Recently, I was contemplating those crazy acrobats of Cirque du Soleil. I marvel at their ability to turn whirling, twirling chaos into a complex work of beauty, but I found myself wondering about the practice rounds. How do they determine which swish to put where, and how many swooshes are too many? I imagine, before they land on the finally beautifully costumed and choreographed product, their early attempts must looks something like the view from a spinning top inside a clown’s closet. Too much color and spin, not enough focus.
That same unfocused whirling sensation pervades the newly republished eBook by Henry R. Williams. Seasons Smooth and Unperplext aims to produce an urban and nature centric volume of poetry that is narrative, lyric, modern, and traditional all at once. If this seems like too much for one volume to accomplish, it is. The collection seems unsure of exactly what it wants to be. Jumping from contemplative lyrics to edgy narratives in one volume requires a more focused vision than Williams presents.
While the lack of a cohesive directorial vision makes the collection dizzying as a whole, the individual poems are where Williams both fails and triumphs. In the best sense, poetic devices are the stagehands of a poem, barely noticeable but essential to the work as a whole. Form, structure, rhyme, and rhythm, even grammar should all work towards the meaning of the poem. Unfortunately, Williams’ poetic devices often upstage his meaning. Beyond Williams’ overuse of allusions, he is seemingly obsessed with putting “t” on the ends of his verbs. His poems can also sport haphazardly dropped lines, and overly sentimental metaphors. Finally, while poets are well known for their loose use of punctuation, the lack of reliable grammar adds confusion instead of meaning in many of the poems in Seasons Smooth and Unperplext.
Despite the fact that his poems can sometimes have clowns for stagehands, at his best, Williams’ writes with beauty and charm. The standout performances of the collection are the poems where Williams forgets to be a poet and writes poetry. “Ring Counting” weaves nature and flesh in a truly elegant way that illuminates a Zen-like oneness. Williams’ is at his best in a natural setting and the lake scene of Sapphires in Basalt even finds a beautiful place for all of Williams’ quirks.
layers along the
silt and stone
and boney heads
waters swelling cut
them bare. Her
ripples, the slow stream
roots, thighs across
halved in passing,
those droopt hours
when day is
lower circles of
this third sphere,
nothing higher desired.
The use of “broadcast” is a beautiful melding of technology and nature and pulls the poem from timeless wondering into the 20th century without breaking the hazy beauty of the image. Moreover, the dropped lines enhance the writing instead of distracting from it. The head that is dropped between the stirring and the willow augments the meaning of the line visually. In the same way, the dropped line after reclining again visually mirrors the meaning of the words. Even the use of Williams seemingly signature “t” seems to add to the imagery by avoiding the clingy sound of “droopy” for wilted flower imaged of “droopt”.
However, for every poem that seems to escapes Williams’ overworked style, another one falls victim to it. “Inventory C” is barely readable due to excessive dropped lines. The new and the ancient do not mix well at all in “On the Mayan & Modern”. Where “Sapphires in Basalt” highlights Williams’ directorial confidence, Mount Bulbous throws the spotlight on Williams’ over thinking.
Then walled spring, its pin & scheme,
slung against abrupt tongues
by glances gash where sprung
cloud forced on sun.
Elias disguised as Ernst Curtius directed
focus to wire spokes
retained marvels, heapt
the dust of
old skin dissolving onion paper
mingled for a sum
all spray back ashtray wet scents
rode autumn wind up avenues. These hearts leather
crusht to pliable exchange
in creases in contractions & expansions,
once as if forever struck.
Like most of Williams’ poems, this poem does contains several moments of pure transcendence. Sandwiched between a superfluous dropped line and odd word reversal—“the dust of/ old skin dissolving onion paper” is a beautiful meshing of humanity and mortality with a touch of the natural world.
Unfortunately, it becomes impossible to dwell too long on the beauty of these lines when confronted with the overwrought “[…] These hearts leather/crusht to pliable exchange/ in creases in contractions & expansions”. Here Williams’ “t” seems to be there for a decided purpose, though that purpose is entirely unclear to the reader. In contrast, the double meaning of “in creases” is so painfully obvious that it is almost mocking of the previous line’s confusion.
In the end, although this is a rerelease, Williams’ writing could have used a few more rehearsals. Seasons Smooth and Unperplext misses its overly ambitious goal, and feels a bit like spinning around in a closet full of ancient poets and grouchy intellectuals. However, the collection does show that Williams has a good deal of talent, if he can get out of his own way. A little more confidence, a little tighter focus, and his next collection might just master that Cirque du Soleil-esque balancing act known as perfection.