, A BITCH TITLE..., then I chuckled and muttered to myself; 'like the contents maybe; junk'. And I was, initially, correct because when you wade through the good bits, and there were a few that leapt out even at this brief first reading, what is left over is a miscellany of words and phrases that probably have some meaning to the 'poet' but have no meaning whatsoever to me, or I suspect, to most readers. 'Junk predominates' was my initial reaction, junk which includes 'Selected Listings from the Western Carolina Telephone Company's Directory' and a series of 'found poems' which include one found under the M-56 Bridge, Preston Brook which reads; 'Mrs Lot / has a salty twot' and another quote from a Victoria Wood sketch; 'I always thought /
coq au vin / was / love in a lorry'! Ho ho ho; you can bet that by this time I was rolling on the floor with laughter and thanking Rupert Loydell at Stride for sending me this huge collection of gems to review. (American readers should note that the last sentence contains an ironic element.)

So junk then; throw it in the bin? Well; yes and no, you see I once found a 1905 half crown in a junk shop, paid ten shillings for it and later sold for £120.00, and there was the time I found a Wedgwood plate which was
so beautiful... I still have it, years later it still gives me immense pleasure. My best find however was in a junk shop in the Isle of Man and consisted of a cardboard box with the complete works of Gustav Mahler therein, cost me about a quid, and these old scratchy 78 rpm records taught me to love Mahler... so when I discovered in Mr Williams poetry collection a section on Mahler's ten symphonies I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and began to read the words with some trepidation.

I began with 'Symphony No 10 in F sharp Minor' which is not my favourite Mahler symphony but I knew it to be unfinished, open to interpretation and debate. In the opening Andante - Adagio section Williams unfurls, with quotes and a letter, a poignant story which is so like Hemingway in its stark brevity and intimate perception as to be bordering on parody; the story of a German soldier whose last words as he died were 'es ist aus'. ('it is out' or 'it is over') The man who shot this German soldier dead, Raymond N. Bell, regretted the killing all of his life and when drunk he would often say; 'I wish I hadn't killed that man.' We are informed that Bell died an alcoholic. I have not the skill to be able to tell you how this poignantly constructed anecdote sets the scene for Mahler's musical composition with its haunting themes of death and futility; I am not sure either if this stuff which Mr Williams writes in 'Symphony No 10 in F sharp Minor' is technically what we would readily label 'poetry', but it
is literature and in parts it moves me very deeply.

Perhaps I can explain it better by telling you about 'Symphony No 4 in G Major' which is probably Mahler's best known work. Williams' selected words balance, reflect and amplify the restrained and almost classical first movement:

     1.
Serene - wary, not hurried

     "Happiness have wings and heels
     miseries are leaden legged,
     and their whole employment is to clip
     the wings and take off the wheels
     of our chariots.
     We determine, therefore, to be happy
     and do all that we can, tho' not
     all that we would,"

     said William Blake in Felpham, Sussex.

Of course these are not Williams' words; he merely quotes Blake, and yet so aptly... and then he continues to lend Blake's words (This time from 'Mad Song') to the second movement which opens (in Williams' version) with; ' "like a fiend in a cloud" / Death calls the tune'. 'Death' is Williams' equivalent of the solo violin which haunts the second movement... and so it goes on and on throughout the whole symphony, matching, commenting, expanding and reflecting on the music with choice text, sometimes using his own words and at other times quoting others, Williams skilfully and lovingly adds frames, light and fresh insight. With the other symphonies too he perceptively highlights facets and phrases to the extent that his words have altered the ten symphonies for me for all time. Williams has taught me to listen with a new ear to works I thought that I knew fully.

With a greater respect I began to read more of the poetry, skipping rapidly past some poems written in very large upper case one of which runs; 'I WAS /HITLER'S / ASSHOLE!!!' (Yep that is it; in its entirety) and alighting here and there on gems amidst the dust and cobwebs of Williams' peculiar but highly individual mind. I discovered beautiful words that most certainly
were poetry, poetry like this:

     Enthusiast

     literature - the way we ripen ourselves
     by conversation, said
     Edward Dahlberg...

     we flower in talk, we slake
     our thirsts in a brandy of heated speech, song
     sweats through the pores,
      trickles a swarm
     into the sounding keyboard,

     pollen falls
     across the blackened paper...

     always idle - before and
     after
     the act:

     making meat
     of vowels
     in cells
     with sticky feet

Oh Yes! Mr Williams! Yes yes yes! 'we slake / our thirsts in a brandy of heated speech'; say it out loud, let it roll off the tongue like honey-coated cream. Oh Mr Williams I might even forgive you for 'The Western Carolina Telephone Company Directory' and the rest of the self-indulgent junk... BUT, hold on a minute; what's wrong with self indulgent junk? Jonathan Williams is a poet who has been word-smithing for most of his 70 odd years; clearly he enjoys words, he smiles at discovered graffito, he loves the sound of dialects, vernacular and the patterns of speech which individualise each of us, he juggles sounds when he feels like it because... well; just because he is over 70 years old and he f***ing well can if he wants to. And so what if I do not understand all the poems herein? I fail because I am unaware of the nuances or the references which may well be private, internal and so personal that only JW himself understands them and I suspect that he wont lose any sleep over my ignorance... in fact I would almost take a bet that when he reads this review he will smile the smile of someone who is kind of pleased that sometimes he is totally obscure and private. And dammit! I am reading his very large collection over and over and the more I read it the more I like it! There is still junk therein, lots of it, but it is never pretentious junk and it frequently leaves me smiling and with a real liking for the very human being behind the words, the human being who is revealed in this rather touching poem, written in Cumbrian dialect, that I am going to leave you with:

     A.L.B (1917-1978)

     he was
     oald as the fells
     street as an arske's arse
     sharp as whins
     whick as a lop
     wild as winter thunner
     nice as an otter

     and his throat war middlen slippy
     and he is deed as a steann

     but not gone
     but not gone

Yes folks, overall
jUBILANT THICKET  is actually a very stimulating and provocative read; it contains some poetry that borders on the unutterably beautiful, but more than that it is the man behind the words that will intrigue and maybe inspire the reader to re-evaluate the horizons of literature and poetry in the same way that Jonathan Williams does; with a knowing smile.

                 © Alan Corkish 2005